The Four Republican Factions

Most analysts see the Republican presidential race in terms of a conflict between the “establishment” and “insurgents” of the Tea Party variety.  But the reality is far more complicated than that, according to  think tanker Henry Olsen, writing in the National Interest.

There are actually four factions, he says, whose electoral behavior in presidential primaries has been consistent over the past two decades.  Listed in order of their numbers, they are:  the “somewhat conservative,” “moderates or liberals,” very conservative evangelicals, very conservative secularists.

From Henry Olsen, The Four Faces of the Republican Party | The National Interest:

REPUBLICAN VOTERS fall into four rough camps. They are: moderate or liberal voters; somewhat conservative voters; very conservative, evangelical voters; and very conservative, secular voters. Each of these groups supports extremely different types of candidates. Each of these groups has also demonstrated stable preferences over the past twenty years.

The most important of these groups is the one most journalists don’t understand and ignore: the somewhat conservative voters. This group is the most numerous nationally and in most states, comprising 35–40 percent of the national GOP electorate. While the numbers of moderates, very conservative and evangelical voters vary significantly by state, somewhat conservative voters are found in similar proportions in every state. They are not very vocal, but they form the bedrock base of the Republican Party.

They also have a significant distinction: they always back the winner. The candidate who garners their favor has won each of the last four open races. . . .

The moderate or liberal bloc is surprisingly strong in presidential years, comprising the second-largest voting bloc with approximately 25–30 percent of all GOP voters nationwide. They are especially strong in early voting states such as New Hampshire (where they have comprised between 45 and 49 percent of the GOP electorate between 1996 and 2012), Florida and Michigan. They are, however, surprisingly numerous even in the Deep South, the most conservative portion of the country. Moderates or liberals have comprised between 31 and 39 percent of the South Carolina electorate since 1996, outnumbering or roughly equaling very conservative voters in each of those years. . . .The moderate or liberal voter seems motivated by a candidate’s secularism above all else. They will always vote for the Republican candidate who seems least overtly religious and are motivated to oppose the candidate who is most overtly religious.

The third-largest group is the moderates’ bête noire: the very conservative evangelicals. This group is small compared to the others, comprising around one-fifth of all GOP voters. They gain significant strength, however, from three unique factors. First, they are geographically concentrated in Southern and border states, where they can comprise a quarter or more of a state’s electorate. Moreover, somewhat conservative voters in Southern and border states are also likelier to be evangelical, and they tend to vote for more socially conservative candidates than do their non-Southern, nonevangelical ideological cousins. Finally, they are very motivated to turn out in caucus states, such as Iowa and Kansas, and form the single largest bloc of voters in those races. . . .

The final and smallest GOP tribe is the one that DC elites are most familiar with: the very conservative, secular voters. This group comprises a tiny 5–10 percent nationwide and thus never sees its choice emerge from the initial races to contend in later stages. . . .They invariably see their preferred candidate knocked out early, and they then invariably back whoever is backed by the somewhat conservative bloc.

Read the whole article for details about how these factions have voted and how their behavior shakes out in the course of the primary season.

HT:  Dan Balz, who discusses and applies the Olsen’s thesis

About Gene Veith

Professor of Literature at Patrick Henry College, the Director of the Cranach Institute at Concordia Theological Seminary, a columnist for World Magazine and TableTalk, and the author of 18 books on different facets of Christianity & Culture.


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