Why the 2016 Republican nominee is likely to be chosen by the blue states
President Richard M. Nixon once advised his fellow Republicans, “Run to the right in the primary election, and then run to the center in the general election.” That advice may now be backward.
Today, relatively moderate contenders are more likely to win nominations. Then they move away from the center to rally the base in the general election. The new rule is: “Unite the party and divide the voters.”
Former Florida Governor Jeb Bush says he won’t pander to the conservative base to win the Republican nomination. Bush told a meeting of chief executives in December, “Lose the primary to win the general without violating your principles.” In other words, run as who you are.
Of course, you do have to win the primary to be able to run in the general. Can a centrist candidate do that? Neither Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.) in 2008 nor Mitt Romney in 2012 was a favorite of conservatives. How did they unite the party? Both chose running mates to their right. Strong hostility to Barack Obama helped solidify conservatives’ support.
In the New York Times, Nate Cohn has written about “the surprising power of blue-state Republicans” in the nominating process. He explains that Republicans from states that Obama won (i.e., blue states) are “all but extinct in Washington, since their candidates lose general elections to Democrats.” But “blue-state Republicans still possess the delegates, voters and resources to decide the nomination.”
At the 2012 Republican National Convention, more than half the delegates came from states that Obama later carried. Only 44 percent of Republican delegates came from Romney states — the “red states.”
Blue-state Republicans tend to be relatively moderate — fewer Tea Party activists, fewer evangelicals. They don’t have much power in Congress. Of the 54 Republican senators now serving, only 11 come from Obama states. Cohn reports that 11 percent of House Republicans were elected in congressional districts that voted for Obama.
Blue-state Republicans have power over nominations because blue states tend to be big. Seven of the nation’s 10 states with the largest population voted for Obama in 2012 (California, Florida, New York, Illinois, Pennsylvania, Ohio and Michigan). Only three voted for Romney (Texas, Georgia and North Carolina).
California is a solidly blue state. Not one statewide elected official in California is a Republican. But because California is so large, it sent 172 delegates to the 2012 Republican convention. Texas is solidly red. Not one statewide elected official in Texas is a Democrat. Texas sent 155 delegates to the last Republican convention. Romney got more votes in California (4.8 million) than he got in Texas (4.6 million).
The definition of a blue-state Republican is someone who loses elections. In blue states, Republicans have to be relatively centrist and pragmatic, as Bush was in Florida or Governor Chris Christie is in New Jersey.
Does the same rule apply to Democrats? It does to some extent. But blue states are far more dominant in the Democratic nominating process. In 2012, two-thirds of the delegates at the Democratic National Convention were from Obama states. Moreover, many Romney states are in the South, where minority voters have a strong voice in the Democratic Party.
In 2008, Hillary Clinton was the more centrist Democrat. She won white working-class voters. Obama won the total national primary vote, but only narrowly (18.1 million votes for Obama, 18.0 million for Clinton). If Clinton has an opponent to her left in 2016, she is likely to retain her support among white working-class Democrats and make big gains with African-Americans.
General election campaigns are supposed to pull candidates to the center where they compete for the swing vote. But there aren’t many swing voters any more. Independents may be the fastest-growing group in the electorate, but most independents are either liberals or conservatives and vote reliably for one party. They don’t swing.
The two parties, according to Gallup, are roughly equal in size nationwide: 45 percent Democrats and Democratic leaners, 42 percent Republicans and Republican leaners. But the parties are geographically segregated: Republicans dominate the South and rural West, Democrats the Northeast and West Coast. The number of battleground states has sharply diminished.
Next year’s campaign will be ferocious in the handful of truly competitive battleground states (Ohio, Florida, Colorado, Iowa, Virginia, North Carolina and Pennsylvania). In a race between closely matched contenders in battleground states, the incentive is to rally your base. Candidates do that with a divisive campaign that demonizes the opposition: “If you don’t vote Democratic for president, right-wing extremists will take over.” Or, “If you don’t vote for the Republican, illegal aliens will flood our borders.”
We’re likely to end up with two relatively pragmatic, establishment-oriented party nominees in 2016. Possibly Bush and Clinton. But the campaigns they run will be intensely polarizing, full of dire warnings about what will happen if the other side wins. That’s how President George W. Bush won reelection in 2004. And how Obama won reelection in 2012.
“Unite the party and divide the country” may be the new formula for winning. But it’s also why the division between red and blue America keeps getting deeper and deeper.