The New Republic

Conservative Republicans’ Tragic Failure To Stick With a Candidate

The results of the Iowa caucuses illuminate the basic structure of today’s Republican Party and offer clues about what’s to come between now and the end of January.

Pew’s “political typology,” the latest iteration of which appeared last May, provides the best point of departure. That report used a statistical technique known as cluster analysis to identify four major pro-Republican groups: Staunch Conservatives (11 percent of registered voters), Main Street Conservatives (14 percent), Libertarians (10 percent), and “Disaffecteds” (11 percent). The Iowa entrance polls showed that Staunch Conservatives—the sorts of people most likely to identify with the Tea Party—preferred Santorum to any other candidate; Main Street Conservatives, who may be anything from Rotarians to country-clubbers, went for Romney; and of course Libertarians found a stalwart champion in Ron Paul.

But who are the Disaffecteds? According to Pew, they are both anti-government and anti-big business. They are social conservatives with a deep antipathy to illegal immigration. But they are also the most financially insecure of all the groups—among Democrats and Independents as well as Republicans—and perhaps for that reason, less averse to a government that extends a helping hand to the downtrodden. For the most part, they are whites with no more than a high school education. Many report personal or family struggles with unemployment.

The Disaffecteds are, in short, the kinds of blue-collar workers who became untethered from the Democratic Party during the 1970s and found a new, not wholly comfortable home among Republicans. While they form a relatively small share of the Iowa Republican electorate, Pennsylvania is full of them, as are industrial states throughout the Midwest, and Santorum did reasonably well with them in his two successful races for the Senate. They are not the kinds of people who tend to identify with the Mitt Romneys of this world. 

What does this typology portend for the next three contests? By and large, Santorum-style candidates don’t fare well in New Hampshire, in part because the state doesn’t have all that many religiously-based social conservatives. In 2008, Mike Huckabee came roaring out of Iowa with 34 percent of the vote (almost 10 points better than Santorum this year). When the dust settled, Huckabee finished a distant third in New Hampshire, with only 11 percent of the vote. I doubt that Santorum will do much better than Huckabee; indeed, he may finish fourth, behind Paul and Huntsman as well as Romney.

Santorum would seem to have a much better shot in South Carolina, as did Huckabee in 2008. But look at what happened: The strongly conservative anti-McCain vote split between Huckabee and Fred Thompson, allowing McCain to win the state with only 33 percent of the vote. History could end up repeating itself, with Rick Perry and Newt Grigrich dividing the anti-Romney vote with Santorum. (Perry’s surprising decision to continue his campaign in South Carolina despite his miserable showing in Iowa is good news for Romney and bad news for Santorum.)

Paul has no chance of becoming the Republican presidential nominee.  More to the point, his influence on the process will wane once the race heads south.  Libertarianism has never been an important element of southern conservatism, which embodies not only religiously-based cultural conservatism but also a strong pro-defense tradition that does not shy away from the use of force.  In 2008, Paul received only 3.6 percent of the vote in South Carolina and 3.2 percent in Florida, versus 10 percent in Iowa and 7.7 percent in New Hampshire.  Even if he doubles his support in the two early southern contests this year, he won’t be a large factor.

That leaves Gringrich. His brief surge reflected his appeal to both Staunch and Main Street Conservatives, but the orgy of negative advertising directed against him in Iowa severely damaged his standing, especially among  the former group. Now Gingrich is returning the favor in New Hampshire with advertisements that challenge Romney’s conservative credentials—a charge that the pro-Gingrich Manchester Union-Leader will no doubt echo in its famous front-page editorials. It remains to be seen whether these tactics will help Gingrich refurbish his own credentials as a conservative champion. But unless they also wound Romney, their overall effect will be to strengthen the three-way split of the anti-Romney vote in South Carolina. (Recall that Romney and McCain received a combined 49 percent of the 2008 primary vote in that state.)

So there you have it. No wonder a group of movement conservatives has called an emergency meeting for next weekend in an attempt to find a “consensus” candidate. Many of this group’s leaders attended a similar meeting with Rick Perry last summer. This time around, they may try to pressure him to withdraw before it’s too late and divisions in the ranks of arch-conservatives end up easing Romney’s path to the nomination.

If the Staunch Conservative vote coalesces in time to keep Santorum alive after Florida, the tempo will slow considerably in February, and the race could take an interesting turn as the large Midwestern states begin to weigh in at the end of that month. In principle, anyway, Santorum appears well-positioned to unite anti-Romney conservatives and downscale “Disaffecteds.”  But it’s still early, and we can’t yet know how well he’ll withstand the scrutiny and attacks that will inevitably come his way.