Judging by the early numbers, the 2016 Republican presidential primaries will be another class and culture war, pitting the GOP’s Sam’s Club base against the Republican country club elite. Think tea party vs. garden party. The fissures of education, income, region, and religion that took their collective toll on Mitt Romney will again weigh heavily on the battle for the Republican nomination. Age also looms as a wildcard, with a generational divide further shaping the contours of the contest.
With few exceptions, the Republican establishment prevails over its base. Yet, 2016 may be different, as the GOP becomes ever more evangelical, Southern, blue collar, and alienated. True, the road and rules to the convention favor the Republican machinery, but even so, the rank and file must buy in if the plans of the party’s elite are to work as imagined.
With less than a year and a half until Iowa’s caucuses and New Hampshire’s primaries, the Republican field is tightly bunched, with no one having declared his candidacy but lots of folks looking. New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee, former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, Kentucky Senator Rand Paul, and Texas Governor Rick Perry are all in contention. Based on numbers, and numbers alone, a Christie-Huckabee or Huckabee-Christie ticket would capture the bulk of the party’s demographics. How viable it would be and how well it would play is a different story.
Christie, Huckabee, Paul, and Perry are in the hunt because they each attract and repel particular segments of the Republican electorate. Christie and Huckabee run best with the 50-and-over crowd, while Paul and Perry are strongest with voters under the age of 50. Yes, Paul draws the ire of Dick Cheney, Christie, and Perry over Iraq and national security--and the affection of Corey Booker over prison policy–but it’s the potential Christie and Huckabee split that speaks most about just who is a Republican these days.
Christie and Huckabee call upon opposite ends of the income and education spectrum to boost their potential runs, and that creates a manageable flashpoint. Christie’s strength lies with voters who attended college, while Huckabee’s base is decidedly working class. Huckabee, a minister, is overtly religious in his appeal. Christie, who places a premium on the fact that he was cool in high school, sounds conservative memes without invoking the Divine. In his favor, Christie coasted to reelection, unlike Romney, who declined to run for a second term in Massachusetts when confronted by less than enthusiastic polls.
Until he got into trouble over Bridgegate, Christie was the darling of the GOP’s Wall Street donor base. Even after the subpoenas started flying, he remained gung-ho on entitlement reform. Christie also opposed brick-and-mortar construction projects, like a badly needed tunnel between New York and New Jersey, and declined to press an appeal of a New Jersey court ruling that had legalized same-sex marriage in New Jersey, after having vetoed a bill that would have achieved the same result.
Christie was clearly what non-Southern high-end Republicans wanted--a hawk who kept his eye on the bond market. That Christie had posed a serious vetting problem for the Romney campaign back in 2012 was but a minor detail for Republicans, especially after eight years of Barack Obama. Likewise, Christie’s use of 9/11 and the fall of the Twin Towers to justify NSA overreach met with approval by Wall Street Republicans.
Huckabee, on the other hand, is closer to where the Republican Party lives and worships. He is an evangelical in a party in which half of its presidential primary voters are themselves evangelicals. Huckabee’s roots are rural and, as a party, the GOP is the home of white rural America. From the looks of things, Huckabee’s profile is well-tailored for 2016’s early contests, in a way that Christie’s bluster-filled mien is not.
The tentative 2016 primary calendar paints a picture of early wins for Huckabee in Iowa and South Carolina, a brawl between Paul and Christie in New Hampshire, a big industrial state primary in Michigan on February 23, and a March 1 demolition derby in Florida, Texas, and Virginia. If Christie does not score a win in New Hampshire or Michigan, his political obituary will read like Giuliani 2.0, a Northeast ex-prosecutor and pol who managed to offend more than charm.
While Huckabee has demonstrated that he can win, the primary schedule poses the same problem for him that he faced in 2008. Although Huckabee won eight nominating contests, including Iowa, he couldn’t gain traction in the larger states. Florida, Ohio, and Texas all went for John McCain, much as they unsurprisingly did for Romney in 2012. So, if Huckabee is to get the nomination, he will need to demonstrate broader appeal than he has in the past.
In his favor, Huckabee polls well with older voters and Republican women, and the name Grand Old Party is a case of truth in advertising. Republican primary voters skew older. In the Iowa and Michigan nominating contests, more than three-in-five caucus and primary goers were over 50, while in the Sunshine State that number rose to more than 70 percent.
But age is not the only operative demographic. Things like education and religion will likely play outsized roles in the selection process. To illustrate, Romney won the Ohio and Michigan primaries because of his rapport with college grads, upscale voters, and women, despite having lost the working class to Rick Santorum in both states.
Moreover, in the 2008 Michigan Primary, Romney, a Mormon, actually outpaced Huckabee among Protestants and Catholics who attended church weekly. And even in Texas, where 60 percent of Republican primary voters worship regularly, Huckabee was unable to covert his support among this group into a statewide win. Further, Huckabee will likely face competition for the evangelical vote from Paul, a church-going Presbyterian who went to college at Baylor, a Baptist university, and from Perry, who was raised as a Methodist, now attends a non-denominational evangelical church, and has referred to himself as born-again.
It is way too early to predict who will win the Republican presidential nomination. But the struggle between the Republican donor class and voting base will likely continue, as the needs and wants of each do not seamlessly mesh. The base has ultimately acceded to the establishment on numerous occasions, only to come away feeling disappointed at best, and betrayed at worst. In 2016, it just may be that the base’s time has come.
Editor's note: An earlier version of this article incorrectly projected early primary wins that, in fact, should favor Mike Huckabee. It has since been corrected in the body of the article to reflect this.