Opinion: Columnists

'Somewhat conservative' voters are the real driving force in the GOP

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Opinion,Noemie Emery,Columnists,Republican Party,2012 Elections,Magazine

First one month, then two days before the presidential election of 2012, Henry Olsen, (then of the American Enterprise Institute and now with the Ethics and Public Policy Center) wrote two different articles explaining how and why Mitt Romney would lose, because he was not making emotional contact with blue collar white voters -- a prediction validated by the exit polls, which revealed Romney had carried the voters on the issues of values and leadership, and failed when he flunked the most critical metric of "cares about people like you."

When Olsen talks, people should listen, most of all to his article in the American Interest, "The Four Faces of the Republican Party," which replaces the theme of "the Tea Party vs. the establishment" with a more nuanced and pertinent view.

Three of the four faces are familiar enough: the moderates (25 percent to 30 percent of the party), the evangelicals (20 percent), and the very conservative secular voters (5 percent to 10 percent). The surprises here are that the two very conservative factions barely match the number of moderates, and the lack of attention given the most critical faction, the somewhat conservative, which is the most populous (35 percent to 40 percent of the party), the most powerful, and the least understood.

Unlike the others, who tend to be regional, they are evenly spread out throughout the country. "They are not very vocal, but they are the bedrock of the Republican Party," Olsen tells us. And they also are something more important: They are the one group that always goes with the winner — and it's their support that lets him win.

Picking the nominee in the last six elections, they like even-keeled men who know how to govern — "people who express conservative values on the economy and or social issues, but who do not espouse radical change." Optimistic, they tend to reject the culture-war mantra. Conservative in both the word’s meanings, they match support for traditional conservative values with the cautious demeanor that marked Edmund Burke.

They like candidates who balance Tea Party ideas and establishment temperaments, like Mike Pence and Scott Walker, and Bob McDonnell before his career-ending scandal. They serve as a powerful roadblock against a Ted Cruz, but could boost the chances of Marco Rubio, a longtime and seasoned political veteran, who works well in and with the establishment, and got his start with a boost from Jeb Bush.

This group is key not only because it is large, but because its candidates are often the second choice of the other wings when their own favorites falter, as when the moderates and the fiscal conservatives swung to Romney against Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum in the later primaries of 2012.

This construct — in which moderates and the "somewhat conservative" outweigh the very conservative by substantial margins — should be a shock and surprise both to the liberals who see the more conservative party as a place in which the lunatics run the asylum; and to the kind of conservatives who hold a perpetual grievance against an establishment they think plots against them, throttles the voice of the majority, and year after year, in spite of their protests, forces a series of RINOs and moderate squishes down their unwilling throats.

But they aren't a majority, and there isn't a plot -- just a whole lot of other Republican voters. And they can't build a grudge out of that.

Noemie Emery, a Washington Examiner columnist, is a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard and author of "Great Expectations: The Troubled Lives of Political Families."
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