The Forgotten Voters
But let’s step back and describe a particular type of voter that has been a part of the Republican base since the 1860s, and who anyone involved in GOP politics has encountered frequently over the years: the “Republican Regular.” I would describe the Republican Regular as having the following characteristics:
1. A “medium-information” voter. High-information voters follow blogs and/or talk radio, are plugged tightly into small distinctions between the candidates and the ideological factions in the party, have strong opinions many months ahead of elections, and have strong loyalties to particular segments of the party. Low-information voters, at the opposite end of this scale, tune in late and often have only a superficial grasp of the issues and ideologies.
Medium-information voters are the people in between. They follow the news; 40 years ago they would have been the sort to read the morning paper and watch the evening news, and many still do, or consume equivalent news sources. They know what’s going on in the world, they know who the candidates are, and they have some idea of what the candidates stand for or have accomplished. But they are unlikely to draw fine ideological distinctions. Many Republican Regulars were ultimately convinced that Mitt Romney, George W. Bush, and Bob Dole were roughly the same sort of Republican as Ronald Reagan, and that John McCain was mostly so.
2. A party loyalist who sees no serious contradiction between that and the conservative movement. Republican Regulars generally believe in the general principles of the GOP – strong national defense, low taxes, smaller government, law and order. That’s why they became Republicans. Most, especially outside the Northeast and West Coast, are pro-life; all are comfortable voting for openly pro-life candidates. Many would identify themselves as conservatives, or at least as conservative, and none would have a problem voting for a candidate who is identified as a conservative.
3. Not part of the establishment: Republican Regulars mostly live outside the Beltway, don’t make money off politics, aren’t big bundlers or donors (though they may be regular donors), and don’t hold any position in the party above the lowest grassroots level. Many either don’t volunteer in politics or at most might show up once a year to pitch in on Election Day. But they are typically the sorts of people who will gladly put a sign in their yard or a bumper sticker on their car.
4. They almost always vote Republican. Republican Regulars don’t stay home in a snit; they are regular voters, and generally regular primary voters as well. Unless the Republican candidate horrifies or embarrasses them – by being a crook, a complete nut, or an Akin/O’Donnell style gaffe disaster – they will pull the GOP lever. It takes something really big to change that. Most of them are the kind of people who, under the right circumstances, could be happy voting for Ted Cruz and happy voting for John Kasich and not see a huge contradiction there (indeed, they comprise a big chunk of the Christie base in New Jersey, the Cruz base in Texas, the Kasich base in Ohio, etc.)
5. They tend to be middle-class to upper-middle class: Not all of them; some are country-club or boardroom types and some are just scraping by, but the bulk are small business owners, white-collar office workers, farmers, cops, firemen, military veterans, stay-at-home moms. They work for a living, or are married to someone who does, or did until they retired, or in some cases are students who plan to.
6. Their two biggest primary issues are public safety and electability: Because these voters are not ideological at a granular level, they will typically default to supporting the candidate who seems best able to win the general election, and won’t consider a candidate who seems unable to do so. Thus, they tend to back establishment candidates but can be won over by insurgents, usually if the insurgent seems sane and charismatic and able to go the distance. That’s one reason why a Cruz vs Dewhurst or Rubio vs Crist style primary challenge needs to gather a critical mass of momentum and support among ideological voters before it even gets a hearing from these voters (neither Rubio nor Cruz could have won their Senate races without the support of people who originally were in their opponent’s camp – indeed, Cruz increased his raw vote total while decreasing Dewhurst’s between their original primary and their runoff, in part because a head to head race made him seem more viable).
That said, historically a paramount issue for rank-and-file Republicans is national security and law and order – the constellation of issues that make up public safety. Those were dominant issues in the Cold War era and the Bush years, as well as during the protests of the 60s and the crime wave that lasted from the mid-60s through the mid-90s. A candidate who flunks that test tends to fail badly with these voters (think of why Ron Paul never broke out from being a niche candidate).
In short, these are voters who are not hard-core conservatives, knee-jerk squishes, or paid establishment shills. They’re not fools or suckers, but they mostly have better things to do with their time than obsess over politics. And they’re ready to make a serious choice soon.
Nobody I Know…
Who will these voters support in the 2016 primaries? My own experience, which may or may not be representative, is that a great many of them are just horrified out of their wits by Donald Trump, are baffled by his rise because they don’t personally know any Trump voters, don’t think they would even recognize a party led by Trump, and at least as things stand now aren’t sure they could ever pull the lever for him in November. That’s anecdotal, but there have been a couple of reports from the field in New Hampshire the past few days talking to party activists and Republican Regular voters alike and hearing the same reaction. Byron York in the Washington Examiner, reporting from a Presidential Town Hall in Nashua:
[L]ying just beneath the attendees’ enthusiasm for the candidates was a remarkable level of confusion, frustration, and just plain bewilderment at what is going on in their state’s presidential race. How is it that Donald Trump is leading his closest competitor by nearly 20 points?…In one of my first conversations at the Radisson, with two Republican activists, I asked a simple what’s-up question about Trump. Both immediately responded in exactly the same way: “I don’t know anybody who supports him.” They’re politically active and aware, but they said they have no contact in their daily lives with even a single person who supports their party’s front-runner.
After that conversation, I began to ask everyone I met: Do you know anyone who supports Donald Trump? In more cases than not — actually, in nearly all the cases — the answer was no.
York found something bordering on paranoia among New Hampshire politicians (and given the size of its state legislature and the frequency of its elections, New Hampshire has a lot of politicians):
Most of the politicos in Nashua…explained that they haven’t personally encountered evidence that the Trump-dominated polls are accurate.
“I don’t see it,” said one very well-connected state Republican. “I don’t feel it. I don’t hear it, and I spend part of every day with Republican voters.”…The big worry among such Republicans is that there is a Trump movement out there that they can’t see. “That’s how we got burned by Obama,” the politico said, recalling the 2008 race…I talked to a Republican political operative who has done a lot of work in New Hampshire. He has done so much work, in fact, that he knows many of the streets throughout the state by heart, and knows which houses display candidates’ political signs at primary time and which don’t.
He described driving down a street on the west side of Manchester, checking out the houses. He noticed Trump signs in front of houses that he knew had never displayed signs before. Seeing that, he began to think that all the talk about Trump appealing to a different kind of voter might be true.
So deep is the dislike for him in some quarters that people like Mrs. Cleveland’s husband, Doug, question the accuracy of polls that so consistently identify Mr. Trump as leading the field with around 32 percent. “I’ve never met a single one of them,” Mr. Cleveland said about those said to be backing Mr. Trump. “Where are all these Trump supporters? Everyone we know is supporting somebody else.”…These are the lamentations of the 68 Percent — the significant majority of Republican voters here who are immune to Mr. Trump’s charms and entreaties, according to a battery of voter interviews on Thursday at campaign events for his rivals…Their disapproval runs strikingly deep. Several spoke of changing the channel whenever his face (or, more frequently, his New York-accented voice, via telephone) turned up on television.
…And, as loyal Republicans, they (mostly) vow to coalesce around him should he seize their party’s nomination…But they have limits.