Election 2016: The Battle for the Right Lane

Looming over this entire process is an electoral reality that has the potential to shatter remaining conservative confidence in the Republican nominating process. The Republican National Committee’s delegate allocation process is, if not rigged, demonstrably skewed to favor more moderate establishment candidates.  Over a third of the delegates to the GOP convention next year will be awarded “based on the results at the congressional district level.”  Three delegates are apportioned for each congressional district—including those in deep-blue pockets of the country that favor more moderate candidates.


By Andrew Thomas | November 17, 2015

Conventional wisdom dictates that in the race for the Republican nomination for president, there are two essential “lanes” in which a candidate must take the lead to win.  To reach the final one-on-one matchup which traditionally determines the nomination, a candidate must become either the conservative candidate or the establishment candidate.  These two will clash in the ultimate showdown that produces the winner.

This assumption is not arbitrary or unfounded.  This has been the pattern in GOP presidential races for the last fifty years.  Yet, it is increasingly clear that 2016 is not an ordinary election cycle.  With polls showing 60 percent of Republican voters consistently demanding an avowed, anti-establishment outsider for president, assumptions based on elections past are eroding.

Nevertheless, to date Republican candidates have run their campaigns largely in conformity with the expectation they must capture one of these two lanes.  This winnowing is well underway.

Donald Trump and Ben Carson are vying for the pole position in the conservative lane.  Not far behind them is Ted Cruz.  In danger of being lapped are Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum, staunch conservatives relegated to the undercard of debates and mired in low single-digit support in the polls.  Bobby Jindal announced today he is dropping out. The establishment lane’s main contenders are Marco Rubio and Jeb Bush, with John Kasich and Chris Christie seeking a long-shot boost in the moderate environs of New Hampshire.

As the onset of voting in Iowa nears, the competition for the conservative vote has grown more pitched.  Trump, Carson and Cruz are targeting this swath of the electorate most effectively.  On Monday, Cruz received a prize endorsement from Rep. Steve King. Increasingly, Trump’s support is stable and solid.  He holds the allegiance, in the RealClearPolitics.com average, of one out of four Republican voters across the country.  He previously rose as high as 30.5 percent before sliding back a few rungs.

After splintering among as many as a half-dozen candidates, social conservatives have gravitated to Carson.  Their coalescing around the amiable physician has accounted for his recent surge into first place in the national polls.  Now, he has suffered the same fate as Trump and slid backwards a bit, so that the two are virtually tied.

The reasons for Carson’s support are clear enough.  In Iowa, Carson holds a two-to-one lead over Trump among evangelicals.  Though their bona fides on the social issues are strong, Huckabee and Santorum have seen Iowans treat them as yesterday’s news; their support has declined over time, while Jindal’s campaign had also failed to catch fire.

Though his appeal to secular-minded voters seems more natural, Trump is not conceding social conservatives and evangelicals to his rivals.  His courting of Christian voters was overt in his recent vow, “If I become president we’re all going to be saying Merry Christmas again, that I can tell you.”  Moreover, Trump’s shots at Carson for being a Seventh-Day Adventist may have cost the physician a few points among this group (Carson also may have declined a bit because of relatively lackluster debate performances).  Journalistic allegations that Carson took dramatic license in his autobiography appear not to have affected him, as conservative distrust of the liberal media is so intense that such claims are widely discounted. Trump’s recent, flamboyant attacks on Carson’s autobiography were so overheated they may well backfire.

Far from gaining support due to his “calm manner,” as a recent New York Times headline declared, Carson has soared in the polls for the same reason Trump did earlier in the year:  strong public statements that have thrilled conservatives.  Carson’s support lurched upward in September after he stated he would oppose a Muslim for president of the United States.  Carson said flatly that Islam is incompatible with the Constitution.  This comment, made on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” was well received by 73 percent of Republican voters, according to one poll, and spoke to the quiet but earnest fears of most conservatives.  He has kept up the momentum by condemning “infantile” campus protests involving vague racial incidents at the University of Missouri, Yale and other schools.  For conservatives, the sight of a conservative African-American running credibly for the GOP nomination for president carries its own, powerful appeal.

On the issues, while the ISIS attacks in Paris will certainly create new salience for foreign policy, the prime battleground is shaping up to be illegal immigration.  Here, Trump and Cruz have staked out more stringent positions than Carson.  Cruz’s performances in the televised GOP debates have been uniformly strong and punctuated by effective attacks on the liberal media and illegal immigration.  These statements have drawn thunderclaps of applause and steadily rising conservative backing.  Cruz is well organized throughout the early-voting states, and he can boast more campaign cash on hand than any of his GOP opponents.  In a surprisingly candid interview with Politico, Cruz openly shared his strategy of picking off conservative competitors as he seeks to control the right-most electoral “lane.”

One unexpected blow to Cruz, largely unreported, is that many of the battleships he had expected to unload munitions on his behalf appear to have sailed away.  Despite having $38 million, the Super PACS dedicated to Cruz’s candidacy have booked virtually no TV ads in the early-voting states.  This has prompted highly unusual public laments about this inactivity from the Cruz campaign, comments apparently designed to roust these forces into action.  To date, the tactic has not paid off, as the wealthy benefactors behind these PACs appear to be hedging their bets.

In the rhetoric over illegal immigration, the top two GOP contenders have squared off, as have the leaders of the second tier.  Trump has bolstered his promise to build a border wall with a pledge to raise a “deportation force” to remove illegal immigrants from the country.  Carson has dismissed Trump’s plan as “not pragmatic,” questioning whether Trump is a true “representation of the Republican Party.” Carson’s more moderate stance will hurt him among strong conservatives but probably not among other Republicans, including the powerful GOP establishment.  Should GOP leaders find, several months from now, that the grassroots mutiny against them is unstoppable, they may well find their best available man is Carson.  To the extent his position reflects more than sincere concern about the efficacy of removing illegal immigrants—a project that has been undertaken effectively before—such a down-the-road calculation involving the Republican leadership may well underlie the candidate’s softer line on immigration.

Cruz, for his part, has opened a frontal assault on his fellow Cuban-American Senator.  Cruz has blasted Rubio for being one of the “Gang of Eight,” a group of Senators notorious among conservatives for supporting a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants.  Rubio countered that Cruz, too, has supported legalizing illegal immigrants and granting them work permits.  Rubio’s muddying of the water by showing past apostasy by Cruz, if it holds up, is reminiscent of the tactics and charges of hypocrisy used successfully by Senator John McCain against his more conservative foes in 2008. Ironically, Rubio’s use of the pot-calling-the-kettle-black strategy may aid Trump most of all.  Trump will need an answer once his opponents accuse him, as they surely will at some point, of flip-flopping on immigration and other issues.  If it turns out everyone in the race is soft or inconsistent on illegal immigration, at least Trump is saying the right thing now, and with more panache.

Looming over this entire process is an electoral reality that has the potential to shatter remaining conservative confidence in the Republican nominating process.  A recent, fascinating article by David Wasserman for fivethirtyeight.com/ noted, as its title succinctly stated, “The GOP’s Primary Rules Might Doom Carson, Cruz and Trump.” Wasserman pointed out that the Republican National Committee’s delegate allocation process is, if not rigged, demonstrably skewed to favor more moderate establishment candidates.  Over a third of the delegates to the GOP convention next year will be awarded “based on the results at the congressional district level.”  Three delegates are apportioned for each congressional district—including those in deep-blue pockets of the country that favor more moderate candidates. Wasserman notes, “This creates a ‘rotten boroughs’ phenomenon in which Blue Zone Republicans’ votes can be disproportionately valuable.”  Simply put, moderate GOP primary voters in blue states will have a greater impact than conservative voters in red states.

Given this dynamic, this year’s presidential race may show whether winning the “right lane” matters much anymore. The outcome will help reveal whether the establishment has so imbalanced the playing field that it is no longer possible for an anti-establishment conservative—particularly one tough on immigration—to win the GOP nomination.


Andrew Thomas is a graduate of the University of Missouri and Harvard Law School. Twice elected as Maricopa County Attorney, the district attorney for metropolitan Phoenix, Arizona, Thomas served a county of four million residents and ran one of the largest prosecutor’s offices in the nation. He established a national reputation for fighting violent crime, identity theft, drug abuse and illegal immigration. He is the author of four books, including Clarence Thomas: A Biography and the The People v. Harvard Law: How America’s Oldest Law School Turned Its Back on Free Speech. Mr. Thomas ran for governor of Arizona in 2014, receiving endorsements from many conservative leaders. He is a fellow with the Selous Foundation for Public Policy Research and a contributor to SFPPR News & Analysis.

Related Articles