I was at CPAC yesterday doing a run of wide-ranging interviews on “radio row,” and a question that seemed to come up time and time again was “will supporting the Common Core hurt Jeb Bush’s chances in 2016?”
When asked, my first thoughts went to my colleague Rick Hess’s piece from back in August, “The Common Core could be Jeb Bush’s Romneycare.” In it, Rick argued that if Common Core crashes and burns, it’s likely to take Bush down with it. I think the case there is pretty cut and dry, and would apply to any candidate so closely connected with a particular policy or issue. The policy does well, the candidate does well, the policy does poorly, the candidate does poorly.
But the tone of the question at CPAC was different. It was captured pretty well in a recent Breitbart article that asked “whether an establishment candidate like Bush can survive being an avid supporter of the Common Core academic standards.” It wasn’t so much about effectiveness, but about support of the Common Core acting as a kind of talisman of RINO-ism.
This led me to think about Henry Olsen’s recent article “The Four Faces of the Republican Party.” In it, after analyzing data from the past several presidential elections, Olsen concludes that there are four distinct factions within the GOP: liberal to moderates (about 25-30% of the Republican electorate), somewhat conservatives (35-40%), very conservative evangelicals (about 20%), and very conservative secular voters (5-10%).
Olsen’s key point is that a candidate does not need to win all of these factions to win a nomination. Successful candidates, he argues, cobble together the support of two or more of these groups in order to win. George W. Bush, for example, built his support amongst somewhat conservative voters and picked off enough of the other groups (particularly evangelicals) to win the nomination in 2000. In 2008, McCain started with the liberal to moderate faction (who had supported him in 2000) and combined them with the somewhat conservatives to win. Romney used somewhat conservative voters as his base in 2012 and eventually won very conservative, secular voters to take him over the top.
This matters immensely for the ideological facet of the Common Core debate (which National Journal’s Fawn Johnson called “the very last thing Republicans have to fight about”). Most anti-Common Core activists (if CPAC is any indication) fall into one of the two very conservative groups, with a preponderance in the evangelical bloc. This would validate why we see the strongest pushback (on the right, at least) in states with large number of evangelical voters, like Alabama (46% evangelicals), Indiana (31%), Oklahoma (46%), and South Carolina (36%).
If Jeb Bush was planning on using those groups as his base, he would be in serious trouble. But it’s hard to believe that’s who he’s going for. Most likely, his base will be built out from somewhat conservative voters, and his years of work in education with left-of-center reformers like Michelle Rhee might actually help him win the liberal-to-moderate faction. Put those two together and he has a large enough coalition to give him the nomination. There may be any number of other issues that hurt Bush’s chances, but I don’t think the Common Core is one of them.
Who might the Common Core hurt? Someone like Mike Huckabee. Huckabee’s base of support is very conservative evangelicals, a group he has to win if he has any interest in 2016. His equivocation on Common Core over time will most likely be far more damaging than Bush’s support, because it’s an issue his backers care much more about. If Bobby Jindal or Scott Walker found themselves needing evangelicals as part of their coalition, particularly if they see Chris Christie or Jeb Bush taking the somewhat conservative bloc, support of the Common Core could prove problematic as well. It is also possible that rebuking the Common Core could cost votes amongst somewhat conservatives and liberal to moderates, making the winning of evangelical faction pyrrhic.
Again, if the Common Core fails generally, all bets are off. But if the Common Core does fail, a lot more people than Jeb Bush will have electoral problems.
Follow AEIdeas on Twitter at @AEIdeas.