Facing the reality of a triangular Republican electorate

In all the excitement of discovering who won the latest plurality of voters in the latest primary, it is easy to lose the forest for the trees, which is that the purpose of our Presidential primary system is to reflect the preferences of our party’s voters in the selection of our candidate for the President.

An examination of the voting thus far shows that we have established a classic relational triangle among the supporters of the three most viable candidates: (alphabetically) Newt Gingrich, Mitt Romney, and Rick Santorum.

    Mitt attracts the cluster of voter preferences for those with a strategic focus: emphasizing factors such as electability, attracting swing voters (or at least not scaring them off), and tailoring the message to maximize acceptability.

    Newt attracts those of a more tactical bent, who focus more on policy and program – who thereby emphasize coherent philosophy, putting conservative ideas into practice, leadership qualities – and combat skills in debate and pushing back against a hostile media.

    Rick attracts those who focus more on the more intangible: values, faith, character, passion, scrappiness, strong convictions and blunt speaking – those expressions of a conservative ethos that have too long been suppressed – along with an associated greater willingness to overlook weaknesses in record and in media savy.

And each group of supporters believes that their priorities should prevail and offers the best chance for success in November. And thus far, each commands loyalty from a minority of the voters, with none reliably exceeding 40% or so.

I’m trying to be fair, and I’m sure many would have somewhat different descriptions of the clustering of preferences, but the larger picture is that we have developed a relational triangle because the predominant preferences for each candidate are distinctly independent of each other and have low correlation between them.

In other words, each group tends to be speaking a different language, languages which have little common vocabulary with each other.

This in turn has hitherto prevented the formation of a coalition between two of the candidates against the third and also has hindered accretion of support for any one of the candidates at the expense of the others – a reflection of the structural stability of triangles.

This stability we’ve seen expressed in the howls of protest when one group is asked to throw their support to another candidate, either “for the good of the party” or to block the victory of the third.

And this stability highlights the difficult challenge of ending up with a single winner without destroying the party structural beyond repair.

A Snapshot of the Race Today

I will leave to those with more expertise in analyzing polling date and understanding the intricacies of state election laws to develop detailed alternative scenarios.

However, it is clear that with a majority of the delegates selected to date plus a stronger campaign network and a preponderance of support from party and elected officials that Mitt Romney still has the advantage going forward and is in the best position to win an outright majority of delegates before the election.

Newt clearly has no way to win a majority of delegates, and thus his remaining in the race can only be an effort to deny a delegate majority to Mitt in the hope of exerting influence at the convention. It would seem improbable that he could be the nominee in a brokered convention, but in this volatile season of surprises, I suppose nothing should be ruled out.

Rick is in the peculiar position that Newt remaining in the race will almost certainly deny him the ability to assemble an outright majority, but may also make a brokered convention more likely than if he were to face Mitt one-on-one. He certainly would be the underdog in a one-on-one, but he would face a clearer path to the nomination if he could successfully defy the odds.

Much would depend on how Newt voters would redistibute themselves if Newt were to suspend his campaign, the outcome of which is by no means obvious. Moreover, given that Rick Perry’s endorsement seemed to have little impact on Newt’s candidacy, it’s unclear what would be the impact of an endorsement from Newt or his forming an overt coalition.

The Way Forward

The challenge then is how we can maintain a viable party structure through all this to compete effectively in the general election. While I don’t have a magic solution, I think that the above analysis offers several areas of guidance.

1) It is important that we recognize the existence of and try to find a way to bridge the gap among the three voter clusters so that the values and emphases of each group are at least heard and acknowledged and respected rather than being trampled on by zealous partisans of the other candidates.

2) Especially as we are likely to face and tightly contested campaign that may yield a narrow margin of victory in the delegate to the winner, should one end up with a majority, we must not so discourage those whose candidates end up on the losing side that they absent themselves from the general election. We need to take heed to the lesson of Pyrrhus.

3) A “brokered convention” is no panacea and could easily create a situation of deal-making and haggling that would give sausage-making a sterling reputation and could tarnish the legitimacy of the nominee. Be careful what you wish for.

4) Indeed, the only rationale behind pushing for a brokered convention would be if – to return to the triangle analogy – this would enable us to break into the third dimension and create a tetrahedron – a 4th point, a new nominee that could rest on the foundation of the existing triangle – that is, a nominee that all three groups could buy into.

So far that person has not been made manifest, and unless the clouds clear at this late date, we need to be very leery of embracing the brokered convention.

In the end, the voters for each of these constituencies will through their votes determine whether one of the remaining candidates will gain a majority of delegates before the convention.

In the remaining days, then, let us keep our eyes on the goal – to realign our nation to the vision of its founding fathers so that we can pass on to future generations the Blessings of Liberty that those who came before us have passed on to us, many of whom did so at the cost of their lives.