Having dodged the Trump bullet, the Republican Party is still searching for a candidate who can win. This early in the race, of course, it’s usually hard to spot a winner. How many people would have bet in 2007 that an inexperienced African-American senator could become president? Yet in 2012, it’s clear what a Republican candidate needs to win: he or she must harness the support of the Tea Party without alienating independent voters. Without the enthusiasm of the Tea Party, the candidate cannot energize the Republican base. Without the support of independents, the candidate cannot win a majority in the general election. The midterm elections demonstrated this principle: candidates who could straddle the two groups won, while candidates who couldn’t lost.
The good news is that this isn’t an impossible task. The Tea Party coalesced around economic issues, not the social issues, such as abortion and gay marriage, that tend to alienate independents. Fiscal discipline, low taxes, and smaller government appeal to both Tea Party activists and independents. Even the populist, anti-establishment strain that pervades the Tea Party finds some sympathy among independent voters.
The bad news is that populism puts Tea Party activists on a collision course with the Republican establishment. The best way to see this problem is to group voters along two dimensions: the support they express for free markets and the fear they have that big business distorts market functioning. This past December, according to the Chicago Booth/Kellogg School Trust Index, which I help direct, 58 percent of Americans expressed agreement with the statement that “the free market is the best system to generate wealth”; 26 percent were neutral, and 16 percent disagreed. The strongest support for free markets came from Tea Party sympathizers (84 percent of whom agreed with the statement), followed by Republicans (75 percent), independents (67), and then—a distant last—Democrats (46). Similarly, 53 percent of Americans agree with the statement that “big business distorts the functioning of markets to its own advantage,” while 28 percent are neutral and 19 percent disagree. But here, the ranking is almost inverted: Democrats express the most support for this statement (60 percent), followed by independents (56 percent), Tea Party sympathizers (47), and finally Republicans (43).
These data suggest that by articulating a platform that defends free markets but remains autonomous from big business, the Republican Party can gather support from both the Tea Party and independents. In fact, a combined analysis of the data sets for those two statements reveals that 38 percent of Tea Party sympathizers and 32 percent of independents identify with a pro-market, not pro-business, political platform. This position is particularly popular among Tea Party sympathizers not registered as Republican.
Wisconsin congressman Paul Ryan says that he’s not running, and I assume he means it, but the GOP clearly needs a candidate more like Ryan than like Mitt Romney, currently the party’s leading candidate and a favorite of the establishment. A candidate in Ryan’s mold, from the Jack Kemp tradition of libertarian conservatives who helped make the GOP great, would be a strong believer in free markets who is not beholden to the bailout-addicted big-business establishment. This kind of candidate, if the GOP could only find him, could win in 2012 and help get the nation’s economy back on track.