What the Grassroots Is Really Thinking about the Candidates

I know it’s early and the roster of potential Republican nominees for the 2016 presidential race is hardly set.  But I’m already fed up with pundits and party operatives telling me what I think of the candidates, as if they had performed a Vulcan mind meld with the conservative grassroots and GOP base (which I will use interchangeably to include local GOP boots on the ground, social conservatives, and Tea Partiers). 

The punditocracy might occasionally glance at a few e-mails their assistants have sorted through, but mostly, they converse among themselves and read one another’s articles, and, rather than listening intently to the input from this varied and complex group of conservatives, they often project their perceptions onto the base.  They might chat briefly with some folks at book signings or speeches, and their prognostications might occasionally square with the base, but not this time. 

To dig into the current thinking of the base regarding the Republican nominee, I sent an e-mail to members of the Bay Area Patriots/San Francisco Tea Party (both of which I have coordinated since 2009).  The group is quite diverse, with dyed-in-the-wool Republicans, disgruntled Democrats, Ron Paul Libertarians, and independents.

This was not a survey with simple yes-or-no questions.  Prompted by Laura Ingraham’s assertion that negative commentary about Mitt only serves to help Jeb, I asked what they thought about both men getting into the race; if they would vote for them against Hillary even if they did not support them in the primaries; who their preferred candidates were; and if there was anyone they would refuse to support.  I was quite startled by several consistent revelations. 

Approximately 350-400 opened the e-mail, and about 90 responded – a 23-26% sample.  Respondents overwhelmingly (and vehemently) oppose Jeb Bush – only three consider him their preferred candidate.  While 30 respondents would “hold their nose” and vote for him if he were the nominee against Hillary, roughly 36 said “no way” to Bush, and too many indicated they would stay home or vote for a third-party candidate.  If all stayed home on Election Day – 40% – that would be an electoral apocalypse when translated onto the national stage.  I doubt that that would occur, but even if 5% of 50 million voters rebelled, that would be a damaging 2.5 million lost votes.  Jeb’s condescending and dismissive attitude toward the grassroots, concerns about a Bush dynasty, and Jeb’s views on Common Core and immigration factored heavily into the anti-Bush sentiment.     

The big surprise was the clear preference for a Mitt candidacy versus a Jeb run.  While acknowledging that Mitt is a two-time loser who ran a lousy campaign, was and will be hammered because of his wealth, lacked the intestinal fortitude to fight back, and did little to interface with the grassroots, 30 respondents prefer Mitt over Jeb, while only three prefer Jeb over Mitt.  Mitt is not a top pick for most and is still considered a moderate by some.  Yet he is regarded by most respondents as more conservative than Jeb, who is perceived as out of touch with the party, the people, and conservative principles despite his two successful terms as governor of Florida.     

If Romney cares about millions of impassioned voters – who might not have a million to donate but can swing the race – he can handily rout Bush if he first:  

  • employs a new team with a different strategy;
  • appeals to the grassroots, not just the big donor class; 
  • fights hard, goes on offense, defends himself, and stands up for conservative principles;
  • acknowledges that RomneyCare was a mistake.  Even though it seemed right for Massachusetts at the time, after seeing its shortcomings and how it was used to usher in Obamacare, he must admit it was an error.  This is the only way to get the RomneyCare monkey off his back and out of the Hillary playbook; and
  • distinguishes himself from Bush on Common Core and immigration.

That’s admittedly a tall order, especially because he is not a favorite in this group, but if he does all of the above, he will win the hearts and votes of millions – many of whom stayed home in 2012.    

Interestingly, out of 90 detailed responses, Christie did not receive one “vote.”  Walker and Cruz were the clear frontrunners, with 36 and 35 respondents, respectively, tempered by a wait-and-see attitude toward Walker and concern that Cruz is too conservative to get elected (and would likely meet resistance from within the GOP).

Carson, Rubio, Perry, Paul, and Jindal were the next most popular (in that order,) with misgivings about  Carson’s effectiveness, considerable enthusiasm for Perry if he finds his groove, and Rand Paul receiving the same number of “yeses” as Rick Perry but five times the “nos.”  Kasich and Pence were next, followed by Huckabee, Daniels, Ryan, and Santorum with token support.         

While a throng of accomplished but somewhat interchangeable, ho-hum candidates are on the roster, not one has demonstrated the zing needed to cross the finish line. 

People aren’t waiting for the Second Coming of Reagan (although they wouldn’t mind), and granted, it’s early in the silly season.  They just want someone who, in addition to being competent and experienced, has that extra something that will inspire.  And they want to be heard and respected in picking the nominee, not railroaded into having one selected for them by Big Donor and Big GOP, with the punditry handling the PR.