Recently, political scientist Brendan Nyhan spoiled what is sure to be a common media narrative in the 2016 Republican presidential nomination contest, namely that a divisive primary fight could weaken the eventual GOP nominee. This is what political scientists call the “divisive primary hypothesis.” Nyhan, relying on the relevant research, explains that political scientists have essentially rejected this idea. Far from weakening a nominee, Nyhan writes, surviving a bruising primary battle “elevates the stature of the victor, who quickly brings partisans into the fold (especially during conventions), offsetting any damage to party loyalty or unity that the primary might seem to have incurred.”
I think we should consider the possibility that the eventual 2016 GOP nominee NEEDS a divisive primary to have a realistic shot at winning in November; that too much party unity in the fall will hurt, more than help, their chances. The idea that tough primaries toughen up nominees and serve as effective proving grounds for the rough and tumble of the general election campaign is reasonable enough, but it’s not why I think the Republicans may need a divisive primary fight next year. My hypothesis is that the eventual Republican nominee needs a divisive primary fight in order to distance himself (or herself) from the Tea Party and even from the Republican majorities in the House and Senate, who are having considerable difficulty controlling their Tea Party colleagues. I think the only chance a Republican nominee has is to convince voters that he or she will NOT support the right wing social and economic extremism that has dominated Republican politics during the Obama presidency. Without a vigorous rejection of the Cruz-Carson-Paul-ists of the party during the primaries, no Republican nominee will be able to effectively overcome (easily stoked) fears about turning all three branches of the federal government over to the Republicans in 2017.
What the Republicans desperately need to avoid, if they hope to win the White House in 2016, is a friendly nomination fight in which the viable candidates (like Jeb Bush) go easy on the non-viable candidates (like Cruz, Paul, & Carson) directing their attacks instead exclusively at the outgoing president and the presumptive Democratic nominee, while relying on dog whistles to satisfy and pacify the knuckle dragging, mouth breathing faction of the party’s primary electorate.
To win the White House in 2016 the GOP establishment needs to conduct a pitched battle for the soul of the party and they must win that battle decisively in order to avoid having their nominee saddled with all the crazy ideas, positions, and proposals of the party’s Tea Party wing. The first two Republican candidates in the 2016 presidential race are both not only nuts and non-viable; they are also sitting U.S. Senators who, presumably, will be part of a Republican Senate majority in 2017. They won’t be going away after they drop out of the race, and thanks to the conservative Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, they won’t be dropping out quickly or quietly. The GOP nominee has to assure swing voters that Senators Cruz and Paul will not have a White House partner in 2017.
If the GOP establishment cannot rally around a viable moderate candidate and quickly thereafter throw the Tea Party under the bus, they may as well concede the nomination to the last lunatic standing; accept a crushing White House defeat in November and use the loss as leverage to begin the long hard work of discrediting the Tea Party and re-establishing the GOPs national credibility so that the party can once again compete for the top job in 2020 or 2024.