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View from Australia: The unpredictable primary voter

By Edward Okulicz

With Mitt Romney largely static in polling, and in the wake of a significant surge in support for Newt Gingrich, much is being said and written about the Republican base, and what it wants and doesn’t want. This analysis, often augmented by predictions about what certain voters will do based on what the primary electorate is like, is likely to be fluff. The process of selecting a preferred candidate for a primary voter is subject to the same dizzying array of factors as a general election, along with a larger number of choices. Predictions are difficult, even with the best analysis and polling available.

The beauty of crowded primary elections is their wild unpredictability, and the composition and priorities of the turn-out is a bigger unknown than the final field. The Republican electorate is diverse and divided and its consensus choice cannot be guessed based on a few numbers and convictions about what the party's voters want.

What we know about the Republican primary electorate is that it is conservative when taken as a whole, but not consistently so. Gallup found in 2009 that around six in ten Republicans consider themselves to be conservative, which is a significant number. But a self-applied label like conservative means different things to different people and different candidates, so even the "conservative" majority is made up of disparate groups with different priorities. And, on top of that, this leaves about a third of the vote coming from moderates and liberals within the party. The idea of a single homogenous base is pure caricature. "Conservative" is an inappropriately coarse description of the voters in question.

Part of what makes the 2012 Republican primary so interesting is that it is a choice between a number of candidates with competing conservative credentials who all have faced accusations that they are insufficiently conservative on one issue or another. Gingrich has attacked Romney for being too liberal, who in turn has criticised Perry on immigration, for instance. Despite this merry-go-round, a particularly persistent idea is that voters will simply split across ideological lines, with Romney representing liberal and moderate Republicans and one of the other candidates acting as the anti-Romney, with anti-Romney voters coalescing behind that candidate. But the evidence as to whether people will vote on ideological lines is not cut-and-dried, and some interpretations of voting data suggest [PDF] that some voters project their beliefs onto candidates whose positions they do not know, or change their positions to fit with an already-supported candidate. Indeed, it's a long-held belief [PDF] of some theorists [PDF] that very few voters even have a defined, consistent ideology from which to select a candidate.

Whatever the make-up of the Republican primary, the reasons for the selection of a particular candidate are hard to pin down and the subject of ongoing social research. Assigning motivations to individuals from a belief of what the group does is logically fallacious, and vice-versa. Some voters and advocates may place a premium on perceptions of electability, others may hold fast to their ideological principles, still others may have their vote influenced by the religion, race, gender, age, or the experience of the candidates on offer. The importance of the factors may vary depending on the broader political climate. Though written for a general election, Nate Silver’s article on how voting preferences have to be understood in light of many demographic variables is still illustrative.

In contrast to the 2008 Democratic primary, which featured two candidates Democrats perceived as satisfying, this primary field is made up of candidates with high unfavourable ratings [PDF]. There is no real evidence that most voters have definitively settled on their choice, let alone a second, in case their first is not on the ballot when they get to vote. No candidate appears especially well-placed to pick up any of their competitors’ support without substantial leakage to other candidates. Today’s Bachmann supporter, who likes her for her religious conservatism, might well be tomorrow’s Perry voter for the same reason — or, if they happen to be from Georgia, a Gingrich voter. Today’s Perry voter who likes executive experience may be tomorrow’s Romney voter for the same reason.

Polls are imperfect predictors of future behaviour, and analysts doubly so. Polls once seemed to suggest Rick Perry’s rise was unstoppable, while at other times, pundits suggested Tim Pawlenty was a strong candidate based on acceptability. Wisdom of what the base wants, and why a candidate won, tends to come in hindsight, with the help of exit polling. Before that point, nobody knows who will show up on polling day — or even who will still be a candidate.

30 November 2011