Visualizing the GOP’s 2016 Bracket

And why Scott Walker has a long, treacherous road ahead.

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Stephanie Stamm, Andrew McGill and Scott Bland
March 5, 2015, 3 p.m.

The Re­pub­lic­ans run­ning for pres­id­ent in 2016 will all com­pete in the same primary, but they won’t all be chas­ing the same voters, es­pe­cially at the start. In­stead, the can­did­ates start out fight­ing to emerge as the front-run­ner among a smal­ler sub­group — in some ways like col­lege bas­ket­ball teams fight­ing their way through one side of a tour­na­ment brack­et be­fore the fi­nals.

There are tons of con­stitu­en­cies with­in the Re­pub­lic­an Party, but most broadly, the GOP breaks in­to two sides: A more “es­tab­lish­ment”-ori­ented one and a more “grass­roots”-ori­ented side. Now, new polling data from Iowa re­veal just how much cer­tain can­did­ates find them­selves go­ing head-to-head for the same groups of voters.

On one side, Wis­con­sin Gov. Scott Walk­er — cur­rently Iowa Re­pub­lic­ans’ top choice for the 2016 caucuses — is try­ing to wrest away voters who also take a lik­ing to can­did­ates such as Sens. Rand Paul and Marco Ru­bio, former Gov. Rick Perry, and re­tired neurosur­geon Ben Car­son. On the oth­er side, a largely dif­fer­ent group of voters has grav­it­ated to­ward Jeb Bush and Chris Christie.

Be­low, the data shows just how much some can­did­ates’ sup­port over­laps — and why Walk­er’s early lead is so tenu­ous. The gov­ernor cur­rently holds a broad piece of turf in the all-im­port­ant open­ing caucus state, but he’s go­ing to have to de­fend it from a horde of hungry com­pet­it­ors.

Quin­nipi­ac Uni­versity’s most re­cent sur­vey of Iowa Re­pub­lic­ans asked not only who 2016 caucus-go­ers would vote for, but wheth­er they liked or dis­liked (or had even heard of) a dozen dif­fer­ent GOP can­did­ates for pres­id­ent. Quin­nipi­ac provided Na­tion­al Journ­al with data show­ing how voters who look fa­vor­ably on one can­did­ate view the rest of the field. For ex­ample, the voters who like Texas tea party Sen. Ted Cruz are very cool to­ward Jeb Bush: Just 31 per­cent of Cruz fans also like the former Flor­ida gov­ernor.

By con­trast, 68 per­cent of the (re­l­at­ively few) Iowa Re­pub­lic­ans who view New Jer­sey Gov. Chris Christie fa­vor­ably also like Bush. The two are ap­peal­ing to the same slice of po­ten­tial voters, while Cruz is lined up on the oth­er side of the brack­et along­side Paul, Ru­bio, Perry, Walk­er, and Car­son, who share as many as 80 per­cent of the same sup­port­ers.

So, while Walk­er led the field in Quin­nipi­ac’s poll with 25 per­cent sup­port (Paul, Car­son, Bush, and former Arkan­sas Gov. Mike Hucka­bee were bunched be­hind Walk­er at 10 to 13 per­cent), it’s easy to see why stay­ing atop the group could be prob­lem­at­ic for the Wis­con­sin gov­ernor, des­pite his pos­it­ive at­trib­utes.

Around two-thirds of the Iowa Re­pub­lic­ans who view Walk­er fa­vor­ably also like Cruz, Hucka­bee, Ru­bio, and Perry. When any of them make a big splash — as Walk­er did in Janu­ary with a well-re­ceived speech in Iowa — the voters who might grav­it­ate to­ward them will largely be the voters Walk­er is try­ing to cap­ture and hold, too.

This happened over and over in 2012, when some ob­serv­ers said a boom­er­ang ef­fect was driv­ing the GOP primary. A large slice of the primary elect­or­ate was open to sup­port­ing a num­ber of dif­fer­ent can­did­ates, and sev­er­al — from Michele Bach­mann to Her­man Cain to Rick San­tor­um to Newt Gin­grich — had mo­ments where that open­ness trans­lated in­to primary sup­port against Mitt Rom­ney. That mo­ment would fade and the can­did­ate would slide back in­to the pack, but an­oth­er boast­ing a sim­il­ar group of sup­port­ers al­ways popped up. (Some Rom­ney sup­port­ers had a dif­fer­ent name for it: the “whack-a-mole phe­nomen­on.”)

On the oth­er hand, there are op­por­tun­it­ies for Walk­er or oth­ers to fur­ther ex­pand their hold on that side of the brack­et. A healthy num­ber of caucus-go­ers say now that they would sup­port Car­son, who has nev­er run for elec­ted of­fice, but if he fades, 82 per­cent of the Re­pub­lic­ans who view him fa­vor­ably also like Walk­er, per the poll. Around 70 per­cent like Hucka­bee, Ru­bio, and oth­ers, too.

But that frag­ment­a­tion makes that side of the brack­et dan­ger­ous; the highs are high, but with sup­port po­ten­tially split­ting so many ways, the lows are very low, too. On the oth­er side of the brack­et, Bush and Christie are clearly com­pet­ing over sim­il­ar voters, and there may be few­er for them over­all in Iowa. (Bush was viewed fa­vor­ably by 41 per­cent of Re­pub­lic­ans and Christie by 30 per­cent, the two low­est scores in the field ex­cept for little-known Ohio Gov. John Kasich.) But they will also split those voters few­er ways.

Ru­bio dips in­to their sup­port­ers a bit more than oth­er can­did­ates, while those who view Paul fa­vor­ably don’t over­lap with any one can­did­ate to the same de­gree as Walk­er or Cruz or oth­ers. Ul­ti­mately, these over­lap­ping, multi-way Venn dia­grams will ex­plain more about which Re­pub­lic­an wins the Iowa caucuses than who’s ahead in the horse-race polls right now.

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