When Republican donors have nightmares, this is what they see.

Photographer: David McNew/Getty Images

Republican Bigwigs Will Own the Tea Party

Ramesh Ponnuru is a Bloomberg View columnist. He is a senior editor of National Review and the author of “The Party of Death: The Democrats, the Media, the Courts, and the Disregard for Human Life.”
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Republican donors want to anoint a front-runner for the 2016 presidential nomination early.

According to the New York Times, they're worried that too many potential candidates are seeking the "establishment" slot in the Republican primaries -- Mitt Romney, Jeb Bush and Chris Christie all have strong appeal to this group -- and would like to settle on one candidate. They may not. But the track record says they will -- and that whoever they settle on will end up carrying the party's mantle in the presidential election.

Historically, the establishment has tended to pick its candidate early in the primary season. This is a great advantage in making sure someone to its liking gets the nomination. In 2012, for example, Mitt Romney was already the choice of Republican donors, strategists and elected officials before a primary vote was cast. Anti-Romney forces in the party were split among several candidates and never picked one champion for their cause. Bob Dole benefited from the same dynamic in 1996. The rightmost faction of Republican voters tends to be divided among several candidates until late in the game, and that's one reason every Republican nominee since 1984 has been at the ideological center of the party or slightly to its left.

Why do the donors and bigwigs settle on their candidate earlier than the activists do? Partly because they're more concerned about picking a winner. Compared to Tea Party ralliers, their support is more of an investment and less of a statement. The most ideologically minded Republicans are willing to back longshot candidates like Herman Cain (the former Godfather's Pizza executive, never elected to anything, who ran for the nomination last time). The big-money people in the party are less sentimental. They might have liked Jon Huntsman, the former governor of Utah, who also ran last time. But they never saw any signs he could win, and so they never helped him.

The donor class, as a rule, doesn't seek a candidate with whom it can fall in love. Its members weren't enthusiastic about Romney, and some tried to persuade others, including Mitch Daniels, Jeb Bush and Chris Christie, to get into the 2012 race. People in the party establishment are also easier to herd than the grassroots conservatives are, because they're engaged earlier, they're a smaller group and -- crucially -- they want to be herded. Six months before the primaries it can be hard to predict who's going to catch fire in Iowa. It's easy to see who's got a national fundraising base.

Picking a candidate early is one mark of the party establishment that separates it from the grassroots. Another is a limited imagination. Hence the painfully truncated list of people the establishment seems to be considering right now, dominated as it is by old Republican names like Romney and Bush. Republicans who oppose the establishment, and want to wrest control of the party from it, have on the other hand a surplus of imagination: That's how they can talk themselves into the idea that candidates like Cain are viable.

The news in the Times story is that big donors are worried that their consolidation process isn't far enough along. That could mean this cycle will be different from previous ones. Perhaps the establishment will split and someone with more Tea Party appeal will have a better shot at winning the nomination. But you don't see nearly as much angst among the Tea Partyers about choosing a single champion. Which means that they're still more likely to be divided, and the party establishment will probably once again get the nominee it wants.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Ramesh Ponnuru at rponnuru@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Timothy Lavin at tlavin1@bloomberg.net