Crash course.

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Jeb Bush's Four-Lane Collision

Francis Wilkinson writes editorials on politics and U.S. domestic policy for Bloomberg View. He was executive editor of the Week. He was previously a national affairs writer for Rolling Stone, a communications consultant and a political media strategist.
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In a fascinating interview with Bloomberg Politics, Republican strategist Mike Murphy, the majordomo of the super-PAC organized to support Jeb Bush's campaign, said that Bush was the candidate best positioned to win the "largest lane" in the GOP race.

Talk of political "lanes" seems to have emerged only in this presidential election. "Lanes is a term used only in track and swimming," said veteran Republican consultant Ed Rollins, via e-mail. "I've never heard it in politics."

What's more, the term appears to have arisen exclusively in the context of the Republican presidential primary. Back in February, Washington Post political reporter Chris Cillizza quoted an anonymous "Republican consultant" who analyzed the GOP primary like this:

Think of the Republican field as a series of lanes. In this race, there are four of them: establishment, tea party, social conservative and libertarian. The four lanes are not of equal size: Establishment is the biggest, followed by tea party, social conservative and then libertarian.

It's not clear whether the anonymous consultant was Murphy himself or merely someone with a similar strategic imagination and vocabulary. But the concept of four lanes is holding up pretty well. "Certain candidates seem to be naturally matched up against each other," said Republican consultant David Winston, via e-mail. "Lanes are an initial segmentation of the groups making up the Republican primary electorate." Candidates, in effect, must win a lane before expanding to compete in a different, or sometimes overlapping, lane.

In this election, the Tea Party lane, currently dominated by Donald Trump, is looming larger than many had anticipated. Ronald Brownstein laid out the challenge that poses to establishment candidates:

For those hoping to emerge as the choice of the party’s center-right bloc -- a list that runs from Jeb Bush to John Kasich to Chris Christie -- the principal challenge is to unify the party’s white-collar wing against Trump, or whoever supplants him as the favorite of more working-class and conservative voters.

Unifying white collars is only the first of two steps. After that, the establishment candidate will have to consolidate blue collars.

In the Bloomberg interview, Murphy discounted Trump's staying power. But Trump's support has two components. His supporters appear to be both attracted to him and repelled by the establishment -- especially in the form of the pro-immigration Bush. In a CNN/ORC poll released Tuesday, Bush is winning only 3 percent of Tea Party supporters. Trump gets 35 percent. An NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll released this week showed 44 percent of Republican voters saying they could not support Bush, a finding consistent with Bush's high -- and seemingly growing -- unfavorable rating among Republicans. His favorable/unfavorable rating among Republicans in the latest Monmouth University poll is a daunting 37/44.

Of course, the party's right wing was notoriously cool to its last two presidential nominees, John McCain and Mitt Romney, yet came around by November. The antipathy of the Republican base for the elite seems to be increasing, however. Can Bush really conquer the Tea Party lane in the event he wins the establishment lane? Can Marco Rubio, who has been straddling the party's divide more precariously (albeit skillfully) than any other candidate, continue to compete in two demanding, and mutually combative, lanes at once?

Byron York reported this week that GOP establishment forces are preparing for war against Trump if he maintains his lead in the polls. They are not willing to accept his victory. It's possible, however, that the compliment will be repaid in kind. If the establishment prevails with Bush or Rubio (let alone the Medicaid-expanding Kasich), will supporters of Trump, Ben Carson and the anti-government radicals in the House channel their anger against Democrats -- or against fellow Republicans?

The Republican fractures run deep, and extend beyond the presidential field. In the Monmouth poll, 39 percent of Republicans said that conservative House members, such as the polarizing House Freedom Caucus, have too little power in Congress. An additional 25 percent said such members have too much power, and 21 percent said they had the right amount.

It's hard enough to conquer the sprawling four-lane highway of Republican presidential politics. It will be more difficult still if some of the lanes point in opposite directions. 

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Francis Wilkinson at fwilkinson1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Katy Roberts at kroberts29@bloomberg.net