The Republicans also tend to have an early establishment candidate. Unlike the Democrats, this establishment candidate is usually someone who ran as a challenger campaign in the previous election. The establishment candidate tends to have multiple challengers from various constituencies within the Party.
The Republican Party can be broken down into a variety of interest groups that often have conflicting goals. First is the pro-big business Wall Street group that protects large corporate interests. Second is the Religious Right, that is focused on having a candidate who supports certain religious goals and focuses on issues of public morality. Third is the Libertarian wing, which supports smaller government and less regulation. Fourth is the neo-con / militarist wing. This groups supports an aggressive foreign policy and ever higher military expenditures. A fifth and less prominent group is the white working class, so called "Reagan Democrats" who are the least faithful to the party but necessary to any Republican victory. These folks tend to be pro-gun ownership, fervent supporters of police and law and order, possibly somewhat racist (although they often won't admit to it) and anti-immigrant.
Typically the establishment candidate tends to be the choice of big business. Challenger candidates tend to come from one of the other groups, although any successful candidate must have some level of support from all five groups.
Let's take a quick look at the history. In 1980, Ronald Reagan was the establishment candidate, having been the primary challenger to President Ford four years earlier. His main opponent that year was George Bush (Sr.) who question the economics of cutting taxes, increasing spending, while reducing the deficit. Bush won Iowa and finished a strong second in New Hampshire, but then faded quickly.
In 1988, Bush was the establishment favorite, having finished eight years as Reagan's loyal VP. Bush received a challenge from Sen. Bob Dole, who painted Bush as not being conservative enough to cut taxes further. He also faced a challenge from Pat Robertson, who represented the religious right. After taking third place in Iowa, Bush quickly bounced back in New Hampshire and voters quickly hopped on the Bush bandwagon. Oddly, Bush faced a challenge as a sitting President in 1992. This was highly unusual, especially in light of his recent victory in the Gulf War. But Bush's broken promise about raising taxes, inflamed many. He faced a challenge from Pat Buchanan who represented the Republican's white working class voters who seemed primarily concerned about minority and immigrant benefits during a period of economic downturn. Bush defeated the challenge but went into the election with a divided party, resulting in many Republican voters staying home.
In 1996, Bob Dole's second place finish eight years earlier earned him the establishment support (protest candidate Buchanan from 1992 never had establishment support as he was never an elected official and could not garner much support outside the white working class Republicans. Buchanan was Dole's closest challenger, but never did much after a narrow win in New Hampshire. Determined to defeat incumbent Bill Clinton, ranks closed quickly around front runner Dole, not that it did much good in the general election.
In 2000 the establishment went looking to State Governors with less Washington history. They quickly rallied around Texas Governor George W. Bush. Bush had strong credentials with the Religious Right. But his promises to have a more modest foreign policy brought on a challenge by the militarists via John McCain who won New Hampshire. Bush, however, quickly regained control of the electorate and swept to an easy victory. His selection of Dick Chaney as VP satisfied the militarists.
McCain quickly became the establishment candidate in 2008. This was an odd choice given that he was not a favorite of big business. He was a favorite of the militarists and had been the most powerful challenger eight years earlier. Without anyone in the Administration seeking to run, he became the default choice rather quickly. He was, however, hotly challenged early on, finishing fourth in Iowa after the Religious Right favorite Mike Huckabee, the Wall Street favorite Mitt Romney, and Fred Thompson, who mostly won the small government voters, along with Libertarian Ron Paul. McCain, however, bounced back to win New Hampshire and quickly became the dominant candidate with little opposition.
In 2012, big business once again selected the establishment candidate in Mitt Romney. Romney's Mormon background did not sit well with the Religious Right, however, resulting in a virtual tie in Iowa between Romney and Rick Santorum, who tended to get support among religious as well as white working class voters. Both finished just ahead of libertarian Ron Paul. Romney again bounced back to win New Hampshire and had no serious opposition by Super Tuesday. Still Romney's religion and his support for a State version of Obamacare in Massachusetts, failed to rally the religious or libertarians to his side. His campaign also turned off most white working class voters, despite their opposition to President Obama.
This brings us to the current 2016 battle. This has been a difficult year in determining an establishment candidate. Santorum was the closest early challenger four years earlier, but his weak performance after Iowa and the fact that he has not held office for some time, made people look elsewhere very early in the process.
Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush looked like the obvious establishment candidate. He was a successful Governor from a swing State and had the Bush name. That said, the Bush association has been a negative for many after the taint of a failed war and a recession under the last Bush presidency. Further, Jeb Bush has not really appealed to any constituency outside of the big business folks. Even there is support seems tepid at best.
Ted Cruz has been a favorite among evangelicals and some libertarians, but is powerfully opposed by the Washington establishment. Big business views him warily because of his refusal to play nicely with others as a Senator. He is seen as too much of a boat rocker.
Sen. Marco Rubio and Gov. John Kasich are still hanging in as possible long shot compromise choices for establishment support. But neither has really been able to articulate why the establishment should rally only to him. As a result, establishment votes have remained unusually divided following Iowa and New Hampshire.
The big X-factor this year has been Donald Trump, who has dominated the polls and finished at or near the top in both Iowa and New Hampshire. Trump has a clear appeal to white working class voters, who seem to be coming out in unusually large numbers for him. While he is a business leader, big business does not seem to trust him to protect their interests and have not rallied for him. He has very little appeal with the religious right. Libertarians and militarists are not sure what to make of him either. With big business unwilling to tolerate a Trump presidency even in light of early victories, it seems he may never get the establishment support he needs to win the nomination. At the same time, he seems able to take at least one third of the Republican votes. Without the Party able to coalesce around a Trump alternative, he may win a plurality of the votes, leading to an open convention with no clear nominee. But despite their natural instinct to rally around an early leader, I don't think Trump will ever gain the favor of a majority of Republicans.
If Jeb Bush had done even a little better in Iowa and New Hampshire, with perhaps a third or fourth place showing in both States, he might have become the establishment favorite to Trump and Cruz. But a fourth place in New Hampshire and barely showing up as an "also ran" in Iowa has made him look weak and possibly unelectable. As a result, Kasich and Rubio will continue to challenge him for the establishment position. Together, those three will continue to divide votes.
Of the three establishment wanabees, Bush has the most money and organization in place for Super Tuesday and beyond. He may perhaps still become the establishment choice. But he has had trouble fund raising based on his poor early finishes. He remains a long shot.
The notion of an open convention is something neither party has faced for several decades. It seems almost unthinkable today not to have a candidate chosen well before July, only about 3.5 months before election day. An open convention would also create hard feelings among supporters of the losing candidates and lead to a weak and fractured party nominee. No one wants to see that happen. Still, we don't really see any of the remaining five serious candidates making any moves to leave the race and clear the field for one of the others.
I could easily see a race where Trump enters the convention with 35-40% of the delegates, Cruz with another 15-20% and Bush, Rubio, and Kasich each with 10-15%. This would be a nightmare scenario for the Republicans. It is possible we will see a clearer front runner after Super Tuesday, but so far I don't see one. Given Republican Primary rules which tend to give lots of bonus delegates to the winning candidate, it may be the Donald Trump even increases his lead at this time.
Perhaps the South Carolina primary and Nevada Caucuses before Super Tuesday may reshape voter evaluations of the candidates, but as things look now, it looks like Trump remains the man to beat and that a majority of Republicans still really want to see him beaten.