Why the 2016 Republican Primaries Will Be a Messy Venn Diagram

The 2016 Democratic presidential primaries are promising to be rather boring—although anything can happen, at the moment it looks like Hillary Clinton won't have much competition, and if she does it will come from the less-than-electrifying likes of Martin O'Malley. The Republican side is where the sizzle is going to be, with a bunch of interesting personalities slashing each other to pieces in an exhilarating deathmatch.

One of the themes of the commentary about that race will be the candidates' attempts to woo and ultimately secure as many of the GOP's constituency groups as possible. And I think there's a mistake in how we often think about that particular process. It's not a contest with an end point where one person wins. To see what I mean, let's take a look at this interesting article from Tim Alberta and Shane Goldmacher about the early struggle between Ted Cruz and Mike Huckabee to win evangelicals:

The courtship of Christian leaders by White House contenders—"the evangelical primary," as some call it—has become a staple of Republican presidential politics. But this year is different.

After back-to-back cycles in which social conservatives failed to coalesce around a single candidate—resulting, they believe, in the nomination of moderates who haven't mobilized the Christian base to vote in November—evangelical leaders are acting early and with unprecedented urgency. In a series of private meetings over the past two months in Washington, Iowa, Florida, and elsewhere, Christian political leaders have emphasized narrowing their options sooner than ever and uniting behind one candidate to defeat the establishment favorite.

The Atlanta event, then, signaled not just that the 2016 evangelical primary is well underway but that for many leading social conservatives, the field is already winnowing.

"Those are the two," Family Research Council President Tony Perkins said of Cruz and Huckabee. "And they share the same core base, so I do think there's probably only room for one of them to be successful."

One candidate can certainly obtain the endorsements of most or even all evangelical leaders, and those leaders can in turn offer access to credibility, money, and organization. But I think that when we talk about these groups we often implicitly accept that the Republican electorate (and we'd do the same for the Democratic electorate) is a disconnected series of non-overlapping bubbles which are going to be divided up by the candidates. Rand Paul will have the libertarian bubble, maybe Jeb Bush or Mike Pence with get the establishment bubble, but both of those are smaller than the evangelical bubble, so if Huckabee can get that… The problem is that the bubbles have lots of overlap. The Tea Party, for instance, is made up in large part of evangelicals. Economic conservatives are also foreign-policy conservatives. Think of it more as an enormous Venn diagram where every circle is touching every other circle, to greater or lesser degrees.

That doesn't mean that explicit attempts to court particular groups, like Huckabee and Cruz are doing now, won't be a big part of the primary campaign story. But we shouldn't assume that any candidate will be able to make himself "the" candidate of evangelicals or anybody else. It's going to be a lot harder than that.