Concerns about the Republican Party’s demise are exaggerated. Arjun Vishwanath explores the Grand Old Party’s past, present, and future in this four-part series. Part I steps back to evaluate the health of the Republican Party today. Part II traces Donald Trump’s rise and how he exploited the weaknesses in the GOP to win the nomination. Part III looks at how the Republican Party has consistently failed to offer its constituents a positive slate of policies. But Part IV proposes a way forward for the Republican Party to win elections without surrendering its conservative principles.
This piece is crossposted at If Men Were Angels.
Part II: How did Trump win the primary?
In a two party system like America’s, the major parties are forced to represent disparate interests in order to stay electorally competitive. The positions of the two parties certainly change over time, but they generally change towards establishing an equilibrium; that is to say, on any given issue roughly half of Americans will agree with the Republican position and half with the Democratic position. This inevitably will not be true for all positions—for example, Democrats’ position on Guantanamo Bay or Republicans’ position on background checks—but it will mostly hold true.
At the same time, because the parties contain so many elements, different positions will appeal more strongly to different members of the party. As a party that holds social conservatism, fiscal conservatism, and hawkish foreign policy as the three major stools of its platform, it necessarily brings together otherwise different groups. Analysts will thus typically separate the Republican Party’s membership into the Christian Right, pro-business conservatives, the Tea Party, neoconservative interventionists, libertarians, and so on. But Donald Trump does not appeal directly to any of these groups. So how did he win?
Trump’s nomination is held among many liberals to be evidence that none of these groups’ ideologies “truly” motivated Republicans; rather, the primary organizing principles of Trump’s campaign as they saw it – racism, xenophobia, sexism, and overall bigotry – were shared by members of the Republican Party who then voted for his nomination. Thus, while fiscal conservatives, social conservatives, and serious foreign policy analysts may exist within the Republican Party, the Party is driven primarily by racism rather than ideology.
This analysis is inaccurate. Survey data consistently shows that most Republicans identify as conservative or right-wing on issues of taxation, spending, and social issues; there are issues where the bulk of the Republican Party’s legislators are more conservative than their members, such as the minimum wage and immigration reform, but for the most part, the Republican Party does represent positions held by its members.
So how did Trump win? Viewed through a short-term lens, I consider it an anomaly. That is, the analysis of FiveThirtyEight, The Upshot, and other data-driven analysts last summer was not wrong in its skepticism of Trump despite his polling numbers. They assumed incorrectly that the Republican Party would make a bigger effort to stop Trump than it did. More importantly, the large number of candidates kept Trump in the game until he had mostly sewn it up. For example, the winner-take-all and winner-take-most rules of states like Florida and South Carolina allowed Trump to win all of their delegates while winning 46 percent and 32 percent of the vote in those states respectively.
Let’s rewind to the beginning of 2015. There were a few strong candidates for the Republican Party, but no clear front runners. Marco Rubio was promising, but his proposal for immigration reform – labeled as amnesty by opponents – threatened to undermine his candidacy. Jeb Bush was a favorite of the establishment and fundraised heavily, but even before we knew how awkward he was on the campaign trail, the legacy of his brother still meant he would face an upward climb. Chris Christie once had starpower as a northeastern Republican who won big in a blue state but was reeling from Bridgegate. Rand Paul stole the spotlight for a while, but after a dovish moment within the Republican ranks in the beginning of Obama’s second term as American battles stalled and Snowden revealed the extent of the American domestic security apparatus, the takeover of parts of Syria and Iraq by ISIS in the spring and summer of 2014 marked a return to hawkishness that Paul was not suited for. Scott Walker was a rising conservative star, having won three elections in four years in a blue state presidentially, but he was untested on the national stage. Ted Cruz had his Tea Party backing, but he was deeply despised by establishment elites. Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum made movements to run again, but they had their moment in the sun in 2008 and 2012 respectively and their populist and socially conservative base did not constitute a large enough well of support to push them through the primaries.
In short, there was no obvious candidate to unify different areas of the party. And because there was no obvious candidate, more candidates were encouraged to jump in; after all, if the leading candidate is polling at 14 percent and by jumping in, you would immediately be polling at 4 percent, you are only 10 percent away from the leader.
While this made sense for each individual candidate, it made absolutely no sense ideologically. There was no reason for a candidate like Rick Perry to be running; as far as conservative governors go, Scott Walker appeared the better candidate. Perry’s one area of conservative apostasy, illegal immigration, was shared by both Florida heavyweights, Bush (who notoriously declared illegal immigration to be “an act of love”) and Rubio. Similarly, Bobby Jindal was not occupying any ideological space that the more popular Ted Cruz did not cover. While those three candidates ended up dropping out before Iowa, candidates like John Kasich, Jeb Bush, and Chris Christie all occupied and thus split the “Establishment Lane”. Marco Rubio was stuck in no-man’s land because of the crowding in the Establishment Lane and the “Tea Party Lane” occupied by Cruz and Ben Carson, and as a result Rubio became everyone’s second choice. As a result, most of the candidates ended up killing each other and turning the nomination into a fight between the two least liked candidates in the field, Trump and Cruz. Kasich, of course, awkwardly tagged along for reasons no one still knows. Cruz managed to survive because he was able to consolidate his ideological cohort well using a fantastic data operation, sticking to his message, and utilizing a relatively strong ground game, but he did not have the popular support to win the nomination.
My point here is not to give a play by play of how the Republican primaries went down. Returning to the point I made previously about the factions of the Republican Party, analysts tend to ignore two factions that make up a decent portion of the Republican Party that delivered the nomination to Trump, primarily because they want to forget about these factions and because these factions are almost never represented in Washington.
The exemplar of the first faction, the more analyzed of the two, is the downscale secular white voter who finds Trump ideologically appealing (this is an important distinction). This voter does not care about social issues much, but to the extent he does, he is either socially conservative in a non-religious or principled way (women should not get abortions because it was their irresponsibility getting pregnant in the first place, etc.). He – and I say “he” because this demographic is mostly male – is skeptical of foreigners in terms of immigration and free trade. Although he hasn’t interacted with many immigrants, he believes they threaten America’s safety and its values. On fiscal issues, he may favor an increased minimum wage and otherwise interventionist policies in the economy, but he is likely to be skeptical of welfare because he believes black people are staying on the dole out of laziness. Importantly, he thinks that big business is almost as bad as big government, and he thinks the bailouts of banks in 2008 show the corruption of Washington.
To this sort of voter, Trump is a successful outsider who will break the corrupt dealmaking between elites in Washington, New York, Hollywood, Silicon Valley, and other loci of power. This voter believes that because Trump isn’t beholden to corporate interests, he will stand up for the little guy. Rick Santorum attempted to appeal to this demographic, but his candidacy as a Christian nominee was an imperfect fit for this demographic. This type of voter – not terribly far from a liberal parody of a typical Republican voter (minus the religion) – is actually unlikely to vote at all. Let’s call this voter a True Trump believer.
One of the liberal schools of thought views these voters as the “future” of the Republican Party. This school, which I have previously discussed, holds that Republican voters do not truly care about the three legs of the conservative stool that elites have offered them; rather, they vote Republican because the Republican Party’s messaging contains the racial overtones they want to hear (per this line of thinking).
But I think this group of downscale secular whites has been overanalyzed compared to another group of voters, which I call the “burn it down” faction of voters. Most of these people also don’t usually vote, but when they do, they tend to vote Republican. This group overlaps with the downscale secular white voters Sean Trende has described (he calls them the “Missing Perot Voters” because of the way Ross Perot – a similar candidate to Trump, in some ways – appealed to them). The defining characteristic of this group is complete exhaustion with American politics as is, to the point where they want to “burn down” the existing system. They may have voted for Tea Party candidates in 2010 and 2014, but they would not consider themselves ideological conservatives.
Although the idea can be found in the ideological extremes of the left and right, I am not referring to an ideological voter. Indeed, they may not want to literally destroy the whole system. Conor Friedersdorf compiled a number of excellent profiles of Trump voters, and one said:
“It really isn’t about Donald Trump. It’s about the fact that many thought and believed President Obama was the “change” that they wanted in 2008. We still trusted him in 2012. All of that “hope” has died. This administration keeps telling everyone that things are better, but the middle class now knows that isn’t quite true. Wall Street, the banks, and even illegal immigrants seem to be prospering more than the average American citizen. We are desperate. Desperate people do desperate things.”
(Of course, some of these voters do want to destroy the system – another one of these voters that Friedersdorf interviewed said, “I know he would do a pretty terrible job at this point, but I really am at the point of letting the whole thing burn down and explode. Trump would help us get there faster and more efficiently. Like the joker from The Dark Knight, I just want to see the world burn. I guess I am an anarchist in that respect. Once it’s all burnt down maybe we can have that constitutional convention we really need to fix things and get this country back on track if it still exists”)
What is striking in this statement is the lack of any ideological basis for her vote and the lack of any connection between this voter’s issues and Donald Trump as president. In this view, a vote for Trump is truly a vote for change because, whatever else may be said of him, it is certainly true that Trump is different than almost every other major politician in the modern era (an aside: the number of open primaries certainly helped Trump, as many of these non-ideological supporters are not registered Republicans).
There is an intentional vagueness to Trump’s campaign slogan, “Make America Great Again”, and his campaign’s ideology in general. I honestly don’t know whether that is intentional or not, but to a certain non-ideological or less-ideological segment of the electorate, that is appealing. Trump’s rhetorical style can be mesmerizing, and his promises of allowing America to win again appeal to these voters more than anything else. What these voters need is precisely the opposite of what Trump offers: detailed and achievable plans to help them with the issues in their lives, from unemployment and drug abuse to poverty and health care costs and access. Of course, the irony is that this is what the more policy-oriented politicians they disdain actually offer.
Let me return to my initial question, then. How did Trump win the primary? Quite simply, I think he won the two categories – the True Trump believers and the Burn it Down group – I have described, and he won them big. Even though they don’t comprise a majority of the Republican electorate, Trump was frequently winning states with 25-40% of the vote until mid-April, when he finally broke through against Cruz and Kasich. When combined with the massive amounts of free media he got, he didn’t need the advertising campaigns that Bush ran or the data-driven targeting that Cruz used; his bombastic personality and unorthodox platform were more than enough.
One thing I would like to highlight here is that the categorizations of voters into groups like evangelicals, libertarians, hawks, burn it down types, and so on are not mutually exclusive. I have seen many confused reactions to why evangelicals supported Trump in the numbers that they did, and while part of the answer is certainly the fact that Trump received much of this support from the infrequent churchgoers, the truth is that some of these voters will also fall into the Burn it Down camp. That is to say, the woman I described above may very well be an evangelical Christian who would, ceteris paribus, prefer an evangelical to be president, but the system is so broken to her that only an outsider like Trump has a chance of fixing it.
Trump was able to succeed on the back of these two groups – the ideological supporters of Trump (the True Trump believers), who might belong more properly to a right-wing European party than a right-wing American party, and the non-ideological supporters (the Burn It Down group), who are generally disengaged from American politics and simply want change from the status quo as a desperate response to a system that has failed them.