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What Donald Trump Could Mean for the Republican Party’s Future

Tags: Election , Political Party , United States , Democracy , Public Opinion

Saunders, Paul J.

October 24, 2016

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© Gage Skidmore
© Gage Skidmore

With Trump trailing in the polls, establishment Republicans may be distancing themselves from the controversial candidate as they set their sights on 2018 and beyond. But they should not be quick to write off his rise as an aberration, Paul Saunders warns, since his supporters are likely to remain an important factor in American politics.

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On October 23, a respected statistical analysis of America’s November 8, 2016, election argued that Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump has only a 14.1% chance of winning the presidency. [http://projects.fivethirtyeight.com/2016-election-forecast/] America’s political elites—and possibly many foreign governments—likely take comfort in establishment candidate Hillary Clinton’s probable victory. Yet, they should not become too comfortable.

If former Secretary of State Clinton does prevail, many Republican politicians and party officials will be eager to run away from Trump and, in essence, to pretend that the 2016 election cycle either did not happen or that it was a one-time aberration. This seems likely in part because of Mr. Trump’s offensive and controversial statements and in part because he may suffer a substantial defeat. Nevertheless, wishing away the Trump phenomenon will not be quite so easy—particularly because his voters are likely to remain an important factor in American politics.

Trump’s Voters Will Matter after November

This reality is evident even during the current cycle, during which former Republican presidential candidate Marco Rubio, who is running for reelection to the US Senate in Florida, cannot succeed without the support of Trump’s backers. As a result, despite having every reason to despite Trump (who called him “Little Marco” during the Republican primaries), Rubio cannot afford to alienate his voters.

Future Republican candidates in Florida and elsewhere will need the Trump voters too, whether or not Trump himself remains active in American politics. This seems likely only to deepen divisions in a party increasingly unsure of its ideology and its platform.

The Republican Party leadership, including officials like House Speaker Paul Ryan, appears determined to maintain the party’s past approaches and positions. This is hardly surprising, in that establishment politicians and GOP activists have invested their careers and even their lives in creating the pre-Trump party. Unfortunately for them, they failed dramatically in responding to a rising tide of anger at the party’s base—anger they often cultivated themselves to win votes.

In 2010, angry Tea Party voters turned on some GOP officials, ousting incumbents during party primaries. Republican leaders failed in responding to this anger because rather than seeking to address its underlying causes—voters’ frustration with real problems in their day-to-day lives—they doubled-down on already extravagant promises that they knew they could not fulfill. At the most fundamental level, Republican politicians tried to satisfy substantive concerns with symbolic politics. This was inherently unsustainable.

If they want to preserve party unity and to win elections, Republican leaders cannot afford to return to this form of business-as-usual in 2017. They will need a real legislative agenda on jobs, immigration, education, healthcare, and other day-to-day issues. If Trump’s success so far demonstrates anything, it is that a large share of Republican voters care much more about fixing what they see as a failing system (whatever Trump’s qualifications to do this) than about clinging to Republican ideological orthodoxies that don’t deliver results, both domestically and in foreign policy.

Looking ahead to 2018 and 2020

The challenge for the GOP is that the clock is already ticking before the 2018 mid-term election cycle, which could prove decisive. From one perspective, Republicans will probably look more united than today, in that many will eagerly seek a stronger position in the Senate and the House to oppose the Clinton Administration (or, if Trump should rally in the final two weeks to win, the Congressional Democrats). From another perspective, however, this unity in opposition may be both dynamic and fragile, in that we have yet to see how 2018 Republican Senate and House candidates will campaign and to what extent they will look like establishment or Trump-style candidates.

Politicians, pollsters, and strategists will begin studying state and district-level election results immediately after the November 8 voting. However Trump personally fares, his message has clearly resonated considerably in some areas. And 2018 Republican candidates in those regions will have a strong incentive to adopt elements of Trump’s political message. Indeed, Trump’s undisciplined campaign and his personal shortcomings as a candidate may make this even more appealing, in that some candidates will likely calculate that they could campaign more effectively than Trump himself.

If this assessment is correct, the 2016 Republican primaries could thus become a prototype for state and district level campaigns in 2018, 2020, and beyond—although GOP leaders may seek to revise the Republican nominating process in 2020 to prevent a similar outcome, much as the Democratic Party did through its system of super-delegates.

Like in science and technology, after an initial important discovery, building a new machine requires only engineering and refinement. The original discovery is usually the hard part, though in Trump’s case, it was almost accidental in that only a largely self-funded candidate who did not care about his reputation with the Republican establishment could have launched a presidential campaign in the way that he did. Even the anti-establishment Senator Ted Cruz was not so daring.

All of this suggests that 2018 and 2020 could see the real war for the soul of the Republican Party, and it could be a long and costly ground war, fought in states, congressional districts, counties, and cities across America. If GOP leaders declare victory too soon, they may confront some unpleasant surprises.

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