It wasn’t long ago the Republican Party was a ideologically homogeneous party or at least a party close to it. From the 50’s to the 70’s the party was composed to moderates and conservatives (okay, and a few liberals). The rise of the suburbs and Roe vs. Wade introduced two new factions into the GOP.
The election of 1980 brings the modern day Republican Party into focus. That cycle, Reagan’s landslide victory was forged on the backs of security hawks, fiscally conservative suburbs, secular and middle class blue-collar Democrats, religious voters and libertarians.
The numbers of each of these groups has changed over time within the party but they have largely guided its course since Reagan. In virtually every election, one of these groups has nominated their own (sometimes individuals group’s support overlapping).
H.W was the hawks and suburbs choice. Dole was the choice of hawks and libertarians (why, I don’t know). George Bush has the distinction of seeing his coalition of voters shift in his two terms. Bush was the choice of the suburbs, libertarians and religious voters. Come 2004, hawks warmed up to Bush, libertarians not so much and religious voters stuck with him. McCain was the suburbs and hawks choice as was Romney.
This is of course only one interpretation of the modern factions that dominate the GOP. There are others. One well accepted view by Henry Olson is the party is made up of 4 distinct factions-moderate/liberal voters, somewhat conservative voters, very conservative religious voters and very conservative secular voters. The most simplistic and talked up is the establishment vs. insurgent (I bet any party has more than two wings though).
Each faction within the GOP has its own goals and objectives. In the past they tended to coincide with each other. If we take Olson’s view of the GOP coalition than somewhat conservative voters sided with moderates on taxes and spending. Very conservative religious voters often had no problem expanding the state to protect the family. Very conservative secular voters didn’t care about the size of the government if they got theirs and the country was safe.
But these factions historically operated in a fairly stable economic and political environment. The threat of the communism kept their minds focused on one international boogieman for decades. The economy largely grew apace even after major recessions or outside events (oil embargo anybody).
Today, that environment is an artifact of history. The USSR fell in 1991 and the economic pie is simply not big enough to give everybody what they want more. In both 2008 and 2012, Republican Presidential nominees ran as if the political environment was pre-2007. This election, reality is catching up with the party.
The largely imagined homogeneous coalition the GOP has pretended they had has now splintered and the party’s social and fiscal cleavages have been laid bare.
It’s no surprise this cycle Republican candidates would notice. Donald Trump is no genius, but he knew the largest social cleavage dividing the party was immigration. But, not just illegal immigration. Oh no, it goes deeper. Immigration in general from H1 Visas to who we accept immigrants from divided the party.
The size and scope of government, once considered to unify the party has split it open. Supporters of Trump, very conservative secular voters, aka Reagan Democrats, largely don’t care about its size as long as they get theirs.
On highly contentious religious and moral values the religious right is invested in fighting gay marriage and limiting abortion. The donor class/K-Street would like to pretend abortion does not happen anymore.
National security since Bush has been the party’s biggest fault-line. Bush started out promising a humble foreign policy and turned into a nation building hawk. In 2008, hawks got their nominee in McCain but a mere two years later the Senate GOP ranks were filled with libertarians like Rand Paul and Mike Lee. Paul is furthering the GOP debate over foreign policy. Cruz, a rising star and one of the likeliest to carry the GOP banner in 16 has smartly positioned himself between Paul and Rubio (a hawk’s hawk).
These are not small disagreements a party can paper over. When you have a coalition whose interests overlap you can win. But when you don’t you have to cobble together voters on a host of issues and convince them the issues they agree with you on are bigger than those they don’t. While Democrats have their own internal schisms (inequality, war) their divide is currently fr smaller than the GOP’s.
It’s proving to be a challenge for every Republican in the presidential field. Trumps small lead is built on the backs of blue-collar, secular, very conservative voters who care little about gay marriage, abortion or the size of government and spending. Only who the spending and government benefits.
Cruz’s rise is due to the power of evangelicals and somewhat conservative voters worried about the size of the state and abortion. Rubio has his foot in the door of moderates, hawks and conservatives.
Unifying such an unwieldy coalition by next summer will be a challenge. Republicans know they need a candidate who can appeal to all wings of the party but in truth no candidate can. Rubio would turn off blue-collar, secular voters and libertarians. Cruz would turn off moderates and secular voters. Trump would bring out the Reagan Democrats but not the hawks or fiscal conservatives.
This has led at least one campaign to “deepen” the party’s coalition not expand it. The Cruz camp is all in on betting their election on a groundswell of evangelicals rising up to elect their choice. It helps he has also made clear overtures to the party’s secular and hawkish wings. But, like Paul, he has crossed the party’s donor class and will struggle to win over moderates/liberals with his abrasive rhetoric.
The establishment/party leadership is still betting on a more conventional nominee like Rubio or Bush coming through in the end. They would be the candidates “likely” to expand the party’s reach (assuming they hold Romney’s 2012 coalition together).
Republicans might be helped by outside events. The rise of ISIS and the terror attacks in Paris combined with the Obama administration’s anemic response has allowed the nimbler nominees to pivot the campaign onto a largely unifying issue for almost every wing of the party (sorry libertarians).
It worked for Bush. In 2000, Bush’s election was largely anemic. If not for the electoral college we’d be saying President Gore. But 9/11, Afghanistan and Operating Enduring Freedom allowed him to reach not just into Perot territory but also Hispanic and Asian constituencies. For all his faults, Bush is the only GOP President who simultaneously deepened and expanded his party’s coalition.
The GOP’s ideologically diverse coalition and the issues it causes won’t go away even if they win the White House. But as Bush and Obama have proved, having your party’s nominee in the White House can go a long way to putting them on the back-burner. At least in the short-term.