It was not supposed to be this way. The Democratic and Republican donor classes had their nominees chosen well in advance of this year (Jeb Bush and Hillary Clinton). It was supposed to be a clash of dynasties where conventional wisdom was to be tested. Could Republicans do better with Hispanics? Could Hillary reassemble the Obama coalition?
Instead, this Presidential race has turned into something else entirely. The angriest and most vocal segment of the electorate on both sides has come out in force. For Sanders it is in the cities. among academic elite and the young. For Trump it is among the forgotten blue collar Joe and Jane.
But the Democratic side of this dynamic does not match up to the GOP side. The angriest and most pessimistic segment of the electorate is by far blue-collar men and women. In poll after poll, they have expressed dismay over the direction of the country.
These individuals could be called Middle Americans. They could even be classified as Middle Class Radicals. Either way, they are neither poor nor rich, they work construction, are annoyed that English is being spit on for a multi-cultural society wonder how white male became an accusation instead of a description.
They share Sanders Democrats distrust of institutions like the big banks. But they differ on their distrust of unions and government regulation making things better. They distrust the GOP of Romney, Ryan and McConnell and wonder how even when they give a party control of Congress it is powerless to stop an agenda that they believe is crippling their aspirations.
Contrary to popular wisdom these are not ideologically super-conservative voters. Yes, they may believe in some tenants of conservatism but these are some of the same voters who gave Democrats control of Congress for 40 years. It is only in the age of Obama they have turned to Republicans at the legislative level. Yet, unlike the beliefs of free market conservatism and libertariansim these voters do not want the welfare state cut. If anything, they want it preserved, even if it means taxing the rich.
This is not an American phenomenon by any stretch. In Europe, the rise of nationalistic, almost monolithically white voting blocs has given both left and right-wing parties major toeholds in developed democracies. Across the continent, populist parties are delivering messages that defend the welfare state with little regard for more immigration, denounces the corruption of the current government/s and risks of a global market system.
Just like America, these parties do not fit distinctly into a left or right leaning political paradigm. In Italy, the left wing Five Star Movement almost gained a plurality of legislative seats in the last election. Others are rooted in the right of center like the United Kingdom Independence Party which campaigns hard against the EU. In many former Soviet bloc countries, parties having roots in Communism like Slovakia’s governing Direction-Social Democracy party have come to prominence.
Some of these parties have a leftish flavor, like Italy’s Five Star Movement. Some are rooted to the right of center, like the U.K. Independence Party. Some descend from neofascists, like France’s National Front. Others trace their DNA to Communist parties, like Slovakia’s governing Direction–Social Democracy.
None of these parties are exactly alike owing to the nationalistic content they operate in. But they all defend “acquired rights” such as pensions, healthcare and other benefits that support older workers and should be around for younger citizens. They loathe the technocratic bankers that demand austerity, demand tax cuts for only the wealthy, and call for more immigration (skilled or not).
In the United States these voters have flocked to the GOP in increasing numbers because they have perceived the party better represents their interests than an increasingly grievance and technocratic Democratic Party. They have even gone so far as to knock out dozens of long-time Democratic Congressman and legislators to try and send a message to the Democratic Party to no avail.
Their fears are not unfounded. In 2008, they realize the Democratic Party had officially left them when then candidate Obama told Joe the Plumber he needs “to spread the wealth around.” Passage of Obamacare in 2009 was a massive wealth transfer from the middle class to the rich and insurance companies. The Dodd-Frank Wall-Street reform did nothing to stop speculation on the market. Cap and Trade would have been a field day for bankers and massive companies. True tax reform has proved elusive.
Yet, they fear their political arty is not listening to them either. For the first time in many years, polling shows a majority of Republicans believe taxes should be hiked on the wealthy and corporations have too much power. This is heresy to many in the GOP’s donor and management class.
In the midst of the 2008 campaign, former Arkansas G0vernor and winner of the Iowa Caucus Mike Huckabee made a point that was reflective of the former GOP electorate, “their next president to remind them of the guy they work with, not the guy who laid them off.” But the power of blue-state Republicans and the donor class gave them McCain and the result was a crushing defeat.
Confident that 2008 was an aberration the party moved forward with a preferred 2012 nominee that was in some ways worse than McCain. Romney had made his fortune in the financial sector and came from a political family. To many blue-collar voters, especially in the Midwest, this was repellent.
So what happens next? Well, for indications we can look back at previous elections.
It was not long ago we heard people bemoan how disengaged the public was from voting. Turnout in 1996 was lower than 1992 (despite Perot being back on the ballot). It picked up slightly in 2000 and then overdrive. The 9/11 terrorist attacks indelibly changed America’s political culture. The 2002 midterms and 2004 Presidential contest were arguably decided on the issue. Scandals, issues of race, the bank bailouts, governmental regulation, the ACA all drove voters to show up in historically large numbers. It’s true that some still do believe midterm turnout is a problem. However, they tend to be of the losing side of late; Democrats.
Whether 9/11 was the primary factor or one of many in changing America’s political dynamics can be argued. What cannot be argued is how integral political identity is to how Americans are identifying themselves in every facet of life.
Perhaps the most notable example of this is a question Pew has asked since 1960, “Would you be upset if your child married a supporter of a different party from your own?” In 1960 a mere 5 percent said yes. In 2010 a third of Democrats and half of Republican said yes. In 2012, the number among Democrats had ballooned and more women than men for the first time in history echoed the divisive answer.
Of course, there are other examples of America’s growing divide. In 1960, if you were unmarried it meant little. Today, it means you are likely to be a Democrat. An unmarried women? Even more likely to be a Democrat. A married middle class man? A devout Evangelical? A white Catholic? All indicate increasing preferences to support Republicans.
It used to be class divided the parties. Republicans were the party of the middle class and the affluent. They operated as middle managers. The Democrats won the poor and working class. But today, class is not a political dividing line between the parties. It is among them.
Look at past Presidential campaigns. Since 1980, every Democratic Presidential primary has featured an affluent, liberal (Gary Hart, Michael Dukakis, Paul Tsongas, Bill Bradley, and Barack Obama) vs. a working class candidate (Walter Mondale, Dick Gephardt, Bill Clinton, Al Gore, and Hillary Clinton).
Republicans have had their conflicts between Main Street and Wall-Street candidates but been able to mend the wounds of a divisive primary battle. Unfortunately, that is in the past for the GOP. Events such as the Great Recession, Stimulus, ACA, Bush tax cuts have forever altered that dynamic.
Since the Great Recession ended the economy has barely budged. While the stock market has soared and corporate profits have increased real median income is below 1999 levels. Many Americans don’t qualify for government help yet struggle to make ends meet. Unlike the growing professional wing of the electorate that becoming more Democratic they have not followed politically or economically.
The mistake the media often makes in portraying the Tea party is that of a conservative, libertarian movement. While some certainly were the movement that spawned GOP successes in 2010 (and some defeats) was far more likely to say I want to protect entitlements than gut them.
An interesting case study of this can be seen in the 2015 Kentucky race. Republican Matt Bevin won a historically Democratic seat but he did so only backing away from plans to take away Medicaid and close the Kentucky exchange. In other words, in a predominately poor to middle class white state, the Republican only showed power in the final week when he modified his orthodox conservative stances.
It is often forgotten but Obamacare promised to gut $500 billion from Medicare between 2010 and 2020. The result was a Democratic shellacking not seen since the 1946 midterm. But the opposition to entitlement reform was not limited to Democrats. In 2011, soon after Republicans unveiled the Ryan budget which vowed to balance the budget through entitlement reform the GOP lost a winnable race in a Republican congressional district in New York. The party had split and an Independent running on the Tea Party line took 9 percent of the vote.
Still, the donor and professional wing of the GOP ignored these warnings. Just like Democrats are now ignoring the nascent Sanders/Warren wing of the party. One of the benefits of having cash is you don’t have to here anybody disagree with you.
Yet, the polls are clear. A majority of voters support higher taxes on the wealthy. Among Republicans the number is rising. The number among Democrats has risen in Gallup polling every year since 2010 (on average).
The first candidate who got the post-Tea Party nod was Mitt Romney. He was an ill fit for the group. He assumed the base rejected him because of his liberal stances in Massachusetts (didn’t bother them in 08). Despite all his shifting in the primary support went to all his opponents and one by one they fizzled out. Romney was the only one left standing.
His past history of liberal stances certainly did not help him in the general. But conservatives still came to him in the same numbers they did Bush. That’s not why he lost to the dismay of donors and party managers.
The party elite could not fathom how a candidate that that had followed classical conservative tenets; budget cuts, tax cuts, entitlement reform, and free trade had lost. It had to be because he had shifted too much to the right on immigration reform.
The answer: support comprehensive immigration reform. The thinking was pretty straight-forward. In 2004, GW Bush won 44 percent of the Hispanic community and 40 percent of Asians supporting the move. Never-mind Bush won less than 51 percent of the vote and only won 16 more electoral votes than he did in 2000.
In the eyes of the donor and management wing immigration reform was a no-brainer. Not only would it open the door to attracting more Latino and Asian voters but it also would benefit the economy. At least those at the top who benefit from cheap and unskilled labor.
The Republican National Committee released a self-affirming autopsy in 2013 urging the party to reach out minorities and young voters by becoming more liberal on immigration. They missed the mark on the report. Their voters, older and whiter, wanted conservative not liberal enforcement on the border.
The report detailed other aspects of the campaign but failed to mention anything that strayed from GOP economic orthodoxy. The idea to phase out Medicare to those under 55, lack of support for raising wages and providing ideas for health insurance were no biggie. No, the report clinged to the belief wealth creation and ownership were the ways to get ahead.
Republicans rightly argue immigration is a wedge issue Democrats use to deadly effect. Rupert Murdoch, Charles Krauthammer, Sean Hannity, all representing different ideological wings of the party espoused such. But they also missed the change that was gripping their party.
If, as some argue, this was a recipe for a Bush candidacy they might be right. After 2012, Republicans wanted to compromise. Their fight to preserve the Bush tax cuts was a disaster in public polling. They had lost seats in Congress.
That is they wanted to compromise on immigration. The Gang of 8 was formed to work out immigration reform. Republicans put Hispanic Senator Marco Rubio of Florida front and center. A plan was created to meld border enforcement with a plan for citizenship and a new influx of low and highly skilled laborers. Republicans got an earful from their constituents and backed off.
Then they dug in. Republican refused to back Immigration Reform. It passed the Senate. It died in the House. During budget negotiations in 2013 the GOP gave away nothing and as a result the two year budget deal included sequestration cuts that hit the military and even cherished GOP social programs.
In the run-up to the 2014 midterms the GOP Congress doubled down and it worked temporarily. Republicans won predominately red districts and states and even a purple Colorado and Iowa. But the theme connecting the candidates was running against Congress and their own party as much as Obama and Democrats
Republican leaders got a preview of this theme in an earth shattering result in Virginia. In Virginia’s 7th Congressional District, Eric Cantor had been upset by a little known professor at a local college, Dave Brat. Cantor had been a vocal supporter of the new line on immigration.
Party leaders were stunned. How had this happened? In the run-up to the primary Cantor and Boehner had been quietly pushing the House to embrace a step by step approach to immigration reform. This quashed it.
Smart and savvy candidates like Rubio and Cruz walked back their comments on immigration. But the donor class had their candidate in Bush and he was not as politically astute. Moreover, he was a political relic from a different time and did not have the skills to change minds.
It showed. Bush raised a whopping $103 million in PAC money before he declared. The plan was simple. Shock and awe! But the rules of the game had changed. Even past managerial candidate supporters were not willing to go with Bush. Despite spending millions and millions in Iowa and New Hampshire the candidate is mired in single digits. This occurred as Bush dominated the airwaves. Between late September and mid-October, he purchased 60 percent of all political spots aired in New Hampshire.
Bush had a stellar track record as Governor of Florida. He cut taxes, balanced budgets, reformed welfare, and funded a statewide charter system. But he was always liberal on immigration and it was the one issue that galvanized the base like no other this cycle.
Bush could not change who he was and has not. But the result has been a tumble in the polls he is not digging out of.
Contrast this with the other Republican candidates. One by one, every Republican Presidential candidate turned away from immigration reform after once supporting it (Scott Walker, Rubio, Cruz, Christie). Those that didn’t are going the way of the dodo bird (Lindsey Graham).
When Trump entered the race in June he was met with open contempt by the GOP field. Bush ignored him. Walker was ahead in Iowa. The real contest was viewed by donors as a Bush vs. Walker vs. Rubio contest.
By the end of the summer Trump was ascendant and had basically pushed Walker out and marginalized the field. His campaign themes of ridiculing the Koch Brothers, dissing trade agreements, arguing for the preservation of entitlements, etc. all jettisoned party orthodoxy and the party ate it up.
Initially, polls showed Trump drew support evenly from among all groups of the party. But as the campaign has progressed and Rubio and Cruz have begun to consolidate support it is becoming clear Trump’s support is strongly among the blue-collar, non-ideological wing of the party.
Republicans argue that as the campaign progresses Trump will struggle if the opposition consolidates against him. Maybe true. But it is also clear Trump’s economic populism on wages, taxes, entitlements, defense and most importantly, immigration, have attracted a swathe of the party’s backers.
Peeling off Trump supporters will be no easy task. According to an August PPP survey 63 percent of wished to end birthright citizenship for the children of illegal immigrants born on U.S. soil—a dozen points higher than the norm for all Republicans. More than other Republicans, Trump supporters distrusted Barack Obama as alien and dangerous: disapproval of the President was almost 40 points higher than the general public.
The intensity of Trump’s support is partly driven by what he says. He is a candidate that draws the masses partly on personality alone. But it cannot be denied his message of denigrating both cherished left and right wing institutions has paid off.
He has already ended Walker’s campaign (sorry Team Cruz) and crippled Bush and Christie. He continues to roll onward. Even as polls show opposition consolidating around Cruz in Iowa his leads in New Hampshire and South Carolina remain. He is here for the long haul and the party has become resigned to the fact.
Beyond Trump the party now has to decide what to do. The Democratic Party has similar issues (see above) but they have yet to morph into a full on base revolt. For the Republican Party to survive as a political institution they need to determine a national path forward.
One option is personified in the candidacy of Marco Rubio. Keep going on with the same message and draw enough voters to your ranks to win. This assumes Rubio performs better among the groups Romney alienated just by being a minority.
The route more traveled by Trump alternatives this go around has been modification. Ted Cruz expresses support for the traditional conservative message but with a slight deviation; no open borders. Rubio has done the same though with Rubio he has endorsed populist ideals like a much larger EITC for the middle class (not just low income families).
Perhaps the most popular route and one likely to be taken in the future is opening up more economic avenues for the middle class. Democrats have the line down pat about how they care about their interests but they haven’t bought it since 2008. But, Republicans are not viewed much better.
Changing this view requires an entire rethinking of the party’s ideology. It would require treading on some sacred cows like fiscal conservatism and free trade in favor of deficit infrastructure spending. Most importantly, the party would have to reexamine their adherence to capitalistic principles of lower taxes for all and social conservative views. Take to heart the issues that middle class Americans worry about; college tuition increases fed by monopolistic practices, nursing home care, etc. Quit fighting a lost battle on gay marriage and tone down rhetoric on abortion. Focus on regulations that harm the middle class like environmental regulations (an easy fit for the party currently) and downplay tax transfer upward instead of to the middle.
In this GOP the party would not mind going after insurance companies for colluding. Ideas like expanding the EITC would be welcome. Using government to align all Americans with a strong moral and work ethic would be smiled upon.
To witness how devastating this would be for the party is on display in Congress today. Distinct factions have formed and hardened. Party elites in Congress believe the status quo is fine. They fight when must but back down to battle another day. The ideological right fights until the end. In the middle in both chambers is a sizable contingent of Republicans who hold mixed views.
Republicans have a fallback with their strength in the states. This allows them to implement their agenda in many states. But this is being done by Governors and legislatures with varied ideological views and cannot be done nationally. In the end, Congress and power in the states cannot formulate and direct an agenda like the President can. If Republicans cannot find an answer to their divide they likely will be back in the same position they found themselves occupying in 2012; control of the House and the states but in the minority in the Senate and without the direction the Oval Office can provide and asking why we lost?