Donald Trump’s rise has shaken the very foundations of the GOP. The 2016 election was supposed to be about a clash of ideas. Instead, it has turned it a clash over personality and grievance based politics.
It is important to note that Trump’s rise in the GOP is not unprecedented. He certainly represents a sizable wing of the party and one that has been growing in recent years. But, unlike in years past, this wing of the party is now almost so large it can nominate a Presidential candidate.
The larger story about Trump has ignored the fact that Trump is the candidate of the “base.” Trump is getting some base voters (as are all the candidates) but not in the traditional sense. By traditional I mean voters that vote often and vote Republican.
Some history is worth discussing here. In 1960 the GOP was largely a middle manager, businessman party with strong support in the suburbs and West. Nixon’s 1968 appeal and strategy to peel off “blue-collar” and “Southern” voters worked but it cost the party an erosion of support in the suburbs.
Poor Gerald Ford could never keep these voters in the GOP camp and after Nixon they went back to the Democratic Party until Jimmy Carter’s fiasco in foreign policy and the intensifying Cold War drove them into Reagan’s arms. Circumstances at the time were fortuitous to the GOP. So much so in fact the GOP coalition not only grew with an influx of blue-collar voters but also suburban voters (The New Right), and social conservatives while the mainstream Republicans from the Midwest and moderate Northeastern wing also thrived.
What’s worth noting in this time is the rise of populists and very ideological conservatives. Both were small groups at the time but by 1992 they were integral to GOP success. While many conservatives stuck with H.W it was the populists who split between Clinton, Perot and Bush.
Ideologically these voters often chaffed under the GOP banner. Many were union members and against free trade. They also did not mind debt to finance supporting the middle class. But they stuck with Reagan largely because they saw him as willing to stand up to the Soviet Union (the great Jacksonian American threat) and willing to try to make America great “again.”
To a degree George Bush’s 2004 election was contingent on his appeal to these voters. However, considering many of these voters have not voted in several elections many may not have voted for Bush during his reelection campaign. Rather, they probably rooted for it but did not vote.
Considering it sells to talk about ideological purity and gridlock it is little wonder the pundits have focused on the search for “purity.” After the 2010 and 2012 elections the notion was reinforced with upstart primary challenges upsetting the GOP establishment’s favored candidates.
Except, many of these Tea Party voters were the kind of voters Trump appeals to but even then they were not base voters. Rather, they showed up to vote to send a message against the status quo. The true fiscal hawks and pro-free traders who make up the Tea Party’s ranks have gone to Cruz.
In truth, the “base” voters of the GOP have found their candidate in Cruz. He fits the typical “true conservative” candidate mold on virtually every issue (pro free trade, anti-union, against gay marriage and abortion, etc.). His pitch is specific to their desires and needs (we can win if we just give them a reason to vote).
Trump’s voters are much more driven by the candidate himself. Much as Reagan had a force of personality to attract such a large coalition Trump does as well. But Trump’s appeal is much more Buchaninistic (to create a word) than anything else. The rich and powerful have sold out the middle class, the parties are in cahoots with big business, etc. While modern day liberalism shares some of these views they, like many conservatives, also focus on social issues Trump backers just really don’t care about.
You could argue that we’ve seems recent forms of Trump in Huckabee and Santorum. Yet, even these candidates incessant focus on social issues makes them unique from Trump. Rather, Trump is very much in the mold of Buchanan who tended to ditch social issues and focus on the power structure of the US economy and democracy.
Sean Trende, over at RCP, uses a great example. “Think of it this way: Club for Growth, which Huckabee routinely railed against, would likely love Cruz, but I find it hard to believe that they would be excited about a more protectionist candidate like Trump.”
So, Trump is actually drawing in new, lower educated, politically diseffected whites into the process. On the flip side though he is likely hastening the flight of upscale, suburban whites to the Democratic Party who now see higher taxes as worth the cost.
Trump’s campaign has been smart and fed the mindset that he is winning over base voters. It allows Trump to talk about the issues he wants to talk about and avoid standard points on abortion and gay marriage. Apparently, voters are smarter than the pundits and DC political class because Trump’s support has come from almost all wings of the party evenly. But his biggest support is among less educated self identified moderates and liberals. In other words the voters with loose affiliation to the party he is connecting with.
How long Trump can keep this game up is unclear. Trump is not drawing enough support from within or outside the party to win a majority but only maintain a lead in a crowded field. It cannot be kept up indefinitely. If a true alternative like Rubio or Cruz rally support they could end Trump’s run.
Long-term the GOP’s issues go beyond Trump. They need candidates who have his force of personality who can bridge the ideological/partisan gap. Maybe a Rubio could if Trump was not in the race. Perhaps a better message or micro-targeting is the answer. But the GOP’s ideological cleavages are becoming even more pronounced than Democrats and if not fixed it could tear the party apart (considering almost a 3rd of Republicans in any given survey disapprove of their party maybe it already has).