Liberals are giddy. The Republican establishment is weary and resigned. Donald Trump will define the party for this cycle and many more. Or will he? The conventional wisdom that Trump will turn off a generation of voters to the party is founded on a pretty simplistic assumption about his candidacy. Donald Trump will define his party to a generation of young voters as being anti-immigrant, bigoted, racist, etc.
Except, Democrats have been saying this for a long time. Certainly, the GOP has never had to deal with a potential nominee like Trump before. I’ll give that. But, all voters have extremely short memories and there are many competing theories about how younger voters form their partisan preferences.
The primary theory that seems to hold the most water is what I call “Presidential Choice Theory.” No, the name is not as simplistic as it suggests. Rather, young voters form their preferences based on how things are going under the incumbent party’s President they grow up under.
The best example of this would be George Bush’s tenure. The Millennial generation is probably the most liberal generation in history and it came of age in a political cycle when the market tanked, the Iraq War went sideways and scandals rocked the Republican White House consistently.
Now, flip this around. The Obama economy has been anything but stellar. Sure, the economy has improved somewhat but the young still are struggling to find decent wage paying jobs, afford college, afford Health Insurance (which they are mandated to get with no off-setting age subsidy) and see the US still embroiled in foreign entanglements. Is it any wonder the youngest Democrats are going towards a candidate like Bernie as opposed to Obama’s third term (Clinton)? Well, it shouldn’t be.
Under Obama Democrats have seen an erosion in their numbers among younger voters. Where Obama won 68 percent in 2008 the party barely cracked 50 percent in 2010 and 2014. In his reelection bid Obama only won 60 percent of the vote and their percentage of the electorate dropped.
It’s true that while Trump might represent the GOP this cycle has has already been rebuffed by the future of the party. Remember South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley’s SOTU response? Not only did she criticize the President she also criticized Trump’s rhetoric towards immigrants (she is one). Even Cruz and Rubio, Trump’s primary rivals, are the children of immigrants.
Trump represents the past for the party. Candidates like Haley, Rubio and Cruz represent the future and they have proven they can win over their party and actually do well among non-whites. Cruz won almost half of Hispanics in 2012 and Rubio actually carried them in his 2010 bid.
There is yet one more reason I don’t worry that Trump will define the GOP for a generation. The GOP is ideologically flexible, especially at the state level. Liberals and Democrats can deny this all they want but they have lost ground in blue and purple states because of this simple fact.
You might be wondering how this is possible, especially when you see the rightward march of all the Presidential candidates. Simple. Republican voters are simply not that ideological in state elections.
Take the cases of Illinois and Massachusetts. In Illinois, Republicans went from a socially conservative state senator in 2010 to a pro gay-marriage, pro-choice businessman in Bruce Rauner. It was a smart choice. Rauner won every county except Cook County and won by 5 points. In Massachusetts, the party did not shift quite so much as they nominated 2010 candidate Charlie Baker. But, Baker, like Rauner and Hogan (in Maryland) is pro-choice and pro gay-marriage. The party base did not fight any of these candidates and these candidates rolled to victory in these deeply blue states.
Obviously, if Trump or a candidate like Trump came to define the GOP this would never be able to happen. Admittedly, there is no way to know whether a) Trump will be the party nominee and b) his impact on future races. But history suggests he won’t damage the party for a generation as many suggest. Rather, it is more likely he will be yet another failed, has run Republican Presidential candidate the party forgets about and moves on.