Republicans used to be the party of upper-income, educated Americans with a smattering of blue-collar whites and evangelicals bolstering their ranks. The party shared a sense of belief in the value of education, immigrants and family.
While some of those tenants have held up over the years the influx of blue-collar whites into the GOP fold has also led to an erosion of support in affluent and middle class suburbs. In turn, this has led to the the rise of candidates like Trump and Cruz and how winning candidates like Rubio who adhere to this older philosophy are viewed as establishment.
It’s also led to Republicans over the last several years becoming an increasingly antagonistic party doubling down on opposition to any governmental action. But, what makes Cruz and Trump increasingly dangerous is their willingness to appeal to a culture of “white identity” in a way no other candidates have.
Indeed, every other Republican candidate has pushed back against it to an extent. Bush views Trump as “extreme.” Kasich has called Cruz “crazy.” But, it is becoming increasingly clear that a solid plurality of the GOP, if not majority, favor Cruz’s and Trump’s views on immigration and immigrants.
For a small government conservative like myself who believes anybody should have a chance to succeed this is disappointing. Instead, Republicans (conservatives if you call them that) are increasingly moving away from their small government roots and instead embracing the viewpoint of many Democrats, “I want to get mine.”
To be fair, melding small government, constitutional and free market principals to the modern GOP platform has always been a challenge. Different candidates have taken different routes to adapt. Trump has full on embraced the new “white identity” phenomenon gripping the GOP. Cruz has adopted a mixed approach where he is just as tough on immigration and immigrants but talks about spending, small government and the constitution. All the other candidates, including Rubio, have largely avoided taking such a path and have mimicked Romney and prior nominees.
Such strategies represent the various views the candidates have of their parties. Older school candidates like Bush, Kasich, etc. view their party as that of Reagan (supporting immigration, free trade, etc.) as does Rubio (however he is a hardliner on illegal immigration). Cruz and Trump see the shift occurring in their party toward a more downscale coalition and have adapted their messages accordingly.
If you listen to Trump and Cruz (and in conversations with some of their supporters) it is hard to miss the unmistakable fact they blame “immigrants” for Americans troubles. This represents the views of their supporters who live in majority white, rural communities left behind in a global economy. Cheap labor, facilitated by lack of immigration enforcement and free trade agreements have eroded the average American’s ability to compete against foreign labor.
That is partly what makes Trump’s ascension fascinating. He has captured the hearts of a faction of the party less wedded to ideology and more faithful to the mantra “I want mine.” Cruz has captured some of these voters as well but by wedding this ideal with free markets and a strong foreign policy he has added libertarians and hawks to his ranks.
Rubio is probably the pro-immigrant, affluent wing of the party’s best hope to not only win this year but also slow the tide of likely inevitable change sweeping through the party. Bringing in an influx of immigrants into the party (which polls show Rubio would do against Clinton) might make individual candidates re-calibrate their messages going forward.
Then again, maybe not. The rise of polarization and partisanship has been blamed on gerrymandering but in truth gerrymandering has facilitated the rise of the anti-establishment in the party. Rural, majority-white districts have fed a Republican wing in the House that is obstructionist and these voters are the most likely to support Trump and Cruz.
If their is one saving grace for the party it is that after March 1st many of the states up for grabs (including many winner-take all contests) have smaller numbers of blue-collar Republicans and evangelicals. It is particularly notable that an analysis by Civis Analytics found that Trump and Cruz do best in Congressional Districts where former Democrats abound (ie. the South and rural Northeast). But in the West, where many Republican voters are non-evangelical or better educated, they fair poorly.
The party cannot count on demographics to carry their preferred nominees to victory though. At some point party elders will have to come to terms with the fact that many of their supporters are not pro-trade, pro-immigration and pro-free markets. Instead, they are likely many aspects of the modern Democratic coalition which wants what they deserve.
This phenomenon has been ignored for too long by GOP leaders. They have had numerous warnings. The multiple primary defeats of preferred nominees in 2010 (DE, CO and NV), 2012 (IN, MO) and in several Congressional races were the first signs. Candidates like Santorum who challenged Romney were yet another sign. The 2014 contests were more an aberration than a return to normalcy.
Until the party gets a clue on how to handle these competing factions of their coalition they will continue to splinter and lose Presidential contests. For while the Democratic coalition has its issues and is splintered they are far more loyal to the party’s appearance of embracing immigrants and diversity.