What an election season we’re enduring right now. I’m still at a loss for words for just what I think about this election. Over the past week, I’ve had a few media outlets interview me asking for my opinion about this election, and the best word I can think of to describe it is crazy. I remember this time in 2015, we all believed that Donald Trump was a passing fad, and while Bernie Sanders had gained traction, I don’t think anyone believed that he was going to have the success he had. One year later, many people’s nightmare has come true, and Donald Trump has become the Republican Party’s standard-bearer and the expected infighting has ensued like many people have expected.
I’m going to political science geek out a little: ever since 2008, discussions about party realignment have really fascinated me. Every fifty of so years in American history, there has been a major party realignment. Most of the time in line with a war. In my opinion, we’re in the sixth era of American political parties. The most interesting thing about this era has been the divergence of the two parties. Before this era, there was major overlap between the two parties, and liberals and conservatives co-existed between both parties. Especially in the post-Reagan years, the Democratic Party has become the almost exclusive home of liberals, while conservatives have almost-exclusively identified with the Republican Party. While this has led to a much more clearly defined two party system, this has also led to a period of legislative inefficiency. Many political scientists would also cite the media, among other factors, as contributing to this large chasm between the two parties, which has resulted in legislative stagnation.
In 2008, I was an 8th grader, and despite my less mature thought process, I was still likely more attune to the election and political process than most active voters. The day after then-Senator Obama was elected with a strong mandate over Senator McCain, I told my dad that I believed that we were entering the beginning phases of the next party realignment. I did not see a path for the GOP to be successful for a generation nationally. I saw, what I thought was a lasting Democratic majority in the Electoral College (what some political pundits are talking about in 2016 as the 272-Firewall), as well as an increasingly diverse electorate. 2010 hit me hard. I was dismayed at the lack of Democratic enthusiasm in 2010, and the GOP seized on our complacency to gerrymander districts to keep the GOP competitive through the next decade. Then 2012 came… we were back to a presidential election, and I could test my belief about the GOP. Despite Mitt Romney running a respectable race, the 2012 election was never much in doubt. President Obama maintained a modest lead in the polls though the entire election, with Mitt Romney coming close to drawing even after a disastrous performance in the first debate by the incumbent. After 2012, the GOP wrote an autopsy and swore that 2016 was going to be their year. And of course, it was supposed to be. After two straight terms in the White House, the country is supposed to be sick of the incumbent party. On top of that, in every election after a two term Democratic president since FDR, the Republican candidate has won, with the controversial 2000 election being the closest exception. The fields started to get clearer in the middle of 2015. Against conventional wisdom, I expected Ted Cruz would be the Republican Party’s nominee. It seemed like every expert was predicting either Jeb Bush or Marco Rubio would be the GOP nominee. Sure, they were the candidates with the highest favorability ratings, but it’s important to look at the coalition that is the Republican Party. Evangelicals and working class whites constitute an incredibly high percentage of the Republican Party. While Bush (as in GW) was not viewed negatively in the light of the GOP, I never believed that the establishment could unite the GOP quickly enough to nominate either Rubio or Bush. While I was more bullish on Trump’s chances than most, I still thought it was a long shot (though I thought Trump would maintain a constant 20% in the polls, until eventually dropping out). The GOP needed a candidate who was going to be able to successfully target evangelical voters, as well as blue-collar whites. [While eventually this GOP coalition could bring states like Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania into play, I think that’s still likely 20 years away]. Using this same logic, Democrats are going to proclaim Tim Kaine as the next heir to the Democratic Party. No. The Democratic Party coalition is becoming the vision that Jesse Jackson expressed in 1984 of a Rainbow Coalition— something I am very proud of as a Democrat.
So where does the GOP move going forward? The electorate isn’t going to get any whiter over the next generation. And Millennials are not going to mysteriously stop entering the electorate. While it remains to be seen if Millennials will ever utilize their entire weight in the electorate, with abysmal turnout rates in previous elections, it is likely that this is just another example of decreased political efficacy among younger voters. Unless there is any credence to the shy Trump voter factor, it is likely that exit polls will be incredibly concerning for the Republican Party after 2016. [I actually believe that there is a shy Clinton voter, and Clinton’s margins will be larger than the polls predict]. Trump is likely to get absolutely obliterated among millennial voters. Trump is likely to face a gender gap of historical proportions (with polls frequently showing a gender gap in the mid-teens currently). Additionally, Trump is likely to face historic defeats among minority voters. The GOP needs to get those voters into their tent if they are going to have national success any time soon. The biggest problem is the values of these groups contrasts so strongly with the values of evangelical voters. But evangelicals are a shrinking proportion of the electorate. In my opinion, in order for the GOP to regain it’s national strength, it’s going to need to turn in a direction similar to the Libertarian Party. Millennials tend to have a higher opinion of the Libertarian Party, and if the GOP turned away from the divisive politics of social issues, and instead turned its focus towards economic politics and smaller government, it is possible that they could bring many of those voters into their coalition. Without any belief that evangelicals would go over to the Democratic Party, that would likely relegate evangelicals to a third party. A third party, which may be able to have some modest successes in the south, especially among older voters, but one that would not be a national threat. Republicans are going to consistently blame Trump, and say that if another nominee would have performed much stronger among these groups, but I’m not so sure that matters for the future. Trumpism has strong support in the GOP, and Trump supporters are not going anywhere after 2016. There is also a sincere possibility that these groups will begin to connect the rhetoric of Trump, with the rhetoric of the GOP, especially after many Republicans have failed to distance themselves from Trump’s comments. I imagine Trump will be reappearing in political ads for years to come.
I think many Republicans believe that assuming Donald Trump loses on November 8th, the Republican Party will be able to put the pieces back together on November 9th, and remain a dominant political party. I’m not sure if I concur with that belief. After a devastating defeat in 2012, the Republican Party wrote an autopsy of the party, explaining what the party needed to do moving forward in order to regain national strength. Much to the dismay of establishment Republicans, grassroots Republicans, who pushed Ted Cruz and Donald Trump, did the complete opposite of what the autopsy suggested. While the Republican Party will unite in their hatred of President-elect Hillary Clinton, and will work to defeat her legislative agenda, but we’re likely to see a more divided than ever Republican Party. It is even possible that the GOP will have no obvious leader. In my opinion, the most likely result on November 8th is a Hillary Clinton victory, Democrats (barely) flipping the Senate, potentially with Tim Kaine as the tiebreaking vote, and the GOP retaining the House, with a much slimmer majority. The likelihood is that if the GOP loses seats, they will likely be moderate Republicans, in suburban districts, who have been taken down due to low enthusiasm in these districts for Donald Trump. Representative Comstock (VA-10), Representative Guinta (NH-01), Representative Hardy (NV-04), Representative Curbelo, and Representative Dold (IL-10) are some of the most endangered GOP incumbents. These Representatives tend to represent the moderate wing of the GOP. Freedom Caucus members, who tend to come from more conservative districts, tend to have much safer paths to re-election. In the event that the GOP does maintain a more narrow majority, there is a possibility that the House of Representatives could be thrown into disarray, with Freedom Caucus members, along with early Trump endorsers, refusing to support Paul Ryan’s (likely) bid for a full term as Speaker of the House. Remember, a candidate for Speaker must receive the votes of the majority of the Committee of the Whole, which would be 218 votes. If the GOP loses 20 seats, and slips to 228 seats, it would not be unthinkable for 10 Republicans to abandon Paul Ryan. And after that, who knows what’s to come? Even though it seems less likely that anyone will challenge Senator McConnell’s legitimacy to lead the Senate Republicans (whether in the majority or minority), Senator McConnell has never appeared to have that “party leader” mentality which will be needed in the GOP.
A partisan Republican would counter me by talking about the strong legislative majorities that the Republican Party has both in Congress, as well as in state legislatures, but I’d point towards states such as North Carolina, where the Republican Party holds a disproportionately high percentage of the seats, due to a very successful gerrymander after the 2010 census. As we move towards the next census in 2020, with many maps from 2010, still facing pending court challenges, there is no guarantee that the GOP can continue these legislative victories, especially if the party remains fractured. After the 2016 election, I don’t know if we’ll be writing another autopsy, but instead I think an obituary may be more fitting. I cannot imagine how the Republican Party can continue down this path and expect to have success in future elections.
None of this is to say that this cannot be deeply debated. There are a large number of political scientists who would vehemently disagree with me, and who would have valid arguments, but when I put on my hat from years of political partisan experience, with my years of studying and reading political science, I think Donald Trump is only the start of this excitement. We’ll see…
All for now.