A cursory examination of recent headlines shows that American politics, and the Republican Party particularly, are in uncharted waters. The ascendance of Donald Trump as the Republican Party’s front-runner reveals deep divisions in the GOP electorate that will have far reaching consequences for possibly decades to come. And while pundits, political scientists, and consultants of all stripes can offer their best guess on what this all means and where this is all headed, the fact is that no one knows for sure because we have so few similar prior experiences from which to draw conclusions upon.
What is worth examination, however, is the set of decisions that will have to be made by the groups that form the current Republican coalition as they attempt to deal with the rise of Trump. With no establishment candidate left in the race with a chance of winning a majority of delegates through the primary process (John Kasich would need to win more than 100% of the remaining delegates), Ted Cruz has become the only viable non-Trump alternative, although it is hard to imagine that he will be able to win a majority of delegates.
We have already seen a divide within the cadre of GOP elected officials on their approach to Trump. Some have endorsed Trump. Others, like Senator Lindsey Graham, are supporting Cruz even though they clearly are not his biggest fans. And some, like Senators Kelly Ayotte and Mark Kirk who also happen to be in tough re-election campaigns, have started to distance themselves from the frontrunner.
This divide is fascinating to us, and we started to think: what would be the smart play for the Republican Party as a whole and for the different factions within the GOP? What we found is that at the end of the day, it is going to be very tough for the Republican Party to survive the 2016 election.
In this piece we examine the various scenarios that are likely to play out in the next few months leading up to the GOP Convention and the general election, how the various Republican groups are expected to behave, what the outcomes of each scenario are, and ultimately what it means for the future of each group and the Republican Party as a whole.
Dividing Up The GOP Electorate
Due to the multiple factions within the Republican coalition, for our purposes we will look mainly at Establishment and Tea Party Republicans as well as Non-Establishment Trump Supporters (NETS). This first group is an odd combination of the more typical “Establishment Republicans” reminiscent of Mitt Romney as well as most Tea Party types, because their interests mostly align when it comes to Trump. This is especially true considering Ted Cruz, the only viable candidate to beat Trump, is a full-fledged Tea Party darling. The Pro-Trump crowd is unusual since it is extremely anti-establishment and not particularly conservative in the classic sense. Tea Party members are clearly in both these camps, but the difference is the source of their main motivation, which is being anti-establishment or focusing on conservative political approaches.
Here are the four scenarios that can unfold in the remaining Republican primary contests and at the convention:
In general, Scenario 4 is unlikely to happen based on the numbers. However, because Cruz is not exactly a voice of moderation, his nomination would bring along most of the same problems that a Trump nomination would for the party albeit with less flair. With this in mind, we are going to focus on the first three possible outcomes.
At this time, the groups that make up the Republican coalition will have to decide whether to get behind Trump and support his candidacy, or abandon him, hope he fails at the first vote at the convention, and then wrangle enough delegates into throwing their support behind another candidate. The outcomes for these decisions are viewed only through the perspective of events leading up to the Convention in July.
Any scenario where Donald Trump becomes the nominee is obviously trouble for the Establishment. If they decide to fight his candidacy but he still wins, the Establishment wing of the party will be marginalized for the rest of the election, and likely beyond that. If they acquiesce and he wins, while they will be going into the general with a deeply flawed standard-bearer, they will at least arguably remain relevant and continue to exert influence over the direction the candidate and the party are headed.
There is only one scenario where the Establishment comes away with anything resembling a positive outcome, which is if they can somehow keep Trump from winning the nomination on the floor of the convention. They would then have to deal with the fallout of pulling the rug from under the candidate that most Republican voters would have cast a vote for, but they will have at least maintained their authority over the party and would hopefully have a better candidate to work against the Democrats. The major caveat is that it is hard to imagine Trump supporters not walking away from the party if they perceive that they were denied a candidate that was rightly theirs. If they stay away from the voting booth in November or support a third party nominee, there is very little chance the GOP candidate could win the Presidency.
The scenarios for Trump supporters (NETS) are more clear-cut. Either scenario where he wins the nomination presents a positive outcome for the NETS. Winning the nomination would place them at the center of power for the party and they could claim credit for one of the biggest coup d’états in modern political history. If the Establishment were able to keep Trump off the November ballot, it would be a negative outcome in the short run for NETS since their candidate would not receive the nomination and there would be no viable alternative for them, unless Trump ran as an independent (which seems likely if this situation were to arise).
We have also included a scenario where Trump supporters ‘dump Trump’ at the convention, which could happen if Trump comes into the convention with only a slim lead and the Establishment appears to have a feasible path to stopping Trump and NETS voters use their position to negotiate some kind of power in the party in exchange for supporting another candidate. This is extremely unlikely, but if this did occur we would rate this as a negative outcome because NETS voters’ first choice candidate did not get the nomination even though they gained an upper hand on party politics.
Regardless of the events of the Convention, NETS voters are now a major force in Republican politics will have to be treated as such for a long time to come. These interactions between Establishment and NETS voters only detail the Convention in July – the General Election will be an entirely different story.
If we assume that Trump is going to be facing Hillary Clinton in the General Election in November, it is worth looking at the challenges and opportunities Establishment Republicans face as they try to figure out what is the best strategy for their candidates. At this point, there are only really the Non-Trump voters and the NETS to consider; Tea Party supporters will essentially be forced to make a similar set of decisions as the Establishment Republicans. There are basically three options for the Establishment (two of which will look familiar):
Option 1, Dump Trump: This would basically mean forfeiting the Presidency in hopes of maintaining control of the Senate and the House. Whether Trump wants to believe it or not, the full set of resources the party can bring to a Presidential campaign cannot be minimized. While the Republican Party will support (to some degree) whoever their candidate is, Trump has little to no shot of making this a competitive election if the party does not put its full weight behind its fundraising, field, data, and advertising efforts. In the case that the Establishment fails to rally around him and he loses, the establishment will likely be blamed by his supporters for throwing the election to spite Trump, which would make it hard for the Republican Party to remain coherently whole. However, they may have a greater shot of holding onto the Senate with this option, so ultimately it would come down to a decision of whether holding the party together or holding the majority in the Senate is more important.
Down ballot is where this would play out. Clearly some Republican candidates would benefit from running on an anti-Trump platform, and they would have a strong argument to make that there would need to be a strong conservative Senate to act as a counterbalance should Trump win. Nevertheless, as we learn time and time again, turning out your base is the number one priority in an electorate as divided as ours. If a conservative candidate is trying to distance themselves from Trump, they are essentially asking Trump voters to accept voting for a Republican who does not support their candidate for the White House. This is not exactly a very strong message to encourage the turnout of base voters, but it may be the only shot down ballot Republicans have.
Option 2, Get Behind Trump: This option is also fraught with peril. How many times does Senator Kelly Ayotte really want to defend the latest Trump comments about the KKK or Muslims hating the US? His candidacy will be a major nuisance to Republican candidates in lean-red or tossup districts and states. Candidates running in deeper red districts and states should not have to worry as much, as we expect most Republicans will support whoever the candidate is over Hillary Clinton as well as Republican candidates down the ballot, as they always do.
If the Establishment gets behind Trump and he wins, then this is an acceptable outcome for them. They will have a Republican (nominally) in the White House and the party will have coalesced for a victory. Of course, Trump may govern in an unpredictable and even non-conservative manner, but officials on the right may be confident enough to believe that they could guide his Presidency to meet their standards. If they back him and Trump loses, then there is still likely a Republican Party as we know it, but a part that would have to face the fact that it lost 6 of the last 7 popular votes and that demographic trends continue to work against the party as a whole. Of course, this would undoubtedly add credibility to the argument that the GOP’s problem is not nominating candidates that are truly conservative enough. If this scenario plays out, be on the look for Cruz 2020 bumper stickers.
Bottom line: If the top priority for Establishment Republicans is keeping the party together, then getting behind Trump is their best path forward. However, this approach could damage the GOP for years to come.
Option 3, “Choose Your Own Adventure”: This refers to the idea that while the party and the Establishment will ostensibly be supporting Trump to some degree, down ballot candidates are free to do and say whatever they need to in order to win without the fear of reprisal. We have to assume this is the path the party will head, much to Donald Trump’s chagrin, as every question he receives for the remaining few months will be prefaced with, “a member of your own party has this to say about you…” The party and Establishment Republicans will at least have some room to move away from their divisive standard-bearer and have a better shot at holding onto Senate and Congressional seats in districts and states that are trending blue.
If the Establishment takes this route and Trump wins, then those that actively opposed his candidacy will most likely be blackballed by the Trump administration while those that supported him will be in line for cabinet and administrative posts. If they take this route and he loses, then those that opposed him will be blamed for sinking his candidacy. Both of these outcomes get interesting in 2018. If a candidate opposes him and he wins, they are probably hoping that his first two years in office are a disaster so they can point to their opposition as a reason they should be reelected. If the candidate opposes him and he loses, then they can at least own the fact that they went against a member of their own party, even if it made the schism in the GOP that much deeper. If the candidate backs him and he loses, then they may have to deal with a primary challenge in 2018 or a tough general election where they are labeled as a supporter of a person that represents the worst the Republican Party has to offer. If they back him and he wins, then their fate is tied to Trump’s and they can only hope he will deliver on a few of his promises and tone down the hateful rhetoric.
Conclusion: Establishment Republicans lack good options left at this stage in the game. Pre-convention, their only positive outcomes comes rely on actively and successfully working to deny him the nomination. Even then they are potentially blowing up their own party as Trump supporters would likely split off. In the general election, which again lacks many good options, they will ultimately have to decide which is more important to save: the party or their majority in the Senate. If they decide party unity is more important, they should back Trump 100% and ensure that his supporters will not flee. This will make holding the Senate tougher because it means aligning candidates with extremely harsh rhetoric and fringe policy ideas. If the GOP decides the Senate majority is more important, they should allow their candidates to say and do as they please in regard to Trump while also denying him party resources. Of course, this would not be lost on Trump and after enough perceived slights he would likely pull his supporters away from the party either directly or in-directly. Ultimately there, are more paths that result in the Republican Party splintering and losing their majority in Senate than there are of either maintain unity or holding the Senate.
Regardless of the path chosen, we do not see a way that the GOP will be able to position themselves well for the 2020 Presidential election; it may be time to get used to the idea of eight years of a Clinton presidency.
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