This presidential election is many things, but one thing it is not is ordinary. The principal goal of any political party is to win elections. In a dominant two-party system like the U.S., the Democrats and Republicans compete every two years for control of the government. For the Republicans, this is a critical year not just in terms of achieving the electoral goal for the party organization’s survival.
The response of the party’s rank and file to the atypical primary results coupled with the discourteous tone and tenor among the Republican candidates have revealed to observers just how internally conflicted the GOP is.
The split in party unity was set into motion almost a decade ago. The Republican Party has had long-standing internal disagreements between moderate and conservatives on issues concerning questions over the proper role of the government, racial minorities and women. These disagreements have created obstacles to mobilizing necessary and important voting blocs in recent election cycles.
After the 2012 defeat of Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan, the Republican Party contemplated its future in an uncommon public display of introspective examination. In an election that should have been competitive for the GOP, it struggled to promote a united platform. The party struggled to unite its traditional coalitions of support and engage independents and non-voters. Leadership at the national committee acknowledged that failure to be wholly inclusive cost the Republicans the White House.
The party’s organization and stakeholders, however, have yet to find middle ground on how to resolve the dilemma. With the shifting demographics in America, the electoral consequences will be severe for the party that cannot adapt to this emergent electorate. Without engaging new and diverse populations of voters, the party and its success wither.
Tea party emergence
The Republican Party is battling its own tale of two agendas. Efforts to revitalize the party resulted in a Republican splinter group, the tea party.
The tea party emerged as an official group in the spring of 2009. Partisan splinter groups have a history of disrupting party stability. Both parties have experienced the frustrations associated with splinter groups. For the Democrats, the rise of the Dixiecrats in 1948 championed by Strom Thurmond, presented ideological problems for the Democrats’ electoral and policy goals for almost a decade and a half.
The obstacle the tea party created for the overall party organization is that it galvanized an enduring ideological split between moderates and conservatives. There are two groups under the Republican label competing against each other for political office. This internal conflict left the party vulnerable to outside candidates such as Donald J. Trump, who waltzed into the presidential contest and clinched front-runner status by attracting voters to the party that the Republicans seem hesitant to embrace. This is another impending challenge in itself.
The Trump effect
There are many questions about this year being a critical election year, or an electoral realignment for the GOP.
A critical election is one that polarizes voters around new issues or personalities. Now that the primary-saturated month of March has passed, Republican voters are polarized by Donald Trump and Ted Cruz. The issues at play in the cycle are merely new interpretations of stubborn and enduring problems.
According the Gallup Poll and the Pew Research Center, prior to the 2012 presidential election, the Republican Party’s base support was 63 percent white, conservative and religious. In 2016, the myths perpetuated about Trump supporters are skewed and merit a serious analysis because they help explain Trumps primary successes.
Trump’s candidacy is popular among white, male, middle- and lower-income groups with at a least high school education. Where Trump mirrors the Republican Party is in the struggle to win support among women — 47 percent of men support Trump compared to just 28 percent of women.
Often, Trump supporters qualify as blue-collar workers earning less than $50,000, a traditional Democratic progressive-era coalition. Trump is also attracting support from non-voters who feel disenfranchised. The reasons they report feeling inefficacious are myriad, but they are unifying under Trump’s political branding.
The GOP “Stop Trump” campaign seems to only be intensifying Trump’s support among fragmented groups of voters. Trump’s rhetoric is unifying voters that otherwise would have no common reason to align. Until March, the party apparatus was largely dismissive of Trump’s momentum, and, now, party leaders must acknowledge the salience of these newly formed coalitions (at least for their short-term consequences).
If Trump is the Republican nominee in the general election (notwithstanding the discussion of a contested convention), he would draw voter support to the Republican ticket from traditional democratic voting blocs and non-voters who are responsive to his personality and rhetoric. However, those voters may not stick with the Republicans after 2016 and, therefore, it would only be a critical election without a party realignment.
However, the question of realignment is contingent on a few ingredients.
An electoral realignment is a dramatic shift that occurs when the pattern of group support for a political party changes in a way that endures several election cycles. There is solid evidence suggesting the Republican Party is experiencing some political transfiguration. However, the evidence available to date does not suggest the type of realignment where the Republican Party is replaced. The Republican label will likely survive, but the base coalitions that the GOP has relied on for previous victories are changing.
The party organization’s impending strategies on how to move forward at the convention will have some impact on the question of electoral realignment for the GOP and ultimately its success in November.