Will Trump’s Expected Super Tuesday Rout Force the Remaining GOP Moderates to Flee the Party in the Fall?

The fracturing of the Republican Party that has led to Donald Trump’s rise in 2016’s nominating contests is likely to continue into the fall and could push millions of GOP moderates to vote for a Democrat as they find the party has left them behind.   

That's the stunning takeaway from a report based on nationwide polls of Republican voters by Democracy Corps, a polling firm with a long history of working for Democrats. They are saying that the extremist Tea Party and evangelical flanks that have driven 2016’s primaries and caucuses are fundamentally alienating the party’s centrist blocs, which come next fall may be “equally disruptive for the Republican Party.”

In short, they could end up voting for a Democratic presidential candidate because they already are persuaded that Trump is an egomaniac, cannot be trusted on national security and is deeply misogynist, anti-immigrant and a climate change denier. Those conclusions, coupled with a Democratic nominee who embraces their concerns, especially long-term infrastructure investment, meaningful corporate governance and ending the culture wars, could “dislodge” the GOP moderates, Democracy Corps writes.  

These are not the Republican voters who are driving the nominating contests, such as a dozen-plus states that will vote or caucus on Super Tuesday. But they are blocs in the party that Democracy Corps said has prompted “an explosive civil war inside the GOP [that] can move significant numbers of voters out of the Republican camp.”

“That may seem like hyperbole, but this one kind of survey is an eye-opening glimpse into what is really happening inside one of our major national political parties,” they write. The hatred of all-things-Obama, fear of immigrants and increasing racial diversity have  “allowed Donald Trump to surge ahead of the field… But there are deep fissures inside the base as well as the GOP is poised to crack wide open.”

Republican moderates—who are not observant Catholics, evangelicals, nor Tea Party supporters, and are solidly pro-choice on abortion—make up 31 percent of the GOP base, Democracy Corps said. “About one in five are poised to defect from the party.”

Where Republicans Agree and Disagree

“This is a divided party,” Democracy Corps wrote, before deconstructing the near-term support for Trump and longer-term splits in the party’s base that may come into play in the 2016 presidential election.

The party is divided on key issues, but there also is broad agreement in some areas that Trump has been able to tap into, they said. “This party is not divided on its fundamental doubts and fears about Democratic [Party] governance and immigration. It is not divided on supporting leaders who will battle to get immigration under control. That is what Donald Trump understands.”

Conservative issues that have long separated the two major parties, such as “national defense, regulation, markets and taxes just are not that important at the moment,” they said. Instead, the current Republican “voter hostility” is most powerfully focused on “Hillary Clinton, the Democratic Party, the Affordable Care Act, President Obama and his [perceived] attacks on the Constitution,” and “all the frontrunning [GOP] candidates have given strong voice to this attack, although they apparently think Trump will finally fight, unlike the feckless leaders of the party.”

Race and immigration are current drivers of Republican primary season voters, they said. “It does not matter what faction you look at, Republican voters are uncomfortable with immigrant diversity; they think illegal immigration is out of control and want their leaders to fight it,” they report. “A stunning 87 percent of Republicans, including 70 percent of moderates, say they want their party’s nominee to fight the acceptance of the 12 million undocumented immigrants living in the country and the growing proportion of foreign born in our major cities.”

Those findings account for Trump’s rise. But real schisms appear in the four major blocks that comprise the party. On the furthest right are Tea Partiers (17 percent) and then Evangelicals (30 percent), who tend to live in conservative heartland states. In the middle are observant Catholics (14 percent), who tend to live on the East Coast and nearby states, and GOP moderates (31 percent), which includes the largest numbers of college-educated voters and women. “Observant Catholics form 14 percent of the base and align with social conservatives on many issues,” Democracy Corps said. “But on other important issues, observant Catholics and moderates break with the conservative bloc and form an opposing bloc that counts for 45 percent of the base.”

The “most important factor” fueling Trump is his support among GOP moderates, they noted. “He understands that they too want to fight the Democrats and immigration, but they are also hostile to pro-life groups and sympathetic to Planned Parenthood… The moderate base voters are heavily pro-choice on abortion” and the GOP establishment candidates like Rubio are uncompromisingly anti-choice.

But then there are ways the moderates stand apart from the rest of the GOP base, and these factors could end pushing several million into voting for a Democrat in the fall. First, they accept “the sexual revolution. A pretty stunning 86 percent of them say, half strongly, that the Republican nominee should accept that ‘women and men feel free to have sex without any interest in getting married, forming a family or a long-term relationship,’” they report. “Moderates also have very distinct views on gay marriage,” they continue. “Three-quarters, including half strongly, say the party should accept the legality of gay marriage and move on.”

“The significance of their attitudes on pro-life groups and Planned Parenthood is evident in their primary process, oddly putting them on Trump’s reach,” Democracy Corps wrote. “But their views on the sexual revolution, gay marriage, the role of women and the modern family also create the potential for fractures in the [fall’s] general election.”

There are other big issues where party factions are at odds, splitting the far-right Tea Party/evangelical wing from the more centrist observant Catholics and moderates. These include gun control, climate change and the role of government. “Observant Catholics are actually more open in principle to the idea that government must be a check on the free market in order to ‘best serve the public interest,’” Democracy Corps reports. “They may be listening to Pope Francis. They also are most ready to support those earning over $250,000 paying ‘a lot more in taxes.’”

These Catholics and moderates also support gun control and accept that climate change is real. “A majority of observant Catholics and two-thirds of moderates say reporting that 2015 was the hottest year on record and the consensus of scientists on climate change is true, not the fiction of the liberal media,” Democracy Corps reports. “The moderates are also in a different place than the rest of their party on the environment and climate change. Over 60 percent say that global warming is real, produced by human activity, and now requires serious measures to address it.”  

And on gun control, they found that “while the N.R.A. receives intense support from the Tea Party wing and evangelical bloc, that is not true for the observant Catholics and moderates where support is barely half of that for the religious conservative bloc.”

Looking Toward November

Democracy Corps found that one-fifth of Republicans said they would not vote for Trump, “saying they will vote for another candidate, don’t know or will not vote.” But “5 percent of Republicans say they will vote for Clinton.” They note this “fragmantation of the base is most evident with the moderates.”

“Those dislodged voters respond to the attacks on Trump and positive Democratic messages,” they said. “The strongest attacks on Trump charge he is an egomaniac who cares more about himself than the country, that he is disrespectful toward women, that he is a threat to national security and should not have control of our nuclear weapons.”

Moreover, these same voters are receptive to some core Democratic Party stances, they said. “The three strongest messages focused on long-term investment in infrastructure, changing CEO and corporate rules to encourage [domestic] investment, and getting beyond [political warfare on] social issues to address the country’s problems.”

Democracy Corps asked its poll’s respondents who they were supporting at the start and finish of the survey. Only the evangelicals stayed firm. “But Clinton gains support among Tea Party voters—a 10 point shift in margin. There is a comparable shift in margin among the moderates. Finally, Trump’s support collapses among the observant Catholics, falling from 70 percent to just 56 percent.”

The report concludes with a statement that’s likely to be easily overlooked as the nation watches the returns come in from Super Tuesday’s votes. “Everyone has been surprised by Trump’s extraordinary rise in the GOP primary, but it is clear from this survey that the general election may be equally disruptive for the Republican Party.” 

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