Will Trump maintain his grip on the Republican Party even if he loses big in November?
Joe Biden currently holds a commanding lead over Donald Trump. He’s ahead by almost ten points in Real Clear Politics’ polling average (Hillary Clinton’s lead at the same point four years ago was five). And his national lead is reflected in the swing states, as a raft of state polls show Biden ahead everywhere from sunbelt states like Florida and Arizona to the critical rustbelt trifecta of Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin.
None of this is to say that the race is over – 14 of the last 16 presidential elections tightened down the stretch, the swing states are a lot closer than the national average, and polling may be more prone to errors than usual right now. But it is time to start thinking seriously about what will happen to the Republican Party if Donald Trump loses decisively in November?
Do breakaway efforts like the never-Trumpers’ Lincoln Project and denunciations from high-profile former Trump cabinet members foretell a fracture of the party, with a significant share of Republicans disavowing Trump, or will they quickly coalesce again in 2021? Will the GOP face enduring rejection by younger voters and college-educated whites over the Trump legacy, or will the party quickly bounce back from a shellacking at the polls? Will the party chart a genuinely new path to deal with increasing demographic diversity and the progressive Gen Z voters coming into the electorate, or will they continue to depend on their higher-turnout but more homogenous older base?
A look at recent history is instructive. And it suggests a relatively swift rebound to the same basic trajectory, positions, and overall messaging that we see today, followed by some big unknowns
In 2004, Republicans were riding high, having won the presidency and both chambers of congress. Presidential guru Karl Rove was gushing about a long-term conservative reign while party leaders openly envisioned a “permanent majority.” Then, the slow-rolling disaster of the Iraq war, an overreach on privatizing Social Security, and the mismanagement of Hurricane Katrina cratered George W. Bush’s standing and the Republican brand nosedived to almost its 30-year floor.
For Republicans, the fall was truly epic, and the low point was truly low. Democrats took over both chambers of Congress in 2006 and Barack Obama completed the sweep by winning the presidency in 2008. George W. Bush went from the highest recorded approval rating on record post-9/11 to the public opinion doghouse, actually scoring consistently lower overall approval than Donald Trump (though Trump has surpassed Bush in disapproval and outrage generation, registering much higher “strong disapproval” numbers).
Clearly, the conditions for a reckoning were ripe. So did Republicans undertake a major overhaul? Not at all. The party stuck with the program, but redefined itself around antagonism to Obama. Senate Republicans drew a sharp line that significantly limited the scale of the American Relief and Recovery Act, stalled the House-passed climate change bill and rallied against the Affordable Care Act so effectively that Democrats were forced into dubious legislative contortions that continue to hobble the law to this day.
Meanwhile, to reinvigorate the party base, former House Majority Leader Dick Armey channeled millions of dollars into seeding the “TEA Party” campaign against health care reform that successfully turned into a summer of raucous town hall protests.
By the eve of the 2010 elections, the Republican identity had recrystallized and the brand had rebounded: the GOP received higher approval ratings than Democrats, while Obama’s approval rating had dropped around twenty points with independents en route to his party’s midterm “shellacking.” The GOP had successfully redefined itself as a party of opposition, pledging zero compromise with Democrats and focusing its messaging around a Democratic president in basic “if he’s for it, then I’m against it” terms. Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell summed up the party’s goals and platform succinctly: “The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president.”
When Republicans subsequently suffered another reversal in 2012 in the form of Mitt Romney’s defeat (Republicans were surprised, expecting a very different electorate to turn out), they made a more serious attempt at soul-searching, performing an “autopsy” to determine whether fundamental changes were needed. The resulting report called for tactical adjustments along with one key strategic change: adopting more moderate views to appeal to racial minorities, especially by embracing immigration reform.
The tactical changes stuck (Democrats were stronger in the digital world of 2012, Republicans are stronger today), but the strategic changes quickly evaporated, backfiring hard on the relatively small number of Republicans who embraced them. Barely two years after the autopsy report was issued its strategic impetus was dead, and future President Donald Trump launched his campaign by calling Mexicans “rapists” and making a southern border wall his signature political issue.
The parallels to 2020 are obvious. The 2008 scenario of a wildly unpopular Republican incumbent, a resurgent Democratic congressional majority, and a national crisis that required significant government intervention led not to Republican dissolution, but rapid consolidation. The hard look in the mirror after 2012 led to improvements in campaign methods, but no moderation.
There are of course relevant differences today. One is the evolution in the current composition of the party itself, led by a surge in support from non-college educated white male voters paired with heavy losses among suburban voters, voters with college degrees, and white women. Trump won the suburbs by 4 points in 2016, but Republicans then lost 37 of the 69 suburban congressional districts they held in the 2018 midterms; Trump won white working-class women by 27 points in 2016 but entered this year tied with Biden among that group. These effects have concentrated the party’s appeal in a narrower slice of the electorate, and would seem to elevate the need for a major pivot if the party hopes to broaden its appeal again.
But for the most part, signs point to a rerun of the 2009 playbook: Republicans will likely have a more conservative group in congress (their most vulnerable incumbents are relative moderates), under the same leadership, and representing a party base that is continually more anti-immigration, socially conservative, and ready to be re-incited by negative partisanship.
A number of prominent Republican insiders were interviewed for this article, and several were granted anonymity to allow them to speak candidly. All of them accepted this basic immediate future scenario – that Republicans are likely to immediately position themselves in January 2021 as a party of conservative counterpunchers to a President Biden, ready to jump on every opportunity to rile up their base and re-energize the party
Beyond that, they identified four big uncertainties that will affect the longer term evolution of the Republican party.
The first is the 800 pound elephant in the room: Donald Trump. On the one hand, Trump currently functions like the rug in “The Big Lebowski” – he kind of ties the room together, and he could continue to play an outsize role. “Trump obliterated the Republican Party ‘swim lanes’ in 2016 between conservatives, libertarians and the establishment, and created a whole new lane, the Trump lane,” said a veteran operative of several Republican campaigns. “He’s the glue for the new coalition in the Party, and a lot of the base is still highly responsive to it. So once the Party starts to get its feet under it in January, he could still matter a lot.”
And indeed, there is no doubt that Donald Trump has almost unprecedented dominance over the major levers of intra-party power: connection with base voters, ability to generate media and communicate his message, fundraising prowess, and allegiance from the party apparatus. The loyalty of Trump supporters has been almost unbreakable: Trump wasn’t too far off when he boasted that he could shoot someone on Fifth Avenue and not lose a single vote (for 62 percent of his supporters, that is literally true). Trump is also likely to remain a media machine – he earned $2 billion in free media coverage in 2016 alone, and if he wants to go around the media (or rev them up) to communicate, he will still have 82 million Twitter followers (30 million on Facebook) plus a direct contact list which could reach 40-60 million by the end of this election cycle.
Trump has also shattered fundraising records and will likely end this cycle as the most prolific fundraising candidate in history, so his ongoing connection to his base promises a significant ability to steer future grassroots dollars. And in every sphere of Republican government and politics, the Trump takeover is almost total: in state parties and elective offices, executive branch agencies, Congress, and the White House itself. State party operatives are so deeply in thrall that even with all of the recent sour news, they still see a landslide coming for Trump. Even if he loses, he will have a loyal cadre in key positions.
But granting the capacity for Trump to play a major role – either constructive or destructive – in shaping a post-2020 Republican party, will it amount to much?
“If Trump wants to be leader of the party he will be,” said Stewart Verdery, a former high-ranking executive branch and senate official who is influential in Republican politics. “But most Republicans don’t think he has an interest in running a Republican party if he’s not President…he might be more interested in creating a media enterprise so he could become more of a super-charged Sean Hannity.”
A current Republican candidate for federal office agreed, and suggested that Trump’s future influence would be limited. “This year, I worried about a tweet from the President or him saying something against me in a primary. But 2018 showed that Trump’s core supporters don’t turn out unless Trump is on the ballot. So if I were running in 2022, I wouldn’t worry too much about it.”
A second question that Republican insiders raised was whether Republicans have crossed a Rubicon in terms of their image and ability to work productively with current Democratic leaders or the media again. “They may wonder if they can ever get a fair shake from the media or from Democrats – who they see as synonymous – and if there’s no upside to playing ball with them, that may make them even more unlikely to try.”
On the other hand, Republicans may conclude that they have to make some kind of effort to separate themselves from the Trump era and tone things down. “The question will be, if Trump loses, will a lot of the remaining Republican officeholders feel that they have to basically apologize for having supported the President in order for them to have an individual political future and in order for the Republican Party to be viable in the suburbs,” said Verdery. “The answer may very well be yes.” This will be especially true if Trump is badly beaten, coming on the heels of down-ballot losses over the last three years.
Third, there is the question of what the Democrats do. To be sure, Republicans are very likely to oppose almost everything. But their ability to turn that opposition into electoral fuel likely hinges to at least some degree on how aggressive Democrats are, much as in the case of the ACA.
Republicans interviewed for this article all believed that especially if the Senate flips and Democrats achieve unified control of the legislative and executive branches, there will be significant pressure to lean left on issues like immigration, taxes, and climate in ways that would be, in the words of one insider, “easy to demagogue.” Threading the needle of meeting the sky-high expectations of highly progressive Democrats while avoiding handing Republicans obvious political gifts will be a monumentally complex task for a President Biden – one that may be impossible to achieve.
Finally, there is the question that probably weighs most heavily on the minds of the Republicans gearing up to run for President in 2024 (the current starting list includes Vice President Mike Pence, former UN Ambassador Nikki Haley, and Sens. Tom Cotton, Josh Hawley, and Ted Cruz), and really any candidate facing a contested race in the next two cycles: is it possible to be a political successor to Trump without behaving like Trump?
On the one hand, the Republican operative argued that “Trump’s political estate is uniquely nontransferable,” because no one else can perform the proper alchemy of outrage into base energy. As former Republican Senator Judd Gregg said of Trump’s core supporters: “They’re more interested in the verbal jockeying and the confrontational verbal approach than the results…so as long as he’s poking a stick in the eye of the people his constituency feels are a problem, the rest [doesn’t] matter.” One can’t simply separate the policy positions from the incendiary grenades – the grenades are the point.
But on the other hand, the dynamics of negative partisanship may be enough to compensate for the loss of Trump in the Trumpian base agitation formula. “Republicans will try to boil it all down to what the last four years would look like if Trump weren’t so awful,” the operative continued. “What has he actually done? Using that approach, they’ll definitely do everything they can to inherit the legacy of Trumpsim without Trump...and it’s probably going to work.”
In short, an immediate post-Trump 2021 scenario seems relatively clear, but the longer term trajectory starts to get hazy fast especially considering some of the big, structural questions hanging over American politics for the coming decade. For example, will Democrats be able to enact reforms to limit political gerrymandering and increase voter access? Do increasing numbers of black, Latino, and highly progressive younger voters really put Republicans on an ever-shrinking political iceberg, or are changing demographics a political mirage that will continue to dissipate as voters age and racial self-identification evolves?
And can Republicans sow a new opposition campaign in 2021 to reactivate their base without reaping the whirlwind? After all, that’s what happened last time: the TEA Party movement was a wild success right up to the point that it broke Republican lab containment, resulting in House Majority Leader Eric Cantor losing in a primary and a disastrous set of Republican nominees that kept the Senate in Democratic hands until 2015.
All of these questions represent genuine uncertainties. But there is at least a trail of breadcrumbs toward the path that Republicans will likely tread.
For example, while there is a lot of evidence that Trump will have the capacity to exert major influence, his presidency has demonstrated that he lacks the discipline to actually use that power effectively. His future interventions in Republican politics are apt to wax and wane around his perceived opportunities to promote his own image and self-interest. He may become a super-charged Hannity, but will have a hard time sustaining a guiding hand on the wheel.
In turn, this makes it likely that while Republicans will unite against a common Democratic enemy, they will have a hard time either shaking off the Trumpian image entirely or leveraging it to their advantage as a consistent base-motivation tool. Given research showing that Trump’s endorsement is a bitter pill that has cost Republicans a net of 15 seats in Congress, a post-presidency Trump and the Republican Party could be facing an ugly divorce, ending up in an awkward joint custody of their core voters.
It also seems likely that Democrats will risk some 2010-style blowback. Joe Biden has already shifted palpably left both in policy and tone, while progressive congressional primary challengers have struck fear in longtime incumbents, thereby giving them incentives to shore up their progressive credentials. If they’re perceived as moving too far, it would not only help Republicans consolidate, but also potentially create inroads to some of the suburban voters that they have shed in the past three years.
In this scenario, a great deal could therefore depend on Democrats’ ability to enact voting reforms: reducing the artificially-inflated number of easy Republican districts would at least even the playing field once a President Biden gives Republicans something to rally against (of course, if Democrats gain enough state legislative control they could also abandon principle and enact some political gerrymandering of their own in a moment of penny-wise, pound-foolish retribution).
What ultimately emerges is a highly fluid future, chock full of dangers, toils, and snares across the political spectrum. Nothing will be easy to navigate. “What to do next is a dilemma for Republicans, but it’s tough for Democrats too,” said the Republican operative. “Having Trump papers over a lot of things for Democrats right now, but they can’t get caught in the endless cycle of running against everyone as if they were Trump. It may look bleak for Republicans today, but it really could turn either way down the line, and 2024 will ultimately belong to the party that stays nimble and figures out its post-Trump strategy.”