John Kasich has decided to end his bid for the presidency, ending the GOP primary campaign and leaving Donald J. Trump as the uncontested leader of the Republican Party. Needless to say, this was not part of the plan when the party decided after 2012 that it needed to make some changes in order to update its brand for the future. In fact, Trump was exactly the opposite of what it had in mind.
So now that Trump has taken control of the GOP, how is the image Americans have of this party going to change?
In order to answer that question, you have to first understand where the party is now. And there’s a contradiction at work. On one hand, the GOP has never been stronger. It controls both houses of Congress, a majority of governorships, and a majority of state legislatures. On the other hand, it’s increasingly unpopular at the national level.
For instance, the Pew Research Center recently reported that while the Democratic Party is viewed unfavorably by 50 percent of the public and favorably by 45 percent, for a net favorability of minus five, the Republican Party is viewed unfavorably by 62 percent and favorably by 33 percent, for a net favorability of minus 29. The latest Gallup poll shows that more Americans call themselves Democrats than Republicans by a margin of 49-41. Given the high degree of party loyalty voters demonstrate today, if that figure were to represent the November electorate, Hillary Clinton would be essentially guaranteed to win. In 2012, 92 percent of Democrats voted for Barack Obama and 93 percent of Republicans voted for Mitt Romney, but Obama won easily because more of the people who went to the polls associated themselves with the Democratic Party. And that’s before you take into account the possibility of significant numbers of Republicans defecting to Clinton or just choosing not to vote.
But what has Republicans really worried is that Trump will do more than lose the election, he’ll tarnish the entire party in the process. He’s more than a missed opportunity to update the party’s brand, he actually drags it backward.
For decades, the GOP has built its identity on what I call the Four Pillars of Conservatism: small government, low taxes, strong defense, and traditional social values. They provide an easy-to-understand template for every Republican running for any office from dog catcher to president, they bind Republicans with different agendas in common cause, and their constant repetition cements the party’s image in voters’ minds. But Donald Trump, now the leader of this party, has shown only sporadic interest in any of them, with the possible exception of a strong defense. Instead, he has built his candidacy on ethno-nationalist appeals, scapegoating immigrants and Muslims and making it absolutely clear that he is leading a movement of, by, and for white people.
It isn’t that this is foreign to the GOP, just that it’s so blatant as to remove all plausible deniability. Trump takes the ugly appeals they used to make with dog whistles and euphemisms, and puts them right out in the open. It’s the difference between a guy in a trench coat saying “Psst, buddy, want to buy some racism and xenophobia? Follow me into this alley…”, and a guy standing on a soapbox in the middle of Times Square shouting “Get yer racism and xenophobia here!”
Among other things, that alienates moderates who don’t want to think that they’re voting for a reactionary party. That’s something Karl Rove and George W. Bush understood — when they created “compassionate conservatism” and had Bush take endless smiling photos with black and Hispanic people, the real target wasn’t minorities themselves but white moderates who wanted reassurance that they were voting for an open, inclusive party.
But that idea is dead, at least for this election. Trump likes to come out after a primary win and say how great he did among various demographic groups (even if much of the time he’s just making up results out of nowhere) — I won with women, I won with “the blacks,” I won with “the Hispanics”! But if the election were held right now, Trump would not just lose but likely lose by record margins among women, among African-Americans, among Hispanics, among Asian-Americans, among people with college educations — basically among every group except blue-collar white men.
So Trump takes what was a challenge for the party — their reliance on a diminishing portion of the population and their struggles appealing to all the portions of the population that are growing — and makes it dramatically worse.
How persistent will the effects be? At the moment it’s impossible to tell. It might be that Trump will tarnish the GOP brand for a generation or more, particularly among voters just now coming of age. Republican candidates at all levels are going to be confronted with the question of not just whether they support Trump’s election, but whether they support anything he might do. Do you think Donald Trump should appoint the next Supreme Court justice? Do you think Donald Trump’s finger should be on the nuclear button? Do you think Donald Trump is a good role model for children?
If you’re a Republican running for any office, you might want to come up with answers for those questions. That’s why Democrats are now fantasizing about not just taking back the Senate, but the House as well, something that seemed impossible a few months ago.
On the other hand, voters might see the ample number of Republicans criticizing Trump and conclude that as odious as he might be, he doesn’t actually represent his party. And it’s even possible that Trump’s inverse coattails (perhaps we should call them “exhaust fumes”) won’t have much effect on races below the presidential one. As Molly Ball points out, “A funny thing has happened to the Tea Party’s brand of anti-incumbent fervor in the age of Trump. In down-ballot primaries, antiestablishment conservatives have largely flopped… It is as if Trump had provided an outlet for all the primary electorate’s rage, leaving their local representatives unscathed.”
Something similar could happen in the general election: the broad electorate could express its disgust with the GOP by voting against its presidential nominee, but still re-elect most Republican members of Congress and state legislators.
That wouldn’t solve the Republican Party’s problem of how to win the White House in a nation that grows more diverse while their party narrows its appeal. But at this point it’s about the best outcome they can hope for.