The 2016 election has turned into a nightmare for the Republican Party.
With Donald Trump ensnared in a wave of scandals, allegations, and feuds — many of his own making — a considerable number of Republican elected officials have taken the unusual step of withdrawing support for their party’s presidential nominee. In a race that should have been tight but winnable, Hillary Clinton now has a considerable lead in national and state polls.
If Trump does indeed lose, some party officials may interpret a Trump defeat simply as a repudiation of the candidate’s weaknesses. But whatever damage Trump’s actions have done to his support, that conclusion ignores the considerable problems within the GOP coalition that long predated 2016.
Specifically, Republicans for decades have had trouble winning over black, minority and female voters. All the way back in 1976, then-Kansas Sen. Bob Dole said in a speech to the Republican Governors Association that the GOP had an “anti-people image” and would need to reach out to “women, the young, the blacks, the Hispanics, the ethnics,” and “the Indians.”
But in the past 40 years, the GOP has largely failed to heed Dole’s call. To be sure, the party’s considerable strength among white (male) voters allowed it to win three landslide presidential races in the 1980s, take Congress in 1994 and achieve major victories in 2010 and 2014. But if Trump loses, Democrats will have won five out of seven presidential elections since 1992. That is largely a product of their overwhelming support among black, Hispanic, and Asian American voters, and considerable advantages among women and young people.
As the GOP’s post-2012 “autopsy report” acknowledged, older white male voters are a shrinking demographic, making outreach to minority and female voters essential. But how does the party appeal to voters who are currently voting for Democrats without embracing policy positions, such as immigration reform, that are unacceptable to a major subset of its current base?
What the GOP can learn from the 1956 Democrats
Some answers might come from an unlikely source: the 1956 Democratic Party, which had to deal with a similar coalitional challenge.
At first glance, 1956 may not seem to have been a particularly bad election for Democrats. Although Republican Dwight D. Eisenhower won a predictable reelection victory in a landslide, Democrats maintained their small majorities in the House and Senate.
But they had seen a major drop in support of black and union voters, part of the backbone of the party’s coalition. Eisenhower, for instance, managed to win nearly 40 percent of black votes in 1956.
Liberals feared this shift would be permanent, robbing Democrats of a crucial base. They laid the blame at the feet of the party’s complicated national coalition.
At the time, the Democratic Party consisted of two ideological wings: a minority of (Southern) conservatives and a majority of liberals. Throughout the New Deal years, this coalition provided the party with majorities in the House, Senate and electoral college. But to keep conservatives on board, liberals had to make considerable concessions — most notably in terms of civil rights and labor issues.
By 1956, black and union voters had had enough. Liberal Democrats realized that they could no longer please Southern conservatives and Northeast liberals at the same time.
The Democrats’ response to a fractious coalition
To solve this problem, liberals, including Democratic National Committee Chairman Paul Butler, used the DNC to provide a radical solution.
For the first time, the DNC claimed the right to set policy positions for the national party and used this to rebrand the Democratic Party as a solidly liberal organization, supporting civil rights, pro-union legislation, the creation of Medicaid and increased government spending.
Each of these ran counter to the wishes of Southern Democrats. But liberals thought that the greater good of the party required it to drop these voters and elected officials to remain competitive among a larger group of voters across the country.
They didn’t do this behind closed doors. In a TV interview a few weeks before the 1958 midterms, Butler told Southern conservatives that “if they did not like the party’s official stand in favor of [civil rights] they could find asylum either with the Republicans or in a third political party.”
As political scientist James Sundquist concluded, the “uncompromisingly liberal stand” of the DNC helped convince liberal voters that the “outright defiance” of Southern Democrats on civil rights “was not the Democratic Party’s position.” Similarly, political scientist Philip Klinkner argues that the DNC’s shift to the left helped “the party to formulate what was ultimately a successful agenda for the 1960 campaign.”
Of course, the 1956 response did not magically solve the Democrats’ problems. The party’s move to the left meant its Southern support in presidential elections began to collapse. Eventually, this expanded to House and Senate races, ending the Democrats’ perpetual majorities in Congress. The shift also allowed the GOP to move into the vacuum left behind and develop its “Southern strategy” in the presidential election campaigns of Richard M. Nixon and Ronald Reagan.
Liberals argued, however, that if the party had not shifted, the Democrats would have been in even worse shape.
Republicans had begun to be competitive in the South, with Eisenhower winning close to 50 percent of the vote in both 1952 and 1956. Liberals argued that the party’s coalition was untenable, and that it would cost it the dominant position in the North, leave it with conservative Southern Democrats in Congress who voted with Republicans on many issues, and lose any plausible path to a majority in the electoral college. Democrats would thus become a permanent minority party.
2016 Republicans may face a similar dilemma
If Trump loses in November, Republican leaders have a similar choice. They can continue along the same path they have followed in recent years, or they can try to actively compete for a growing segment of the voting population. The latter will require Republican leaders in Congress or the Republican National Committee to fully embrace policy positions that would allow them to genuinely compete for minority votes.
Doing so, of course, would not play well with a core element of the GOP’s base — and could hurt the party in 2018 and 2020. It also is unlikely that minority voters will flock to the GOP the moment the party changed its positions. The risk is losing electoral strength in the short term in exchange for uncertain improvement in the long term.
The question Republicans may need to ask is whether, without change, the party is setting itself up for an even worse future.
Boris Heersink is a PhD candidate in the Woodrow Wilson Department of Politics at the University of Virginia.