Competing Perceptions of the Republican Race

ROCHESTER, NY - APRIL 10: Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks during a campaign event at JetSmart Aviation
ROCHESTER, NY - APRIL 10: Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks during a campaign event at JetSmart Aviation Services in Rochester, NY on Sunday April 10, 2016. (Photo by Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

The Republican Party seems to be in the midst of a period of soul-searching, heading into the remainder of the primary season. The viewpoints within the party are all over the map, and even the perception of how the 2016 presidential race is going to play out can be vastly different from Republican to Republican. How it all turns out is anyone's guess at this point, but at least one Republican faction will be able to say "we told you so" at the end of the process. The questions are who is going to be right, and what it will mean for the party going forward.

Those outside the party perceive the situation slightly differently, of course. Democrats can barely contain their glee over the prospect of running against either Donald Trump or Ted Cruz, since they see both as easily-defeatable candidates who may actually allow them to win back control of the Senate -- and perhaps even the House. Any other choice of GOP candidate would have meant a very hard fight just for the Senate and would have put the House control completely out of the question, as most Democrats see it. Either Cruz or Trump will be far easier to run against than many of the other possible 2016 Republican candidates, so Democrats really see a win-win situation at this point, no matter which Republican wins in Cleveland.

The media, of course, just love all the infighting. Conflict sells, and this conflicted race been a doozy so far for ratings. Pundits are now excitably plotting out how an "open convention" is going to happen, which has long been the dream of most political journalists. Open conventions don't just mean conflict and drama, they mean conflict and drama right up to the very end, on the floor of the convention. Made for TV! If Donald Trump does somehow wrap up the necessary delegates before the convention begins, listen for the bitter sounds of disappointment from cable television commentators, as their open convention dreams are crushed.

But media types and Democrats aren't really the ones with the best interests of the Republican Party in mind. What's interesting is the wide range of attitudes coming from Republicans themselves as to the likely outcome of the presidential race and what it could mean for their party. There are some Republicans predicting doomsday for pretty much all of the likely scenarios, in fact. Now, as a note of caution, all of them could be proven wrong to some degree or another. Republicans could win the White House with either Donald Trump or Ted Cruz. Please remember that this presidential contest has already defied all the rules of conventional political wisdom, so literally anything could happen.

Still, the levels of panic emanating from some factions within the Republican Party are pretty notable. The first ones to panic were the establishment Republicans. They've been panicking pretty much non-stop since they first realized that Donald Trump was not, in fact, the joke that they thought he was going to be. Establishment Republicans are walking around in their own personal nightmare these days, as they contemplate the fact that their only two viable remaining choices are Donald Trump and Ted Cruz. Either, as they see it, is going to prove devastating to the Republican Party this November. Both Trump and Cruz (for slightly different reasons) are going to cause massive losses in down-ballot races, pretty much across the board. Republicans rely on demographics like suburban women to win general elections, and if they defect en masse then losing the Senate is almost a certainty. Trump, for fairly obvious reasons, would drive away moderate voters who usually lean Republican -- but then so would Cruz for being so ultra-conservative and uncompromising. The most memorable summation of this way of thinking came from Lindsey Graham, after dropping out and considering the Trump/Cruz choice which remained: "Whether it's death by being shot or being poisoned, does it really matter?" Graham eventually chose the poison, and endorsed Cruz.

It's extraordinary that so many Republicans look at the two frontrunners in their presidential race and foresee nothing but a massive defeat in the fall. This sort of defeatism is usually the province of Democrats, in fact, at least in years gone by. The Machiavellian answer to the choice between Trump and Cruz is to deny both of them the nomination at the convention and pick some white knight to ride in and save the party from itself (Paul Ryan, assumably). This, however, comes with its own risks -- risks that those advocating for such a solution now barely even acknowledge. The biggest danger is a third-party bid by either Trump, Cruz, or both. If the national convention ignores the will of roughly three-fourths of Republican primary voters by choosing someone like Ryan, there are going to be millions of very dissatisfied primary voters (and that's putting it mildly). Both Trump and Cruz campaign against their own party's leadership (in slightly different ways), so their voters are already wary of the party bigwigs. If the convention "steals the nomination" from Trump and Cruz, it's going to be very hard to get those millions of voters back into the Republican fold in time for the general election. Ironically, instead of Ryan being a consensus candidate, he might wind up being the most divisive to the party's base, because both Trump and Cruz voters would be so outraged by the choice.

The Trump voters and the Cruz voters see the party's chances in November differently, of course. The basic argument from the Trump camp is that Trump is drawing in millions of new voters -- people who were so disillusioned with the political process that they normally don't bother to vote at all. These voters are not standard Republican base voters -- they're independents, and even ex-Democrats. The way to win in November is to give millions of these disaffected voters a reason to turn up at the polls, and the wave of new voters will swamp Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders, especially in Rust Belt states like Michigan and Ohio. This argument does have some merit -- Trump has indeed been pulling in new voters, although the extent of this phenomenon is impossible to accurately know everywhere. He's also right that if the industrial Midwest is in play (instead of being solidly in the Democratic column), the road to victory in the Electoral College gets a lot harder for Democrats.

The Cruz camp makes a different argument -- a more traditional one within Republican Party ranks. Their argument is one of purity, plain and simple. The Republican Party (this way of thinking goes) loses presidential elections when it puts up moderates and others who aren't "true" conservatives. When they put up unapologetic fire-breathing conservatives, they win. So rather than undermining the party's chances by running people like John McCain or Mitt Romney or Bob Dole, nominate a dyed-in-the-wool conservative to improve the chances of victory in the fall. Rather than pulling in disaffected moderate voters (as Trump brags he's doing), a real conservative will reignite a fire under disaffected conservative voters, which will propel them to victory. This argument usually points to all the evangelical and socially-conservative voting blocs who didn't turn out for Romney and McCain as evidence that there are indeed enough of these voters to win in November.

Trump's supporters are arguing for something fresh and new to bring in voters that the pollsters don't even currently see. Cruz supporters argue that a pure conservative candidate will reinvigorate the Republican electorate in ways not seen since Ronald Reagan. The establishment Republicans worry that both of these arguments are wrong (if not downright fantasy), and that the only way they've got a prayer is to get someone like Ryan onto the ticket who can still be competitive in all those suburban districts out there. Or, at the very least, someone who can contain the damage in the down-ballot races.

It will be impossible to tell which one of these arguments is the most correct, because Republicans can only nominate one candidate. So two out of three of these scenarios will not even occur this year. The arguments may remain, though -- the "run a true conservative" argument has actually been around for a long time in the GOP. There are six possible outcomes, and only one will wind up happening, so the lessons drawn from the aftermath will be confined to whose argument was actually tested.

If Trump is the nominee and he wins the presidency, the "make the tent bigger" argument will be proven correct. If Trump loses the general, then "he was too extreme" will have been the right way of seeing things all along. If Cruz becomes the Republican nominee and wins the White House, then the Republican Party as a whole is going to take a very serious turn to the right. Purity will rule the day, and any hint of moderation will lead to condemnation (and primary challenges). If Cruz loses to a Democrat, then it may actually bury the "let's run a true conservative" argument for a generation's time, at least. If Ryan runs and nobody gets behind him (either a third party undermines his support, or even just a whole lot of Republican voters stay home and don't vote in November), then we may have an even more vicious fight for who sets the direction of the party the next time around. If Ryan does manage to win in November, then the Republican Party might have a golden opportunity to quash the influence of the Tea Party and all the other purists within their ranks.

No matter what happens, though, there will likely be a continuation of the soul-searching the party is currently engaged in. There are at least three major factions right now, all of whom are convinced that their way of looking at things is right and that everyone else in the party is wrong. Only one of these will even get the chance to prove their theory. No matter who gets the nomination in the end, it may do nothing to unite the party. This means that even beyond the 2016 election, there is most likely going to be a continuing struggle over which direction the party should be heading towards. No matter what happens in the presidential race, it's going to be difficult to reconcile the various perceptions within the Republican ranks -- and it's going to be especially difficult if the Democrat wins in November.

 

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