Much has been made of a fractured Republican Party this election season. The debates have been described as cafeteria food fights or resembling spin offs of the Jerry Springer show. Most all of the energy this Fall has been focused on the Republican Party.
A kerfuffle among Republican House members over the succession of John Boehner's speakership highlighted tensions within the party. The nearly month-long struggle to select a successor allowed the more ideologically driven members of the party to flex their collective muscle relative to moderates in the party. Differences regarding immigration, national security, and fiscal policy have pitted Republicans against one another in recent years.
These same dynamics are present among the party's 2016 presidential hopefuls. Different factions of the party are represented in the field--from moderate, establishment Republicans, to social conservative Republicans, to libertarian Republicans, to Tea Party Republicans. And then, there is Donald Trump.
Trump defies categorization. His presence has brought a great deal of energy as well as insults to the Republican field. The continued success of Trump along with fellow "outsiders" Ben Carson and Ted Cruz has taken many observers by surprise. So much so that there is growing concern among Republican politicos that the bickering and insults will ultimately spell doom to the party in the 2016 general election.
The Washington Post recently ran a piece questioning whether it is "time for the GOP to panic." The article cites mounting concern that no establishment Republican has been able to gain traction and the very real possibility that Trump, Carson or Cruz could win the nomination. Throughout the Fall, Trump and Carson have taken positions or have made statements that 1) pit them against the Republican establishment 2) would hurt them in a general election campaign if they were to secure the party's nomination and 3) would weaken the chances of any GOP candidate against their likely Democratic foe, Hillary Clinton.
Rhetoric has ranged from charges by Donald Trump that Ben Carson's life story is bogus to Carson questioning the authenticity of Trump's faith. At the same time, both Trump and Carson have profited from their insurgent status by attacking the rest of the field for being typical mainstream politicians who are beholden to big campaign donors.
While a lot of insults are flying on the campaign trail, one thing Republicans can agree on is their antipathy toward Hillary Rodham Clinton. The mention of her name is akin to nails on a chalkboard to many in the party. Thus, she is the secret weapon of a seemingly splintered Republican Party. It certainly was no accident that the wifi password for reporters at the last Republican debate was "StopHillary."
Thus far, those running against "politics as usual" have enjoyed success in the polls (e.g., Trump, Carson, Cruz, and Sanders). Hillary Clinton is establishment personified. A majority of Republicans are looking for an outsider candidate, which gives them further motivation to campaign against a Hillary run for the presidency.
Clinton is very well known and with that comes relatively stable polling numbers. However, it also comes with baggage. She is viewed more unfavorably than favorably in each of the last 10 polls released on the HuffPost Pollster. Only Donald Trump has a higher unfavorable rating than Clinton (53 percent to 49 percent).
Unlike 2008 when a great deal of enthusiasm was generated in the Obama-Clinton contest, it appears at this point much of that enthusiasm is lacking--for Clinton. Nearly 80 percent of Sanders voters in NH are enthusiastically supporting him compared to just 39 percent of Hillary backers. Another survey suggests that 27 percent of Democratic primary voters would support her with some reservations, 11 percent would only support her because she would be the party's nominee and 14 percent claim they would not support her in a general election. The Obama coalition (minorities, millennials, and single women) is not nearly as engaged as prospective GOP voters are regarding the 2016 contest. Even if she is able to have the party coalesce around her candidacy, translating support into votes may prove to be a difficult task.
That HRC isn't able to generate enthusiasm among the Democratic base is telling. Ironically, I suggest a Hillary candidacy will create a great deal of energy among the Republican base. I suspect she will be the biggest fundraiser for Republicans and the star of their nominee's advertisements next Fall. So for Republicans concerned about a divisive Primary season, they can take heart that a secret weapon awaits--Hillary Clinton: the great uniter. . . of Republicans.
If Hillary makes it through the primaries (which most believe she will), the 2016 election will decidedly be about her. While her supporters will be working to energize and mobilize voters to turn out to the polls, her opponents will actively be campaigning not so much for the Republican nominee, but instead invoking a Hillary presidency to energize voters to turn out and prevent that from happening. In the end, the best way to unite Republicans won't happen because of reconciliation over policy or ideology, but will arise from a desire to "Stop Hillary."