A GOP Future that Could Please No One

Parties and Activists Don’t Always Follow Electoral interests

In an op-ed on January 25, Hans Noel wrote that it was unlikely that the Republican Party would separate between the traditional party and the Patriot’s Party suggested by Donald Trump. Parties need pluralities to win, and both party factions need to cooperate in order to be numerous enough to defeat Democrats. David Hopkins writes that Never Trump centrists have little choice but to hope for President Biden’s success, as long as the Republican Party condones the positions and tactics of the Trump wing of the party.

Given how unpredictable politics have been since Trump was nominated, it is worth exploring how the Republican Party could trod down alternative paths.   

Parties don’t always rationally maximize votes

Whatever happens, parties have often departed from Downsian, vote maximizing logic. In California, Colorado, and Virginia, state Republicans have had years to adapt to an increasingly liberal state electorate and failed to do so. Many, if not most, party activists would rather lose with a true believer than win with someone more electable. The Republicans might have had continuous control of the Senate since 2010 if they had not nominated candidates like Richard Murdouck, Todd Aiken, Christine O’Donnell, Sharon Angle, and Kelly Loeffler. The Leadership Institute’s Morton Blackwell told me an in interview he would support Christine O’Donnell all over again. Her Republican primary contender, Mike Castle, “might have won, but he would have been a thorn” in the Republican Party’s side forever. In 2014, Chamber of Commerce Republicans nominated less controversial nominees with difficulty.

If a Republican other than Trump had been the 2016 nominee, the party might also have one more Senator from New Hampshire and two from Arizona. After losing the election in 2020, Trump snatched Senate defeat from the jaws of victory by peddling conspiracy theories about the election with the acquiescence of congressional leaders.

In sum, Republican Party activists have shown that they can nominate people who do not hold the party together. In 2022 and 2024, Republicans might therefore fail to nominate someone who can to both the kinds of voters who think Mitt Romney’s positions are treasonous and the kinds of voters who think Donald Trump was treasonous. Positions on Trump’s behavior since November are dealbreakers to many voters.

Small spoiler parties may form and change election outcomes

If so, third parties could be the only outlet for the small faction of Republicans that intensely dislike both the Democratic agenda and Trump. For reasons I describe in this post, people who see good and bad in both parties are unlikely to change either through primary challenges.

When splinter parties can obtain more than ten percent of the popular vote, parties do incorporate their messages. In 1912, the Progressive “Bull Moose” Party actually had a chance of winning as an alternative to both parties. Woodrow Wilson belonged to a party that traditionally distrusted centralized bureaucracy, but created centralized bureaucracies to cater to Progressive voters. Bill Clinton catered to H. Ross Perot’s Reform Party agenda. The Liberty and Free-Soil Party paved the way for a new party system where slavery was no longer suppressed from the agenda.

An anti-Trump party on the right may coalesce even if it has no hope of achieving the double-digit popular votes of these parties. Just as the major parties indulge the wishful thinking of party activists, third parties can overestimate their own strength.

If American elections continue to be close, small parties consuming single digits can change election outcomes. Their explicit goal is sometimes threatening to spoil the election so that major parties incorporate their positions. In Kentucky, Libertarians relished Bevin’s defeat as punishment for not throwing them a bone, tweeting “Had Matt Bevin not presided over a huge sales tax increase, had Matt Bevin supported any of our key issues on criminal justice reform, marijuana legalization, expanded gaming, cutting taxes, or acted with the least bit of civility, we probably would not have run a candidate. We split the vote. And we could not be more thrilled. For the Bevin supporters, your tears are delicious.”

Thus far, anti-Trump Republicans have not demonstrated that they could do significantly better than the Green or Libertarian Party. If 39 percent of Americans identify as or lean Republican and 10 percent of Republicans are still “Never Trump,” an anti-Trump Republican Party might obtain 4 percent of the votes, and that’s only if they don’t split their votes with Democrats.  If anything, there is more room for a new party of Trump. In a poll by Scott Rasmussen, 23 percent of the voters would support a “Patriot Party” committed to Trump and 17 percent of the voters would support the Republican Party even offered the chance to vote for the Patriot Party.

Parties can ignore small third parties even if they are consequential

Parties sometimes refuse to change in response to a small but pivotal percent of the electorate. As I show in First to the Party, both the Republican and Democratic Party were aware that African Americans might decide the outcome of the election of 1944, since they constituted a growing percent of the vote in states like Illinois and New York. The Democrats offered only a vague promise to follow the Constitutional protections of civil rights, and almost nominated segregationist James Byrnes as the vice president to the moribund Franklin Roosevelt. It was not an electoral calculation, but the intervention of the CIO, that stopped Byrnes’ nomination. The Republicans offered an ambitious platform in 1944 that included a Fair Employment Practices Commission, an anti-lynching law, and the abolition of the poll tax. Yet the Republicans did nothing to advance these proposals when they gained control of Congress, and the House Republican leaders admitted that they would lose their support from industrialists if they passed an anti-discrimination law.

Many speculate that the Libertarian and Green Parties spoiled the election for Al Gore, Hillary Clinton, Donald Trump, and Kentucky Governor Matt Bevin with under 3 percent of the vote. The intensely negative and fearful responses voiced by Democrats when Schultz was exploring a third party run showed Democrats believe there could have been enough centrist voters to spoil the 2020 election. Regardless of the real impact of these third parties, party activists believe they can spoil the election and worry about their impact. Yet there is little evidence that parties have made changes to accommodate either the Libertarian or the Green Parties, or the hypothetical supporters of Howard Schultz. If parties have not changed in response to them, it is unclear they would change in response to an anti-Trump conservative party.

In a proportional or ranked choice voting system, other parties might at least win seats in the legislature without a majority. Electoral reforms such as these are unlikely to arrive in most of the U.S. before the next election. There is a plausible case that Republicans will not bridge the divide within party factions. And so the agonizing future could be one in which Democrats and Republicans are frustrated with anti-Trump Republicans ruining elections, while the third parties are frustrated because the major parties do not change in response.

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