Donald Trump and the Fragility of the GOP

 

Donald Trump’s first place run has lasted a month and a half now, longer than those of all the 2012 pretenders. (Gingrich lasted a month, Perry nearly six weeks.) The likelihood of his nomination is not what I want to talk about today. What I do want to talk about is what Trump’s continued success and Ben Carson’s surge says about the state of the GOP.

On Sunday, an NBC/Marist poll out of Iowa once again showed Donald Trump in front. He scored at 29 percent. In second was Carson at an impressive 22 percent. Most notable is that those two numbers combined reaches 51 percent. In other words, a majority of Iowa voters are supporting someone with no political experience. It’s worth mentioning that this poll is not an outlier. The last five Iowa polls, from earliest to most recent, show these two candidates combining for 43, 41, 46, and 48 percent of the fields support. And it’s not like national polls are much different. The two sport a combined national RCP average of over 41 percent and have hit 44 and then 48 in the last two.

Moreover, the next two hottest candidates are Carly Fiorina, another candidate with no political experience, and Ted Cruz, known for distancing himself from mainstream Republicans in favor of a tempestuous Tea Party approach to Washington. These four anti-establishment candidates combine for 60 percent of Iowa support and 53 percent of national support, while the other thirteen candidates combine for a minority.

The tide that has lifted the boats of these four candidates isn’t just indicative of the anti-establishment movement, though; I think there’s a case to be made that the movement is actually anti-party. The most telling moment of Donald Trump’s Teflon campaign, where controversial missteps don’t seem to negatively impact his numbers, is not when he said Mexico sends over its murdering rapists and John McCain’s heroism should be called into question because he was captured. It was this:

When Trump was the only candidate that said he wouldn’t necessarily support the party’s nominee, that should have ended his surge right then and there. As part of his response, he also said that he wouldn’t rule out a third party run, which would likely sink the Republican nominee in November. In other words, he did not rule out helping Hillary Clinton–she of Benghazi, she of treasonous email practices, she of the strongest ever Democratic dynasty this side of the Kennedys–become President of the United States.

A few days ago he said he just signed the pledge (or, as that article put it, “He signed a non-legally binding piece of paper stating that, anyway”) but that’s not the point. For a month, that debate stance not only didn’t hurt him, but his support continued to climb. Two of the last three polls show him with his largest national leads yet–14 and 16 points. Meanwhile, his leads over Bush, Rubio, and Walker are also unprecedentedly large, consistently over 20 points now.

What are we to make of Republican voters not caring that Trump won’t necessarily support the Republican Party? Is it that they don’t care much for the Republican Party either? The Pew Research Center suggests that might be the case. The party’s popularity among their own is in sharp decline:

Republicans Less Favorable Toward the GOP

Similarly, The Washington Post used Pew’s research to show how Republican approval of the Republican-led Congress has plummeted over the last four years:

Meanwhile, the Carson surge reaffirms that we might indeed be in the middle of a Republican coup d’etat. I remember a Republican Party that held the feet of John McCain and Mitt Romney to the flame over their previous maverick and moderate positions. Now, however, the two preferred candidates of voters, Trump and Carson, are actual former Democrats. However much they have since evolved, both have a history of supporting liberal positions. And yet, a majority of Iowan Republicans and a strong plurality of national ones supports one of the two.

It begs the question–is the party leadership losing control of its voters? It certainly seems so. Take the endorsement primary, where candidates jockey for support from elected officials across the country. Not only does Jeb Bush continue to dominate that race, but of the 11 Republican candidates to have earned an endorsement, none of them are named Donald Trump or Ben Carson. Party leaders, thus far anyway, have had no control over this process. Scary stuff for Republican leadership.

As seen with Hillary Clinton’s frustrated coronation, this process might be happening in the Democratic Party, but it’s happening a lot slower thanks to its recent success in national elections. Voters in the Republican Party seem sick of being told who to vote for only to lose. Officials of the party endorsed McCain and Romney early and often, only to have them electorally trounced in November to what Republicans feel has been a disastrous president. With Hillary Clinton on deck to begin a third straight destructive term in the Oval Office, it seems no one trusts the party to again pick their nominee. As a result, Bush, Rubio, and Walker are now single-digit candidates.

Meanwhile, it’s reasonable that another contributing cause to the loss of faith in the party stems from the continuing failure of conservative issues in the culture wars. As the GOP continues to lose battles on abortion, gay marriage, religious liberty, national health care, marijuana legalization, transgender rights, political correctness, and the Confederate flag, there’s a chance Republican voters just don’t trust their leadership to do what they were elected to do–specifically, to fight against the agenda of President Obama and the progressives (a highly recommended band name, btw).

As a result, the Republican Party is in a fragile place right now. As seen with Trump’s rise, it seems many voters are ready for the candidate who is mad as hell and not going to take it anymore. Trump has been murky in terms of policy, but he’s been crystal clear in terms of attitude. While Carson has elected for a more placid approach, the good doctor is still inoculated from this anti-establishment cancer that has metastasized its way throughout the party. Whereas Trump is brash, Carson’s calmness implies that everything he’s saying is so self-evident that not a hint of passion is needed to successfully deliver the message. Thus, each candidate has secured the same kind of incredulous, anti-party voter, but those that are turned off by one approach have run to the other. Between them, they’ve consolidated half the party.

Then, if a candidate with a clean slate in terms of a voting record and party relationships–and if it were Trump, a candidate not beholden to interest groups–were nominated, the desires of this anti-establishment electorate can be grafted onto this new candidate and take the party in an unpredictable direction. The party will have never been this decentralized, which would be worrisome to its leaders to say the least. Furthermore, it stands to reason that a lot of mainstream Republicans will balk about following an untested babe into the Situation Room. This development could fracture the party, and then, who knows?

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