President Trump? Part 2: What if he’s the nominee?
If Donald Trump wins the Republican presidential nomination in 2016, recent history suggests he may need to realign the electorate in order to win the general election.
In part one we took a look at data that showed despite skepticism from the political class, Trump could absolutely win the nomination. Given his particular voter base, however, and the way he would likely manage a general election, the traditional coalition it takes for a Republican to win the White House may have to be reconfigured with Trump as standard-bearer.
The last major realignment we had in American politics was during the election of 1980, which saw the advent of the Moral Majority (or values voters) that gave Ronald Reagan a third leg to the conservative stool his ideological predecessor, Barry Goldwater, never had. This alliance of pro-life Catholics and evangelicals, forged in response to Roe v. Wade and the hedonism of the counter-culture, became the dominant force in the GOP’s grassroots, creating a new coalition that changed the election map. As a result, southern Democrats nowadays are a rare breed.
For example, prior to Roe the Democrats won the Catholic vote in six of the previous seven presidential elections; Catholics were one of the most loyal Democrat voting blocs post World War II. Since Roe, however, every Republican presidential election victory except one has one thing in common—the GOP won the Catholic vote. The lone exception was in 2000 when George W. Bush was elected president without winning the popular vote, which is a historical outlier.
Translation: If Republicans do not run a strong pro-life candidate for president, they don’t have enough else in common with Catholic voters to win the Catholic vote. And Trump is not a strong pro-life candidate. Just a few months ago Trump was named Planned Parenthood’s “favorite Republican.”
There are two other important factors to contemporary Republican presidential election victories—energizing evangelicals and winning middle class voters.
Evangelicals accounted for half of the total 2012 GOP primary vote, according to a study by CBS News, and remain the largest single constituency in the GOP base. Republican nominees depend on that base to be energized every bit as much as Democrats need minority voters to enthusiastically support their nominee. A candidate who mocks what spiritual conversion can do to renew someone’s life, as Trump just did during a campaign stop in Iowa last week, is going to have a hard time energizing evangelicals.
On the other hand, given the current makeup of Trump’s support base, there is evidence he would perform well with middle class voters in the general. And every time Republicans have won middle class voters since 1980, they’ve won the White House. According to polling analysis, the lower the income and the bluer your collar, the more likely you are to support Trump in this primary. These voters appreciate Trump’s chutzpah, and see him as a poison pill to a system they’ve all but given up on. Not to mention they are the people most likely to be negatively impacted by the financial and societal costs of illegal immigration.
Nevertheless, if Trump sees erosion in the GOP’s values voter base, he’s going to need to add other constituencies to his existing supporters in order to forge a winning coalition. Especially when you consider Trump’s willingness to alter his positions on the fly, because virtually every even moderately conservative position Trump is taking now is a contradiction of his previous progressive positions. Therefore, one could certainly come to the conclusion he is taking these positions now to cater to the primary electorate, and then will pivot away from several of them in the general when he believes he already has those voters locked up.
Translation: If Trump wasn’t willing to defend Kim Davis and religious liberty in a primary dominated by evangelicals when it would help him, it’s doubtful he’ll pick up that cross in a general election. And a Republican nominee perceived as weak on religious liberty is going to have a hard time energizing evangelicals in this environment.
Without winning the Catholic vote or energizing evangelicals, where would Trump go to get the voters he needs? Could he nationally emulate the Jesse Ventura gubernatorial campaign in Minnesota back in 1998? Are there enough voters, regardless of ideology, angry enough at the system to “burn it down?”
As that would be Trump’s best chance at the White House, if he were the nominee, we would find out. And the Republican Party, as well as the national political landscape, would never be the same—for better or for worse.
Finally, there is one “x-factor” here: Who would Trump select as a running mate?
Traditionally, voters don’t go to the polls based on who’s at the bottom of the ticket; rather, they focus almost exclusively on the name at the top. However, this isn’t a traditional cycle, otherwise we wouldn’t be taking a Trump candidacy seriously in the first place.
Could Trump select a running mate who would act as his, say, “conservative ambassador,” dispatched to keep that base active and engaged despite their reservations about the nominee? Would it even work if he tried? As we saw when Al Gore (Joe Lieberman) and John McCain (Sarah Palin) each chose strong running mates, the tendency within the campaign is to rein them in rather than unleash their potential. Would Trump’s ego allow for what amounts to a parallel campaign of conservative outreach, which would elevate that running mate to almost co-president status in the minds of millions of voters?
Either way, a Trump nomination ushers in a brave new world where all the previous bets are off. Trump atop the GOP ticket would definitely be dramatically different in its approach, but that doesn’t guarantee dramatically different results.
First published at the Conservative Review
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