The big story on the Republican side of the ballot these days is the Establishment versus Trump. Assuming (a fair bet) that Donald Trump does not have 50% of the delegates going into the convention, can he still win? Can the “not Trump” faction get the 50% of delegates necessary to defeat him? Can they do it without gaming the convention? The establishment has backed several candidates; first Jeb Bush then Marco Rubio, whom they have seen fallen by the way. Other Candidates, like Christie, got the beginnings of support before being abandoned. Is Kasich capable of taking on that mainstream mantle? Can they stomach Cruz, who in any other year would be the one they’d want to see defeated?
Described this way, the race seems all about the personalities and (almost to a lesser extent) the politics of these individuals. For many, those things are really about the electability of the candidate when it comes to the general election. How will a conservative, a libertarian or a moderate stack up against Hillary?
Yet, there is another reason why a Donald Trump candidacy spells chaos for the GOP establishment. His nomination would throw a YUGE wrench into the election methods and mathematics that have been so hard-won over the last 8 years.
Briefly, the traditional way to look at an election is this. You have an electorate that is made up of a (and I’ll use the liberal-conservative dichotomy as a shortcut, without stipulating that the electorate is truly this one dimensional) core of liberals and a core of conservatives. These voters can be counted upon to reliably vote for “their” party, but are not numerous enough to get an actual majority. For that, you need the “swing voters,” those whose priorities are neither all-left or all-right and who make up their minds after considering the details of the candidates positions and personality as well as the circumstances surrounding the election. In many cases, these voters don’t make their final selection until the last moment, resulting in elections that appear too close to call even when they turn out not to be.
The traditional politicking says its all about winning the hearts and minds of these swing voters. Candidates must come out of the primary able to convince the massive of the moderate bona fides. Aligning a party or candidate with the voters’ top concern (economy, national security, etc.) becomes the name-of-the-game so as to win over those “Reagan Democrats” or “Republicans for Obama.” On this the Republican Party spent their efforts for both McCain and Romney. And they got schlonged.
Obama, with an army of computer wizards and the power of Big Data, took another tack. Instead of going after the undecideds, who can be incredibly fickle and quite expensive to actually convince, he went after the, shall we say, decideds. Obama’s machine targeted those people who were hard and passionately left – either generally or on particular issues – but were not certain to vote. They needed no convincing that they were liberal, only that it was necessary to their interests to go down to the polls on election day and cast that vote.
Clearly it worked. Of course, you can win an election on math and data mining alone – Obama, especially in 2008, has been popular in the traditional sense as well. But the Romney versus Obama result was a lot closer than most people give credit for.
Republicans (I think) have learned their lesson. They are preparing software and databases modeled after what Obama used so successfully and they have been gearing up to beat the Democrats at their own game for the better part of four years. But it won’t work if The Donald is the nominee.
It is become clear that that many of your most traditional and staunch Republican supporters are not for Trump. In fact, many have been telling pollsters that they would not vote Republican if Trump is the nominee. Instead, Trump makes his numbers from a non-traditional supporters, including some of those independents that the GOP is ready to de-emphasize. Which would all be par for this year’s electoral course except for one thing…
The Presidential Election is only a small part of what really matters.
The November 2016 ballot will contain choices all up-and-down the ticket for other Federal Positions, State Positions, Local offices, ballot initiatives, etc. And each of these has a role to play in the politics of our Great Republic. While the perception and the story is that the party who wins the presidency is the victor, piratically speaking that is not the case. Certainly, if as Obama did in 2008, a party wins the presidency and a majority of the legislature, that President can push forward with a major partisan initiative (i.e. Obamacare). However, there is no guarantee that an election will award all levels to one party. Even as Obama has demonstrated a newfound power in the Presidency, the other parts of our government still matter – at least for the time being.
Control of the House of Representatives allows a party to put forward lots of legislation and define its principles. These initiatives are easily countered by a Presidential veto and a Senate which requires a super-majority to consider legislation. And this ignores the States, each of which have their own systems and subtleties. Another amazing aspect of our electoral system is the disconnected between the office of governor and the elected representatives. States like California, New York and Massachusetts, which will never, ever see a Republican legislative majority, nevertheless elect Republican governors.
Rather than dwell on the nitty gritty, I merely want to point out that a Donald revolt does damage to this system that even a weak McCain or Romney run doesn’t do. The traditional methods turn out voters who “vote the ticket” or are otherwise persuaded to cause a coattail effect. That is, the party mostly focuses on electing their candidate for President and knock-on effects benefit all the other levels of government. But if Trump is eschewed by the traditional voter and supported by the non-traditional voter, all of this goes away. It threatens the party in a way that even a Sanders revolt couldn’t harm the Democrats.
And that is one, completely rational, reason that the GOP Establishment fears Donald Trump’s winning the convention.