The primary elections always expose the loopholes and differences within the party. The array of debates tends to display the differences in policy making. However, at times the candidates are in stark contrast with one another in certain areas and at others they only differ in the execution.
The Republican Party is commonly known for its unity in voting as well as when it comes to policy making. This has been the trend especially since Newt Gingrich was elected Speaker of the House as part of the 1994 Republican sweep. He banded together the Republicans under one roof and the Republicans became an in sync group unlike the Democrats who ‘agree to disagree’. With all eyes on the elections, the question is what the more long term effects on the parties will be.
The ideological gulf within both the parties has been ever growing and becoming far more polarised than ever before. During the 1950s and 60s the electorate was not as polarised as it is today. The Republican and Democratic parties had a substantial number of conservatives, liberals and moderates. There was a great deal of cross party voting as well split ticket voting.
Although the Democrats had controlled Congress throughout the Cold War, they could not hold onto the White House. The increase in polarisation and the disappearance of the moderates had adverse effects on both parties. The Democrats were becoming more liberal and the Republicans more conservative. However the series of losses in the Presidential elections demanded a change by the Democrats to a more centrist /moderate stand. This stand was seen by the nomination and election of Bill Clinton. With Bill Clinton’s nomination, the Democrats displayed a move to the centre. The ’92 election also displayed the factions within the Republican Party wherein the Republican were divided between George H Bush and Ross Perot. However the ’94 election was a turning point for the Republicans as for the first time in 40 years they took over Congress with Newt Gingrich at the helm. His leadership of the party in Congress unified the party and was a precursor for the Republicans of today.
It was this degree of partisanship that kept the Republicans in the majority for most of President’s Clinton’s term as well as afforded them the ability to bring impeachment charges and even voted on it in the House. The continuation of this into the George W. Bush presidency gave him a blanket cheque in his foreign policy endeavours. The Office of Speaker under Gingrich became the de facto party leader. However since Gingrich, Speakers like Hastert and Boehner were unable to completely hold the party in Congress together. Thus fragmentation has set in.
John Boehner lacked Gingrich’s ability to wield support within the party as well as among Republicans in general which is evident from the conservatives who drove his resignation. Paul Ryan, too, could prove to be incapable of shoring off that effect on his party. On the other hand, the Democrats under Nancy Pelosi have shown greater unity comparatively.
The Republican Party could be in trouble here especially when it comes to tapping new voters in the electorate. The Republicans have lost the popular vote in the recent election even though they were in the White House. In order for them to broaden their party base they have to court the ethnic and Hispanic vote. If they are able to either court those blocs completely or divide them in their favour they have an extremely good chance of retaining their position in Congress as well as the White House. The Republicans have to maintain a tricky balance of broadening the base and not alienating the base.
Therefore changing or adapting to policy change is imperative. Two decades or so ago, the Democrats had to adapt and change their policy stand and move towards the centre. In electing Bill Clinton they achieved this and won the White House.
The Republicans themselves have expressed their fears of a split as a result of the ideological divide, identity , class and ethnic tensions and the shifting tides to a more conservative party structure. The changes in the Republican base, the ultra conservatives who seem to be running the party will find it difficult to tap the Hispanic vote which is necessary for political survival. This is worrisome to many pragmatic and centrist Republicans. The demographic changes and the fierce rhetoric by Republicans mean that gaining ground with the non- white voters will be difficult.
The schism though very much part of the Democrats are not as pronounced as the Republicans. Throughout the Obama administration, though the Democrats lost power in the House as well as the Senate, they have more or less banded together on major issues. Iran may have been a problem but it’s the Republicans who have shown the cracks in the wall of silence.
It is survival of the fittest. The GOP establishment for the sake of survival require a political win. They have been vehemently against President Obama’s policies, but failed at overriding important legislation. The GOP has had the numbers in Congress to counter Obama but have failed to do so. In order to save the party form itself they need an electoral win as well as a nominee that would unite the different factions.
Trump mania has completely altered the GOP, they are worried about two aspects; one derailing Trump and two; his run as a third party candidate. These two factors are interlinked – the question is how they derail Trump without affecting their base and without splitting the party between the conservatives and the moderates. One strategy was fragmentation, which meant falling behind one candidate who is not the front runner.
Another one, dividing the entire GOP base so that Trump does not get the required votes to be the first name on the ballot at the convention. Alienation is a strategy that has been touted by the establishment.
The Republican political establishment is gearing up for a dangerous fight against the power and money magnet mogul, but this is a dangerous fight as it could have lasting repercussions. As Super Tuesday has come and gone, Trump is in a more secure position than ever before, with Super Tuesday under their belt, Trump has 319 delegates, Cruz, 226 and Rubio 110 delegates. Thus Trump needs 918 delegates to get the nomination. Pundits say it’s attainable given his ratings. So now derailing Trump seems to be out of the question. (Note: This figures have not been updates since the New York Primary)
If the Republicans are vexed about the rise of Trump and the problems it has created for the future of the party, they have no one to blame other than themselves. The Congress hands off approach contributed to his rise as well as the lack of any credible candidate. This includes not enough Senators running in the primaries or at least ones that cater to the middle class Republicans thus throwing it open to Trump. However the Republican leadership is still unsure whether supporting him is the strategic solution to wining the general. If Trump does not have GOP backing, it could be a major political crisis for him and the party.
It is difficult to predict who will occupy the White House come January 2017, but very often elections are considered referendums. Judging the election by the primaries is not always the best, as only a small percentage vote in the primaries compared to the general. So if Clinton has to battle the Republicans then all Democrats will stand by her irrespective of their differences. She in turn might have to do a bit of persuading and move a little more left to cater to the voters as Sanders has set the Democrat ideological bar. However the same cannot be said for the Republicans. The reason for this is that Republican establishment itself is unsure whether they want to support the front runner and they are ideologically extremely divided. If Trump gets the nomination he will have to find a way to smoothen ties with the GOP, the conservatives as well as moderates and other factions within the party. He will also have to smoothen ties with the Black and Hispanics who have the ability to make or break him.
About the author:
*Kimberley Nazareth is a doctoral candidate with JNU.
This article was published by the Observer Research Foundation in its US Election Monitor Issue 9 (PDF)