When the spotlight shines on the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, it will reveal a glitzy show put on by the ultimate showman, presumptive nominee Donald Trump. But it will also expose a party at odds with itself.
After six years of steady electoral gains at both the state and national level, the Republican Party should be at its zenith. Yet it is poised to hand the presidential nomination to a reality television star, who has eschewed much of the party’s political orthodoxy, offended many of its leaders and alienated key demographics.
Some prominent Republicans have turned up their noses at Trump and simply declined to attend this year’s convention. Others plotted to keep him from securing the nomination. Cleveland police are preparing for protesters — for and against Trump — to gather outside the Quicken Loans Arena.
All this could add up to a public embarrassment for the GOP on a national stage. Worse, the party could see six years of electoral progress and control of the Supreme Court wiped away on a single day in November.
Republicans started this election cycle with plenty of reason for optimism.
Since losing the White House in 2008, the party has gained 13 Senate seats, 69 House seats, 12 governorships and more than 900 state legislative seats around the country. Republicans have their largest House majority in over 80 years and have the opportunity to run against the most unpopular Democratic presidential nominee in history.
As the election season began, President Barack Obama had mediocre job approval ratings, and the GOP arguably had their most talented field of presidential contenders: four governors, four senators, five former governors, a former senator, a retired neurosurgeon and a former CEO. It was also a diverse field with four people of color, a woman and four candidates under age 50.
A bitter primary fight was expected. What wasn’t expected was an outright revolt against the GOP establishment.
Trump was initially disregarded as a low-rent entertainer, discounted for previously donating to Hillary Clinton’s (and other Democrats’) campaigns and publicly contradicting traditional Republican positions on various issues including abortion. Since 2009, Republican primaries for the Senate and House often rewarded the candidate with the most consistent conservative credentials and purest Republican resume. Trump held neither of those titles.
Trump also wasn’t interested in putting together a traditional campaign. His practice of flying from rally to rally on a private jet was a stark contrast to Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who constructed typical campaigns and raised more money than the Manhattan business mogul.
Trump again and again made comments that would have taken down any other contender. His statements ranged from politically incorrect, actually incorrect and illogical to offensive, sexist and racist. Yet it didn’t deter him from steamrolling toward the nomination.
Over the course of the race, Trump went from flimsy front-runner to legitimate contender to presumptive nominee, despite efforts to keep the man with late-night punch-line hair from carrying the party’s mantle in the fall.
The Problematic Primary
In retrospect, Trump’s success was a perfect storm — a combination of factors within and outside of the candidate’s control.
As grass-roots Republicans became increasing frustrated with the GOP-controlled Congress’ inability to repeal the 2010 health care law and block Obama’s initiatives, Trump was poised as the perfect alternative.
The billionaire businessman is the unique candidate with universal name identification, a “winning” brand outside of politics and the ability to gain media attention at any time. His supporters were also drawn to the idea of his funding his campaign with his own money as a demonstration of independence from special interests. And he benefited from an American infatuation with celebrities.
Trump also gained from circumstances outside of his control. The large field of candidates divided detractors and allowed him to win many of the early contests with a plurality of support.
His opportunity grew as New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie attacked Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and as Rubio faltered during the New Hampshire debate. That allowed Ohio Gov. John Kasich to finish second in the subsequent Granite State primary and kept the anti-Trump field divided.
Even as Trump secured the 1,237 delegates necessary for the nomination, there were rumblings of a coup in the weeks leading to Cleveland. The so-called #NeverTrump wing of the Republican Party contemplated changing the rules of the nominating process. The Free the Delegates movement favored giving the convention delegates more power over whom they vote for.
Republican leaders and insiders are caught in the middle. They’ve been criticized for not listening to the grass-roots of the party but now are forced to reconcile their own beliefs with the candidate chosen during the nominating contest. House Speaker Paul D. Ryan, the Wisconsin Republican who will chair the convention, eventually endorsed Trump, but told his fellow party members to vote their consciences.
Trump’s likely nomination hung heavy over the convention planning process. Some companies — including Apple, Amazon, Coca-Cola, Microsoft, JPMorgan Chase & Co. and others — either declined to participate or scaled back their contribution from previous years. Speaking slots, typically coveted for the national exposure they bring, were hard to fill.
Beyond the effect on the convention, Trump’s comments and behavior have the potential to depress Republican turnout in November and turn off independents in a toxic combination that could derail GOP candidates down the ballot, potentially tear the party apart, or at least set it back a few election cycles.
There is also concern Trump’s rhetoric will alienate voters the party has set out intentionally to reach in future elections.
After Obama’s re-election victory over former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney in 2012, the Republican National Committee conducted an extensive study to understand the changing face of the American electorate.
“If we want ethnic minority voters to support Republicans, we have to engage them and show our sincerity,” stated the 100-page Growth and Opportunity Project, also known as the committee’s autopsy report, under the section “America Looks Different.”
The report also identified potential “demographic partners,” including the growing Latino community.
“If Hispanic Americans hear that the GOP doesn’t want them in the United States, they won’t pay attention to our next sentence. It doesn’t matter what we say about education, jobs or the economy; if Hispanics think that we do not want them here, they will close their ears to our policies,” the analysis said, adding, “In essence, Hispanic voters tell us our party’s position on immigration has become a litmus test, measuring whether we are meeting them with a welcome mat or a closed door.”
But instead of just a closed door, Republicans’ presumptive presidential nominee is talking about a wall.
The wall, which under Trump’s scenario, would be built along the border with Mexico and paid for by the Mexican government, functions as a rhetorical metaphor for the physical barrier between the party and minority voters.
But Trump has other potential problems with Hispanic voters.
He has characterized Mexican immigrants as criminals, killers and rapists and attacked the impartiality of U.S. District Judge Gonzalo P. Curiel because of his Mexican heritage as he was presiding over a case in California involving the for-profit Trump University. Curiel is from Indiana.
Hispanics are a fast-growing population and important voting bloc. And while they are diverse in their countries of origin, Republicans hope they are not becoming unified in their opposition to the GOP.
The party’s nominee doesn’t have to win Hispanic voters to win the White House, considering President George W. Bush won re-election in 2004 while losing Hispanic voters to Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry, 58-40 percent. But the GOP needs to remain competitive.
Until recently, Republicans had hoped Romney’s 27 percent showing with Hispanics in 2012 was a low-water mark. But Trump is challenging that electoral floor.
According to a June 19-23 NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, Trump’s positive rating with Hispanic voters was just 16 percent while a stunning 76 percent had a negative view of him; he was losing the demographic to Clinton 69-22 percent. Those numbers would be disastrous for Trump if Latino voters weren’t concentrated in states that haven’t been competitive, including California, New York and Texas.
Republicans need to improve with Hispanic voters just to break even with past elections because of population trends. In 1980, minority voters made up 12 percent of the electorate but steadily climbed to 28 percent in 2012. This fall, minority voters — including Latinos — are expected to make up 30 percent of the electorate.
GOP candidates appear to have a fundamental problem; they do best with white voters whose share of the electorate is on a steady decline from 88 percent in 1980 to 70 percent in November.
While Hispanic voters are a growing segment of the population, they are still approximately 10-12 percent of the electorate. But Trump could have troubles with a much larger bloc of voters.
Whither the women?
Women are not a special interest group per se, as they are a majority of the electorate (53 percent in the last presidential race). And at first, Trump sounded nothing like a typical Republican on abortion and Planned Parenthood.
“Millions of millions of women — cervical cancer, breast cancer — are helped by Planned Parenthood,” Trump said in February at the CNN debate in Houston. “I would defund it because I’m pro-life, but millions of women are helped by Planned Parenthood.”
But he stepped on his own efforts in March when he said women who seek abortions should be subject to “some form of punishment” if the procedure is banned in the United States. He later recanted, but the damage was probably done.
Women aren’t single-issue voters, but the thrice-married candidate has plenty of other comments that Democrats can use to drive a wedge between the Republican Party and female voters. Those were encapsulated by Fox News host Megyn Kelly’s question during the first GOP debate in Cleveland in August.
“You’ve called women you don’t like fat pigs, dogs, slobs and disgusting animals,” said Kelly. Trump interjected that he was only talking about liberal TV personality Rosie O’Donnell, but the moderator pressed on.
“No, it wasn’t,” Kelly said. “Your Twitter account has several disparaging comments about women’s looks. You once told a contestant on ‘Celebrity Apprentice’ it would be a pretty picture to see her on her knees. Does that sound to you like the temperament of a man we should elect as president?”
To call it a gender gap is too simple. Republicans do well among married women, particularly white married women, but Democrats dominate among single women, and especially African-American women.
In 2012, Romney won married women 53-46 percent, while Obama won unmarried women 67-31 percent. Trump is struggling with both groups.
Among all women, Trump had a 24 percent positive/65 percent negative rating, according to the June NBC News/Wall Street Journal survey, including a 30 percent positive/59 percent negative rating among married women and a horrid 17 percent positive/74 percent negative rating among single women.
Any GOP nominee faces an uphill battle for the 270 electoral votes necessary to win. But Trump’s unpopularity with women and minority voters makes victory even more difficult.
The June NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll showed Clinton with a narrow 46-41 percent advantage, but understated Trump’s challenge, considering the election is a series of state battles.
After a majority of states are allocated to each side based on recent presidential elections, Clinton needs to win just one of the four swing states (Colorado, Florida, Ohio or Virginia) while Trump probably needs to secure all four to win the Electoral College.
Trump’s most logical road could be along I-95 and the Rust Belt, according to Republican pollster Neil Newhouse. That would involve winning Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, Ohio and Virginia as well as Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, which a Republican hasn’t carried in at least 25 years. Trump can’t rely on Arizona, which has voted Republican in the past four elections, or Nevada and Colorado, because of growing Hispanic populations.
Clinton’s path is a bit easier considering Trump’s historically low favorability rating and his unique talent to offend both friends and enemies. He had a 28 percent positive/60 percent negative rating in the NBC/WSJ survey.
The good news for Trump was that he was close to consolidating GOP voters (he was leading 79-9) while Clinton led among Democrats 85-8 percent. But that also means the former secretary of state’s standing should improve as supporters of her primary rival Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders come into the fold.
For all of Trump’s problems, Republicans are fortunate to run against Clinton, with her 33 percent positive/55 percent negative rating and the FBI’s conclusion that as secretary of state she and her staff were “extremely careless” in handling classified information via email.
“The election is coming down to change versus risk,” says Newhouse, who points out that more people have said the country is off on the wrong track for 150 consecutive months, the longest sustained period of pessimism in his firm’s history. “Hillary represents the status quo, but it’s a fine line to be so much change that it’s a risk,” he says.
At a minimum, Clinton’s unpopularity could keep her from running up the score and give Republicans a reason to turn out, even if they don’t want Trump.
A whole new ballgame
Trump’s candidacy is more than a rhetorical danger to the Republican Party; it’s a structural one.
Trump doesn’t have to follow the traditional blueprint, but vulnerable senators rely on a minimum level of organization from the presidential nominee and RNC. His lack of organization, fundraising and urgency makes GOP operatives nervous.
“In the primary, it’s you against the world,” says Mike Shields, a former RNC chief of staff. “Then you have to shift for the general election when it’s us versus them.”
“When you’re leading a ticket, you’re not just raising money for yourself,” continues Shields, who directed the National Republican Congressional Committee’s independent expenditure campaign during 2012. “The nominee is raising money for the team.”
It’s not clear Trump has played team sports, but Republicans need him to start.
Trump sent shock waves through the political world when he reported less than $1.3 million in his campaign account through the end of May. That’s less money than raised by dozens of members of Congress running for re-election and Clinton, who had over $42 million and had already spent money on television ads.
“He can either start writing checks and selling some buildings and golf courses or get on the phones and talk to donors,” veteran GOP strategist Ed Rollins told The Washington Post. He leads the pro-Trump Great America PAC. “Big donors just don’t want to give money unless they have the opportunity to talk to the candidate, hear what your positions are. There’s just been a failure from start to finish on the fundraising side.”
Obama raised and spent over $720 million on his 2012 campaign and Romney nearly $450 million, not counting spending from outside groups. Through May 31, Clinton raised $238 million while Trump raised $17 million and put in $46 million of his own money.
Trump is also lagging behind in campaign staff, with less than 100 at the end of May compared to Clinton’s 685. In September 2012, the Obama and Romney campaigns had 900 and 400 paid campaign staff, respectively, according to the Los Angeles Times.
“Trump is responsible for raising the money to pay for the field staff that will help Senate races,” Shields adds.
After picking up nine seats in the 2014 midterm elections, Republicans are in control of the Senate. But their majority is in jeopardy this fall, not only because of Trump’s volatility but because the map of competitive states favors Democrats. In addition, the late entry of former Sen. Evan Bayh to an open-seat contest in Indiana has buoyed Democrats’ chances.
The GOP’s class of 2010 (when they picked up six seats) includes many representing Democratic or competitive states.
Vulnerable Republicans such as Mark S. Kirk of Illinois, Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, Patrick J. Toomey of Pennsylvania, Rob Portman of Ohio, Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire and Marco Rubio of Florida are in the unenviable position of putting together a coalition of Trump supporters and people offended by Trump to win re-election.
Those senators aren’t fond of the reality TV star (despite Democratic messaging to the contrary), but they can’t afford to attack their own party’s nominee and risk alienating base Republicans.
“Spending full time attacking our own nominee will ensure that the GOP vote is depressed,” wrote National Republican Senatorial Committee Executive Director Ward Baker in a September memo looking ahead to Trump’s potential nomination. “That will only serve to topple GOP candidates at every level. Maintain the right amount of independence, but avoid piling on the nominee.”
Republican senators can’t afford for any GOP voters to stay home. Consolidating Republican support from 2012 will get Kirk to 27 percent of the vote. It will get Johnson 32 percent. Portman will get 31 percent, Toomey 35 percent, Ayotte 27 percent and Richard M. Burr 33 percent in North Carolina. Any fewer Republican voters would require those senators to win more votes from independents and Democrats to make up the difference.
If Clinton wins, Democrats need to gain just four seats to control the Senate. A gain of five seats would give them the majority outright. The cycle could spiral downward for the GOP and put other states in play, including Missouri and Arizona.
“If Donald Trump is at the top of the ticket here in Arizona, with over 30 percent of the vote being the Hispanic vote, no doubt that this may be the race of my life,” says Sen. John McCain, who is running for a sixth term in a state where Hispanics are expected to make up 19 percent of the electorate.
The Senate majority is particularly important with the possibility of multiple Supreme Court confirmations coming in the next president’s term. But the House could be in jeopardy as well in the worst-case scenarios for the GOP if #NeverTrump voters sit out the election and minority groups surge against the party.
In the face of a potential landslide presidential race, Democrats are trying to manage expectations about the House and are not expecting the number of competitive races there to spike. But they believe there will be a considerable shift in Democrats’ favor among the competitive House races already in progress.
Democrats are on target to gain a dozen or more seats but are likely to fall short of the 30 they need to reclaim the majority. They are focusing on suburban and exurban districts, places where they expect voters to be turned off by Trump and take out their wrath on GOP candidates.
Republican redistricting efforts after the 2010 census limited Democratic opportunities in key states such as Florida, North Carolina, Ohio and Pennsylvania, and Democrats failed to recruit top challengers in some competitive districts. Republicans have just a handful of take-over opportunities to balance out potential losses.
GOP strategists are encouraging House and Senate incumbents to take care of business at home and do everything possible to get ready, including raising money, for the potential storm ahead. But they could face problems that money can’t fix.
If Trump falls short and Republicans lose the Senate, many observers will declare the end of the Republican Party.
But if the GOP limits losses, the 2018 midterm elections provide a great opportunity for a rebound if Clinton is in the White House. The 2018 class of senators includes Democrats running in GOP and competitive states.
Voters tend to punish the president’s party in midterm elections.