photo by Darron Birgenheier
With considerable fanfare, elements of the Republican Party’s old guard have mobilized to stop Donald Trump from, in their view, hijacking the party’s presidential nomination.
After his victories on Super Tuesday, Trump now faces the growing alarm of party establishment, who are deploying a grab-bag of tactics, including a new push for anti-Trump television ads in Florida. There were no shortage of GOP establishment critics when New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie chose to endorse Trump. Former Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott commented that, by March 15, Republicans will know whether it was time to “throw up our hands in despair and panic.”
Some anti-Trump Republican insiders have given up on another candidate defeating him outright in the primaries, instead pinning their hopes on keeping his delegate count low enough to allow for a contested convention. This was the strategy advocated by Mitt Romney, the party’s 2012 presidential nominee, when he savaged Trump in a speech in Utah last week.
All this comes despite the likelihood that it is probably too late to dislodge Trump. Even if it were not, the next most likely nominee is Ted Cruz, a candidate the Republican establishment has been deeply reluctant to embrace.
This raises the question: Why are prominent Republicans attacking the candidate who has, thus far in the primaries, not only taken by far the greatest number of votes, but who has also shown he can attract huge new audiences to the GOP’s televised debates, to the primary voting booths and even to caucuses, which have until now had all the crowd magnetism of a small-town library on an average Thursday afternoon?
There are two plausible reasons, and I suspect both are in play. One is that powerful figures in the GOP see Trump as a threat to their own influence and priorities. He isn’t an evangelical Christian, his anti-abortion positions are a late-in-life discovery and his public statements about when and why he would deploy military power are, to put it kindly, muddled. So the social conservatives and military hawks have reason to be wary. (Yet Trump is polling well with evangelicals, moderate pro-lifers and those who want a tough-on-security message.)
The other reason is that they fear putting Trump at the top of the ticket will depress GOP turnout and cost not only the presidency, but a boatload of House seats and control of the Senate. This would put a President Hillary Clinton in a position to establish a generation-long liberal majority on the Supreme Court. With Trump attracting less than half the primary vote so far in a fractured field, this fear is that too many Republicans will either defect to Clinton or stay home in November.
Really? After eight years of wanting nothing more than to turn President Barack Obama out of office, Republican voters are going to stay home en masse and allow Clinton to extend his administration’s policies through a third and possibly a fourth term?
I suppose it’s possible, but it is hard to see objectively how Trump is going to drive away more Republican voters than he attracts, particularly since his strongest appeal is to relatively secular blue-collar types who cluster in swing states like Ohio, and who are not strongly motivated by religious and social conservatism. These folks spend a lot of time thinking about jobs and immigration, and very little worrying about same-sex marriage (likely because they realize there is nothing to worry about).
Trump can be expected to perform abysmally with African-Americans, but this is politically meaningless, since every Republican performs abysmally with that demographic. He also ought to fare very poorly with Hispanics, thanks to his bluster about that wall on the Mexican border and other over-the-top anti-immigration rhetoric. This is more significant, of course, especially in Florida and a number of Western states, and could conceivably tip the balance away from the GOP – but only if Democrats turn out in Obama-like numbers to offset Trump’s appeal to the white vote that, while shrinking, is still the largest electoral slice virtually everywhere.
So it really boils down to whether Clinton, assuming she closes the deal in her nomination race against Bernie Sanders, can come close to matching Obama’s vote-drawing performance. The results in the primaries so far, and for that matter in the ratings for Democratic candidate debates, are not encouraging for her party. The New York Times reported that approximately 3 million fewer Democrats voted in this year’s primary race through Super Tuesday than in the equivalent number of states in 2008.
Some Democrats are worried by this lack of enthusiasm from voters. Others say they are confident that a Trump candidacy would be so unappealing that their base, especially black and Hispanic voters, will turn out much as it did in 2008 and 2012 – not so much to vote for Clinton, which is implausible, but to vote against the Republican. To believe that, you pretty much have to believe that those voters in the last two presidential races were voting not so much for Obama, but against John McCain and Mitt Romney.
Does that sound realistic? Not to me. You can decide for yourself.
We should expect a massive campaign of demonization by Democrats against any Republican, but especially against Trump, because it is a core element of their electoral hopes this year. Since Clinton cannot motivate the Democratic base on her own, a powerful opposition bogeyman will be critical. It won’t be a surprise when members of her party do everything in their power to create one, and Trump has given them ample material with which to work.
Which leads us back to the most curious aspect of the GOP stop-Trump campaign: It has the same objective as the Democrats’ efforts. Those Republicans who now want to render primary candidate Trump unacceptable might, at best, make Cruz or Marco Rubio the nominee, in which case Democrats will just work to demonize them instead. And if Trump secures the nomination anyway, Democrats will be able to thank the GOP establishment for providing their campaign a big head start in the effort to disqualify him in voters’ minds.