By now it’s a familiar script. Political candidates begin their campaigns on the margins, appealing to their party’s core supporters. Then, after emerging with the nomination, they pivot to the center for the general election. Right now, the Democratic candidates for president are taking their places and delivering their lines. Bowing to popular demand within the party, Senator Bernie Sanders has shifted to the left on gun legislation. Meanwhile, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has reframed her relationship with Wall Street and endorsed stricter financial regulations. The new zeal with which Sanders and Clinton are pushing these issues has raised doubts, as it does for competitive candidates in every cycle, about whether their newfound focus is a temporary commitment or a true conversion. As we’ve come to expect in the primary season, Democrats are engaged in a debate about which candidate’s views are most consistent with their party’s core beliefs. The real question, though, is not what it means that the Democrats have moved to find their party’s pulse. The real question is why the Republican candidates have not.
One of the foundational theories in political science is known as the Median Voter Theorem. It holds that in every election the successful candidate is the one closest to an electorate’s median voter. As Tyler Cowen put it in the New York Times in 2010:
[T]here is a dynamic that pushes politicians to embrace the preferences of the typical or “median” voter, who sits squarely in the middle of public opinion. A significant move to either the left or the right would open the door for a rival to take a more moderate stance, win the next election and change the agenda. Politicians will respond to this dynamic, whether they are power-seeking demagogues or more benevolent types who use elected office to help the world.
Or at least that’s how it’s supposed to go. To be sure, the theory requires some modification under the typical two-step of American elections. Yes, a candidate must win an ideologically imbalanced party primary first before turning to the general election—no matter what Jeb Bush says—and the median voter in a Republican primary is quite different from one in the national electorate. Moving to the median of primary voters, therefore, can often require distancing oneself from the national center. Indeed, the conventional wisdom is that Republicans have long been too eager to focus on their own voters at the expense of success come Autumn. And yet, on issue after issue, Republican candidates are taking positions strongly opposed by solid majorities of even their own supporters.
There is no greater example of this detachment between Republican officials and their supporters than on economic matters. During a famous moment in the 2012 GOP primary debates, every single candidate rejected a hypothetical (and fantastical) budget deal with a ten to one ratio of spending cuts to tax increases, choosing instead to adhere to their pledge to Grover Norquist never to raise taxes under any circumstances. Once again, all but three Republican candidates have signed the pledge this time around. Yet, in a 2013 survey, 56% of Republicans stated that a deficit reduction plan should include a combination of both spending reductions and higher taxes. In addition, this past November, 58% of Republicans stated they supported a raise in the minimum wage. Nor do Republicans support cuts to so-called entitlement programs. A 2011 Quinnipiac survey found that 64% of Republicans oppose reductions in Social Security benefits and 66% oppose cuts to Medicare. Indeed, just this past July, 69% of Republicans agreed that Medicare was a very important government program, while 59% found that it worked well for most seniors. A majority of Republicans also support government spending to create jobs and rebuild the nation’s infrastructure.
Even the supposedly raw issues of immigration and guns are not what the Republican candidates would make them seem. In a New York Times/CBS News poll taken at the end of October, 57% of registered Republicans supported some version of a path to legalization (with only strong majorities against full citizenship). The Wall Street Journal measured the support for a version of legalization at 53% in August. Meanwhile, 39% of Republicans support stricter gun laws, while only 12% would like to see them loosened. In fact, a Pew poll from August found that a remarkable 79% of Republicans support increased background checks for gun purchases, 48% support banning assault weapons, and 55% even favor a national gun transactions tracking database.
That’s not all. Large majorities of Republicans support a host of campaign finance reforms, from laws requiring greater disclosure to those imposing spending limits on candidates (a policy clearly unconstitutional under current Supreme Court doctrine). And in a stunning repudiation of their most recent President’s signature foreign policy, last year 63% of Republicans stated that the Iraq war was a mistake. Again, these numbers are among Republicans.
Now, this isn’t to say Republicans are just misinformed liberals. On issues from the reach and importance of government, to welfare programs, the tax code, crime, race, and especially social issues, Republicans are, unsurprisingly, conservative. Even very conservative. But more and more the Republican Party’s dependence on support from Wall Street and other narrow interest groups has separated it from its own supporters. Where Republican voters want their elected leaders to fight terrorism, slow the change of societal values, and prevent the redistribution of their income to the poor, they are increasingly being offered an array of economic initiatives that they do not want. For a party supposedly concerned about the deficit, the Republican candidates have tax plans that would explode the federal budget by slashing rates for capital gains, corporate, and ordinary income on high-earners. Most would eliminate the estate tax entirely. For a party overwhelmingly supported by older Americans, the Republican candidates’ proposals for Social Security and Medicare include means-testing benefits, raising the retirement age, and partial or complete privatization. And for a party with an incentive to find a middle ground on many social issues, the candidates have refused to grab the life rafts of modest, centrist policies supported by their own voters such as eliminating firearm background check loopholes and allowing legalization of DREAMers.
The Republican candidates, therefore, are not undergoing a traditional move to the right to entice core Republicans to their cause; they are moving to the far, far right to appeal to the most politically active conservatives and appease their donors. Given our two-party system, the Republican candidates are banking on the strategy that they can tack right to win over their most fervent and frenzied partisans without alienating the majority of Republicans that have nowhere else to go in a contest against Hillary Clinton. Indeed, Mitt Romney, despite his “severely conservative” 2012 primary campaign on behalf of “self-deportation” and regressive tax policies, held 93% of the Republican vote in the general election. For the vast majority of Republicans, there is still more to like about a far-right Republican candidate than a Democrat. Yet, the Republican Party’s recent, repeated decision to ignore a swath of their own supporters’ core beliefs has fomented discontent and mistrust among many of the party faithful. It has also created a clear market inefficiency waiting to be exploited by an opportunistic contestant not beholden to the party brass or its wealthy financial backers.
Yes, this is the story of Donald Trump. The swash-buckling billionaire has surveyed American conservatism, picked out the popular parts, and discarded the rest. Because if there is one thing Donald Trump can do, it is read a poll.
For all the talk of Trump’s authoritarian and nativist appeals—and these are critical components of his popularity and necessary to understanding his rise—a good measure of Trump’s success has been in challenging Republican party dogma that is far from gospel among the base. Trump has emphasized his anti-free trade policies that are anathema to party leaders, recently calling for as much as a 45% tariff on goods imported from China. He has broken from Republican tax policy orthodoxy by arguing for elimination of the carried interest provision allowing hedge fund and real estate investors to reclassify their income and pay a lower rate. Indeed, he is one of the few candidates this cycle who have refused to sign the Norquist tax pledge (while at the same time mollifying Norquist by lowering tax rates). Moreover, Trump has come out aggressively against Super PACs and said he “love[s] the idea of campaign finance reform.” He has heaped scorn on his rivals’ reliance on financial donations, arguing that the other candidates are “controlled” by outside groups. This rhetoric is consistent with his larger strategy to appeal to working class voters by opposing cuts to Social Security and Medicare.
On foreign policy, Trump has given voice to the desire for strong but limited intervention in the Middle East by promising to both heavily bomb ISIS while refusing to become too involved on the ground in Iraq and Syria. For that reason, he has trumpeted his criticism of the Iraq war even as his party denies it was a colossal failure. Tellingly, in a recent debate, Trump said he wished that instead of launching the war in Iraq, the United States had “spent that $4 trillion in the United States to fix our roads, our bridges, and all of the other problems — our airports and all the other problems we have…I wish we had the 4 trillion dollars or 5 trillion dollars. I wish it were spent right here in the United States on schools, hospitals, roads, airports, and everything else that are all falling apart!” To which Carly Fiorina remarked, “[t]hat is exactly what President Obama said. I’m amazed to hear that from a Republican presidential candidate.” Only someone so completely in the bubble of elite conservative opinion could fail to realize that this is exactly the point. No doubt anything attached to Obama’s name receives a knee-jerk negative reaction from Republicans, but, in fact, many of the GOP rank and file widely support many of the President’s policies when they are disassociated from him. For years, Republicans have successfully generated outrage at Obama’s policies by connecting them to the man himself. This is precisely why the attacks that Trump is acting like a Democrat have fallen flat for months. When connected to a man so clearly the opposite of Obama—from Trump’s manner to his methods to his appearance—there is nothing so objectionable about infrastructure spending, reining in Wall Street, and a cautious approach to intervention in Syria after all.
This is not a simple tale of the Republican Party’s rightward lurch. That has been going on for years without Trump. No, the real lesson of the Trump candidacy is how loosely-held together the Republican coalition really is. Ronald Reagan famously described the Republican Party as being a three-legged stool, supported by social, fiscal, and national security conservatives. And yet, in many ways, Trump is championing the causes of none of these groups. While now nominally anti-abortion, Trump has barely raised the issue or discussed recent developments in gay rights. Indeed, despite claiming massive support among “the evangelicals,” Trump does not discuss a single traditional concern of Christian conservatives on his issues page. On fiscal issues, Trump has made generalized promises to lower taxes and cut spending, yet has endorsed a robust social safety net, attacked Wall Street and the rich (what ever happened to job creators?), and most clearly focused his populist economic message on trade and job losses from companies moving overseas. And on national security, as described above, Trump has soundly rebuked the neocon philosophy of George W. Bush—and more recently his Republican rivals Jeb Bush, Chris Christie, and Marco Rubio—by criticizing nation-building, opposing further intervention in the Middle East, and praising Vladimir Putin. Trump’s message has instead focused on appealing to conservative voters’ sense of loss—a loss of cultural values through immigration and increased sensitivity to minority concerns, a loss of prosperity due to stagnant wages and declining benefits, and a loss of security through the rise of ISIS and recent terrorist attacks. When presented with a true alternative, Trump voters were all too willing to leave behind a national party more concerned with deregulation and slashing top tax rates than with the economic and social anxieties of their constituents.
How this resolves itself is unclear. Trump is still unlikely to capture the nomination—despite what you hear from many these days—and his voters remain motivated to an alarming extent by identity politics and a distaste for Obama and Clinton. We may very well see Rubio, Bush, or Ted Cruz capture the nomination and once again unite Republicans’ fragile coalition for a real run at the White House. And yet, a détente between the two Republican parties can only last for so long. When the fissures finally can no longer be bridged, fault will lie squarely on the national Republican Party’s shoulders. Not for failing to reach out to the center, but for failing to listen to their own.