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How Republicans Rebuild After the Trump Disaster

Megan McArdle is a Bloomberg View columnist. She wrote for the Daily Beast, Newsweek, the Atlantic and the Economist and founded the blog Asymmetrical Information. She is the author of "“The Up Side of Down: Why Failing Well Is the Key to Success.”
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A few weeks back, I interviewed Sean Trende of Real Clear Politics about strategic #NeverTrump voting: How would people do it, and was it a real effect? This week, as the race consolidates, I followed up with Trende to talk about we’ve learned from recent primaries, and more importantly, what the prognosis is for the Republican Party. 

People have started throwing around the word “realignment” -- the tectonic upheavals that periodically roil American politics, as previously solid coalitions suddenly rupture, and a new political order emerges around different issues and different coalitions of interest groups. The last such realignment was the emergence of Reagan and the solidification of the Republican Party around small government ideology. Could we be witnessing another such moment today? And if so, what would that look like? I asked Sean, who among his many accomplishments is the author of "The Lost Majority," a terrific book on coalition politics. 

Our conversation follows, lightly edited for format and flow.

Megan McArdle: To follow up from our last chat, I have to ask: Did we see strategic #NeverTrump voting? Is it a thing?

Sean Trende: Obviously not enough of it for Rubio, but I do think we saw some.

I think if you look at Ohio, for example, Rubio got 3 percent of the vote. That's waaaay lower than in any other state. Kasich's 7 percent in Florida was likewise quite a bit lower than what we've seen post-Super Tuesday. So some of this is hometown favorites, but some of it is strategic voting.

MM: So we really are seeing the #NeverTrump folks come out! Where does the party go from here? It seems unlikely that Cruz can get to 1,237 delegates.

ST: Right, it is virtually impossible for him to get there at this point.

The only question is whether *Trump* gets 1,237. Or in that general vicinity. I mean, Trump has to get about 60 percent of the remaining pledged delegates to clinch. Cruz needs 90 percent of the remaining pledged delegates, while Kasich needs 120 percent. (In other words, he’s mathematically eliminated.) There are winner-take-all states remaining that complicate the calculus somewhat, but most of them are at the very least Trump-curious, so I think it's either a brokered convention or Trump at this point.

MM: Is there any chance that Cruz even starts beating Trump in the late states?

ST: The answer is "it depends." So much depends on what Kasich decides to do.

Given demographics and the way these primaries have turned out, Rubio's voters probably go disproportionately to Kasich, when the Cruz folk desperately need them.

So, this race probably comes down to Kasich. If he stays in, there's a good chance Trump clinches. If he drops out after a couple of races, it probably goes to the convention.

These last races split between races west of the Mississippi, where Cruz has run well, and east, where Trump has dominated, so the playing field makes it possible. 

MM: So let's say that Trump goes to the convention with more of the delegates, but not enough to win outright. The party has two unappetizing choices: Hand it to a guy who didn't get the plurality, or give it to the guy who is going to destroy your party downticket. They could always stage a third-party run to protect those downticket races, whether or not he gets an outright majority, but that creates quite a few problems. Most notably the one that David Frum has talked about: Whoever bolts the party probably loses control over its future.

ST: Right. I personally think the third party is a terrible idea for Republicans. Ever since Perot (and Nader with Democrats) the mantra of the GOP elite has been "you can't run a third party, you'll just hand the race to the Democrats." And a lot of people have sucked it up and voted for candidates they really didn't like because of this logic. Now, the first time the establishment loses a race, it's going to pick up its toys and go home? There will be a splinter candidate every four years forthcoming.

As for the non-plural option, I just don't accept the framing. You can't win the nomination without a majority of the votes, period. So no one with a plurality of delegates will win.

MM: I'm not arguing that it's unjust, just arguing that the Trump supporters will probably perceive it that way and stay home if they don't get their man.

I don't think he'll run third party, because he doesn't have enough money. But I assume that means the GOP loses in November.

ST: Oh I know you're not! I just think it's important for readers to realize that this is a 160-year-old rule, not something ginned up to cheat Trump. A lot depends on how Trump handles it (not well, I assume). But regardless, I think the GOP thinking is that it either loses with Trump or without him. But you'd probably keep the House and have an outside shot at the Senate without him. 

MM: So let's get to the future forecasting. People are starting to talk about realignment. I myself have been trying to game out what a realignment might look like in the future, and I have just failed to see it. There are too many groups that can't be in the same party with both the anti-immigrationists and the evangelicals (who I assume stay).

It's one thing to say the cosmopolitan pro-business types move to the Democrats, but who moves to the GOP? Do we end up with a rump party that can't win national elections?

And if no one's moving, what do the suburban establishment types get out of the Democrats, except not being associated with Donald Trump?

ST: I wrote this piece back in 2012 after Iowa:

Rick Santorum may well be the future of the Republican Party. While I find it highly unlikely that he’ll be the nominee this time out, there’s a good chance that the Republican coalition will fundamentally change in the next 20 years and move toward Santorum’s style of politics. Twice in a row now, the party has toyed with nominating a candidate who combined social conservatism with economic populism; Santorum’s speech last night was essentially a northern version of a speech Mike Huckabee could have delivered in 2008.

It goes on, but you get the gist. Finding an outsider to build a new coalition is always tricky. I mean, no one really thought Democrats could win without working-class whites -- Howard Dean's point post-2004 -- yet Barack Obama showed the way they could. And I'm not sure anyone else could have put together that coalition.

The key for Republicans would be finding the right candidate. A candidate like Trump, but without his, erm, excesses.

Quite frankly, I think the only way Republicans break away African-Americans and Hispanics from Democrats is with a sort of class-based appeal like Trump makes. The problem is that the folk who make these appeals often have heavily racialized sentiments.

MM: And can that appeal be made without the racial/immigration element?

ST: That's the tricky part! I think there is a way to be opposed to immigration reform (which I'm not) without the accusations of raping and pillaging that Trump makes. And I think the trade/immigration combo has quite a bit of salience to African-American voters, whose attitudes on immigration look a lot more like whites' than Hispanics'.

But like I said, it is tricky. There's probably no one besides Obama who could have increased African-American turnout like he did without scaring away an awful lot of whites. It is just a matter of finding the right candidate.

MM: So let's say that happens. There are a number of people in my Facebook feed who seem to be excited by the prospect of uniting all the cosmopolitan professionals into one party. Yet it seems to me that putting the 20 percent of the country that's doing pretty well into one party is not a recipe for a calmer, less gridlocked politics, but rather, for a war of the 80 percent on the 20 percent. Which the 20 percent seems likely to lose, so I’m not clear on why my educated, secular, urban friends are so excited about it.

ST: Indeed. I think upper-middle-class seculars -- and even upper-middle-class religious folk -- don't realize just how much of a minority they are in this country.

People go apoplectic on both sides whenever a candidate says something critical of evolution, and I always think to myself: "Yeah, but you do know that the evolution viewpoint is still a minority in this country, right?"

I'm guessing most of my friends never interact with people who think the world is 6,000 years old, or who are strongly opposed to gay marriage, or who didn't go to college, but these are not obscure viewpoints/experiences in this world. And the more the "elite" decide to band together in a single party, the more the anti-elite folk will congeal.

I remember a few years after I graduated high school, this horribly unpopular guy won homecoming king. And he did it by putting up posters all over the school that just said "there are more of us than there are of them." I could see a similar thing happening in U.S. politics, and it isn't going to be pretty.

MM: One way of telling the story is that over the last 40 years, the elites have banded together to do a bunch of stuff that wasn't popular: trade, immigration, deregulation. All of that stuff works in an economics textbook, but it doesn't work politically. And on both sides, the elites won by sublimating those impulses to other stuff -- culture war stuff.

Now that the culture war has been largely "won," what you're left with is rearguard skirmishes about religious liberty. And the populist identity politics that was sublimated is now unleashed.

ST: And the PC identity politics stuff as well, which seems to be of increasing salience. But that's exactly right: What do the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times agree on? Trade and immigration. Even this rough truce we have on the top tax rate being between 35 and 39.6 percent.

The problem is that there really are short-term losers with trade and immigration. Anyone who points this out gets a healthy dose of "listen to your betters!" Which I'm guilty of at times, even though I'm aware I'm a clear economic winner in these fights.

MM: I look at the list of policies that Democrats are offering, and with the exception of the mass incarceration stuff -- which is also gaining currency on the right, so it's not even that big of a wedge issue -- and the $15-an-hour minimum wage, it's all stuff the professional class wants, which may also benefit the working class, but really isn't primarily for them.

And of course, the GOP has tax cuts. I regret that text cannot convey the volume of the sigh I would like to issue about their fixation on tax cuts.

ST: But Reagan! Really, that's what it comes down to, even though there's a world of difference between a top rate of 70 percent and 40 percent.

At a time when we're having a slow recovery that really does skew to the benefit of the upper classes, it's just odd that no one is really making suggestions for working- and lower-middle-class folks. I think Democrats assume that they can keep African Americans and Hispanics in the tent with identity politics, and Republicans seem determined to prove them correct.

However, I'm not sure that works in the medium to long term. Tom Edsall had a good piece in the Times a few days back that asked whether there would be an African-American revolt against the Democratic Party in the near future. I think he's probably correct.

MM: Interesting. Why do you think that?

ST: Y'know, before Trump, if you looked at the African-American vote in 2012 by age, and registration numbers, there was less loyalty to the Democratic Party among younger blacks than older blacks. Not massive, but still notable, and replicated across multiple datasets.

If you look at how blacks left the Republican Party, it is just a familiar story. Republicans started to take blacks for granted, had no solution to the Great Depression, and the last generation that remembered Lincoln was dying off.

It's a sort of similar situation today. I'm not talking about 80 percent of blacks voting for Republicans anytime soon, or even 20 percent. But I think as identity politics gradually lose salience and especially because Clinton (I assume she will be president) is almost certainly going to be hit with a recession, it makes things a bit interesting for the first time in a long time.

MM: I keep coming back to the same question, though: How do you get African-Americans in the same party with what we saw at the Trump rallies?

ST: That was the Democrats' problem for decades, and it is part of the Republicans'!

Look, Trump has certainly set this back quite a bit. No doubt about that. But I also don't know that African-Americans are naturally part of a coalition that is dedicated to making sure that it is as easy as possible for capital to flow across border, to automate everything, etc.

It's an odd moment in American politics. We've had this red/blue map basically since 1992, and this political divide since 1968. Now it just feels like things are falling apart. And when things have fallen apart in the past, the outcomes are very strange. Who would have thought that 12 years after the Democratic convention deadlocked over whether to condemn the KKK (in 1924), a Democratic president who refused to pursue an anti-lynching law (Franklin D. Roosevelt) would win 70 percent of the black vote?

MM: Yes, that's the thing that people always forget: When realignments happen, they usually break open over issues that haven't been issues in politics for the previous few decades. If that weren't the case, there wouldn't be a realignment.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Megan McArdle at mmcardle3@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Philip Gray at philipgray@bloomberg.net