How Partisanship Helps Trump
Is Donald Trump so spectacularly awful that he can put a dent in America’s partisan polarization?
The U.S. hasn’t experienced a genuine presidential landslide in more than three decades, when President Ronald Reagan defeated Democrat Walter Mondale in 1984 by 18 points. In recent years, Barack Obama’s 2008 victory over Senator John McCain, by 53 to 47 percent, similar to George H.W. Bush’s 1988 margin over Michael Dukakis, counts as a cakewalk. By contrast, George W. Bush lost the popular vote in 2000 before eking out a narrow victory in 2004. Bill Clinton was twice elected in the 1990s without ever having won a majority at all.
Trump won a bit more than 13 million votes in the Republican primary. Mitt Romney, in losing to Obama in 2012, collected almost 61 million votes. So for Trump to equal Romney’s showing in a similar general electorate, he’ll need an additional 48 million votes.
Trump is at best a nominal Republican. He appears constitutionally incapable of loyalty to an institution or group larger than himself. He seems equally incapable of organizing a competent presidential campaign. Yet the vast majority of Romney votes will accrue to Trump because millions of Republicans are already in the process of convincing themselves that, whatever evidence to the contrary, Trump is the better (though not necessarily best) candidate for the job.
At NBCnews.com, Benjy Sarlin has an excellent report showing how, as the GOP primary campaign progressed, more Republicans, across multiple demographic groups, came to view Trump as an acceptable nominee. By the time Trump became the Republican standard-bearer, partisan loyalty had substantially overcome whatever misgivings voters previously had held.
Often, this loyalty is expressed as “negative partisanship,” a hatred of the other side and its candidate. That works fine for Trump’s brand of politics, which sprays invective like shrapnel.
Yet no one quite like Trump has won the presidential nomination of a major U.S. party. And for weak partisans or voters who lean Republican, especially those who don’t relish Trump’s signature cocktail of racial resentment, ad hominem attacks and dedicated disregard for the grueling demands of the job he seeks, mere partisan loyalty may not be enough. The persistence of the NeverTrump forces indicates that many conservative political and policy professionals will continue to signal that Trump is a uniquely unacceptable candidate.
Is it possible that Trump could be abandoned by millions of voters, losing the election in the kind of landslide the U.S. hasn’t seen in decades? I asked political scientist Alan Abramowitz of Emory University, who has researched American political polarization extensively, if Trump could break the electoral mold this year.
His answer, partly based on 2016 American National Election Studies data: "Partisan polarization remains very large."
Despite Trump, intra-party differences are much smaller than the inter-party differences.... Overall, Republicans are a lot more conservative than Democrats. On social welfare and cultural issues, Trump supporters are slightly less conservative than supporters of other Republican candidates, but the differences are fairly small.
The same is true on the Democratic side, where differences between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders are small compared with the differences between generic Democrats and Republicans.
So the bottom line here is that the Inter-party divide is much larger than the intra-party divide on all policy issues. And this is without screening for voters vs. nonvoters. (Voters are more partisan than nonvoters.) Inter-party differences will undoubtedly be larger when we can focus on voters.
This suggests that in the end, the vast majority of Democrats and Republicans will fall in line and vote for their party’s nominee. Indeed, that is what we are seeing in the polls. For example, in the new Monmouth University poll, only 6 percent of Democrats support Trump and only 8 percent of Republicans support Clinton.
If you believe Trump’s candidacy poses a grave threat to the republic, this is a dispiriting conclusion. But it’s not a surprising one. Recent history has repeatedly confirmed that partisan warfare is more important to many Capitol Hill legislators than any notion of the public interest.
Meanwhile, voters who claim to be fed up with partisanship are actually inclined to emulate it. If Trump is the Republican nominee, tens of millions of Republicans will vote for him.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
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