30 October 2015

Toxic Trump: the GOP’s populist crisis and how Cameron dodged the same bullet

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As America experiences a demographic transformation, the rising new American electorate poses an existential challenge to the future of the Republican Party, write Frank Sharry and Sunder Katwala.  The so-called Obama Coalition – comprised of African Americans, Latinos, Asian-Americans, educated whites, unmarried women and young voters – is growing.  The Republican electorate – increasingly white, elderly, exurban and downscale – is shrinking.  It’s no surprise, then, that the Democrats have won the popular vote in four of the last five national elections.

After the 2012 election, the Republican Party issued an autopsy arguing that the only way for the GOP to regain the White House is to expand its appeal, especially among Latino and Asian voters, groups considered less tied to the Democrats.  It should have been a wake-up call for the Republicans that Mitt Romney won 6 out of 10 white voters in 2012 and yet did not gain the White House. Twenty years earlier, that would have given him a majority of the public vote, without needing a single black or Hispanic voter. With the white vote accounting for 72% of the electorate in 2012, it was clear that it had become impossible to win the Presidency with a strategy focused solely or primarily on turning out the white American vote.

Britain’s Conservative Party faced a similar wake-up call after the 2010 General Election. Projections from British Future showed that David Cameron could have secured an outright majority in 2010 if his Party’s appeal to ethnic minorities had been as strong as it was to the electorate as a whole – and that the ‘ethnic gap’ in Conservative support would cost the party more votes in successive elections to come unless it was bridged.

However, the problem for US Republican strategists is that this analysis, of the demographic crisis facing the party, remains deeply contested within Republican politics. The populist right of the party regards such a strategy as ‘pandering to minorities who look to government for help’, and instead propose that the GOP needs a populist voice who will turn out disaffected white voters who feel left behind by economic and cultural change, and who will rally to a candidate and a party that speaks to their concerns.

Donald Trump speaking at CPAC 2011 in Washington, D.C. Picture: Gage Skidmore
Donald Trump speaking at CPAC 2011 in Washington, D.C.
Picture: Gage Skidmore

Enter Donald Trump.  Without question, he has activated white working class voters, including many who are nominally Republican but infrequent voters.  And if he wins the nomination – a possibility in a multi-candidate field – his candidacy will test the proposition that the GOP’s future lies in mobilizing white voters, including disaffected “white identity” voters.

More likely, however, is that his anti-immigrant demagoguery will result in unprecedented turnout by Latinos and Asians, other constituents of the Obama Coalition, as well as independents and moderate Republicans who don’t want to vote for a party considered racist.  In fact, Trump’s nomination could lead to a wave election that delivers both the White House and the Congress to the Democrats.

Trump has mobilised a base of support – but he is mobilising his opponents too.

Trump’s acute unpopularity with Latino voters is clear. A boosted Latino sample for the September 2015 NBC News/Wall Street Journal/Telemundo poll found that only 11% of Latinos view Trump positively (only 3% “very positively”), while a whopping 72% view Trump negatively (67% “very negatively”). A recent MSNBC/Telemundo poll found that 70% of Latinos say they see Trump as insulting and offensive, compared to 26% who say “he tells it like it is”.

The best in-depth analysis of the changing electorate and the likely composition of the November 2016 voters suggests that a winning Republican strategy needs to seek to capture 42-47% of the Latino vote, yet the Republican share has been slipping since George W Bush did temporarily broaden the party’s appeal in 2004 up towards that benchmark. The Republicans are falling far short of the Latino voter threshold they need, as the NBC/WSJ/Telemundo polling shows: today, about twice as many Latinos say they’d like to see a Democrat in the White House in 2017 (51 percent) than a Republican (24 percent).

It isn’t just that Trump would trail Hillary Clinton 17% to 72% among Latino voters – a surely fatal share given US demographics today. Jeb Bush trails 60% to 32% to Clinton among Latino voters, despite being a candidate who can speak, in Spanish, about how his marriage to a Mexican has helped to inform his moderate pro-migration views. While this latest round of polling did not include a Rubio-Clinton match-up, the May 2015 NBC/WSJ/Telemundo poll found Rubio trailed Hillary Clinton by a 63% to 32% margin. A Latino candidate may expect a hearing from Latino voters but content matters too. Rubio has lost support by back-tracking from his earlier championing of immigration reform to trim to the prevailing wind within the Republican debate.

Many Republican insiders hope to see Trump eclipsed by an establishment candidate such as Jeb Bush or Marco Rubio – both of whom tout their appeal to Latino voters.
But will they be able to free themselves from the toxic undertow of Trump?

One problem is that both have leaned right in the primary contest on defining issues such as immigration.  But the bigger problem is that the rise of Trump and the hard-right lurch of the Republican Party in Congress cemented the damaged brand of the GOP.  It is now known as the anti-immigrant, anti-Latino party.  The Democrats won’t have to run against a Bush or a Rubio in ethnic communities.  All they have to do is run against the scary GOP.

Only one in four Latinos view the Republican Party positively, while four out of ten have a poor impression of the GOP.  By contrast, the Democratic Party gets relatively good marks from the rapidly-growing minority group.  Forty-eight per cent of Latinos have a positive view of the party, while 19 per cent say they have a negative view of it.

And Republicans might be particularly worried that, even with over a year to go, a majority (56%) of Latino voters score their personal interest in the 2016 elections as 10/10 – a level of engagement that in the last electoral cycle was only reached towards the closing weeks of the General Election campaign.

That increased intensity of Hispanic interest in this Presidential election is undoubtedly Donald Trump’s personal achievement – but his party’s ultimate nominee for the Presidency won’t be thanking him for it.

The Republican party’s continuing struggle to balance these competing pressures of demographic change and populism means leading Republicans casting an increasingly envious eye across the Atlantic at how David Cameron successfully won the British General Election, despite facing a populist challenge himself.

Trump’s rise does seem to parallel the rise of Nigel Farage and UKIP.  Anti-global, anti-immigrant, ultra-nationalistic and disdainful of the political class, both tap into the anger, frustration and sense of loss felt by aggrieved, working-class whites.

The crucial difference is that America’s two-party system means Trump arises within the Republican Party while Farage arose outside of the Conservative Party, as an angry challenge from a rival party. As a result, David Cameron seems to have used the rise of UKIP to detoxify his party such that Conservatives expanded their appeal. He won an increased vote despite that UKIP revolt. David Cameron managed to persuade a large section of the centrist LibDem vote to abandon Nick Clegg’s party, and British Future’s research shows that he won his party’s best ever share of ethnic minority voters too.

One thing that seems to have helped David Cameron overcome his party’s image problem with ethnic minority voters was that the echoes of the arguments which had put minority voters off in past generations were no longer coming from within the Tory party, but as an angry challenge from the outside.

In the U.S. the Republican Party has no such trajectory.  The party has defined itself and it would be a major challenge for any candidate to pivot from this ugly primary and redefine its brand in time to broaden its appeal.

Even if a Bush or a Rubio aggressively embraced such a strategy, it would mean that a sizable chunk of Republican primary voters – many of whom currently support Trump – will simply stay home or be drawn to a non-Trump third party protest candidate.

It seems from this side of the pond that the Conservative Party in the UK need not fear death by demographics.  In the U.S. their conservative counterparts are still heading over a demographic cliff and there is no centrist moderate leader on the horizon to save it from its fall.

Frank Sharry is founder and executive director of America’s Voice. He is among the leading expert voices in the US on public attitudes towards identity and immigration, and the impacts of demographic change on US electoral politics. 

Sunder Katwala is Director of British Future.

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