The obvious message of the Republican Party for 2016 is that it’s desperate to find new voters.
After Mitt Romney’s sobering defeat in 2012, the party’s autopsy heavily stressed the fact that the GOP was going to do its utmost to reach out to demographics that usually prefer Democrats.
Hispanics are at the top of that, and the best way to woo them over, according to many party leaders, is with “immigration reform.”
And that’s one of the many reasons why Republican insiders are so upset with Donald Trump. Trump has skyrocketed in the polls and captured the media’s eye in large part due to his strong rhetoric on immigration.
Consultants and donors alike are wringing their hands at the possibly irreversible damage that The Donald could do to Republican outreach efforts. Besides the party having a bigger problem than Trump when it comes to Hispanic outreach, there’s something else the party is failing to consider when assessing Trump’s popularity: he’s winning over a long-neglected demographic that’s essential to the Republican coalition.
That group is the Middle American Radicals.
National Journal’s John Judis noted this phenomenon in a Friday article appropriately called, “The Return of the Middle American Radical.” Judis, relying on the pioneering work of sociologist Donald Warren, says that the MARS are defined by their defiance of traditional partisan positions.
They tend to be socially conservative, yet economically liberal. They think the rich have too much power and the poor get too many handouts. They distrust Washington, but the MARS believe the solution for the District of Corruption is a more powerful president.
Judis estimates that the MARS make up almost 35 percent of the Republican electorate and 20 percent of voters in general. The number for Republicans roughly corresponds with Trump’s poll percentage. As the author notes, they have formed the backbone of support several insurgent candidates over the years — such as Ross Perot and Pat Buchanan — that were hated by the Beltway establishment but loved by Rust Belt constituents.
Contrary to many analyses of Trump’s popularity that peg it on his celebrity persona or his outsider status, Judis argues that the primary reason for The Donald’s surge is due to his policies. While a common criticism of the businessman-turned-politician is that he lacks any policies, the National Journal editor says what Trump articulates strongly hews to common MARS themes.
On trade, he’s a protectionist. He promises to make no cuts to Social Security and other well-liked government programs. He’s big on law and order. He’s just as likely to attack Wall Street as he is the Washington establishment.
And when it comes to immigration, he’s more in line with the rank-and-file of the party than the prevalent insider orthodoxy.
However, Republican leadership wants to take the complete opposite approach from the MARS constituency — while still hoping the radicals show up on Election Day. Settling upon a strictly economic agenda that puts social issues on the backburner and actively champions unrestricted immigration, Republicans believe that this pro-business, “inspirational” limited government message will make in-roads with other demographics, especially Hispanics.
However, research and recent elections show Hispanics are not going to gaga over this message — even if it is delivered in Spanish. According to a Pew Research poll, only 19 percent of Latinos want less government — nearly 30 percentage points down from the general population. Immigration is also not the highest priority among Hispanic voters.
Additionally, Republicans who have made strong attempts at winning over Hispanics with this message have failed miserably. John McCain, an ardent fan of immigration reform and one of the loudest champions of Latino outreach, won only 31 percent of the Hispanic vote in 2008 — only four points higher than Mitt “self-deportation” Romney’s total in 2012.
Neel Kashkari, the Republican nominee for the 2014 California gubernatorial race and a child of immigrants himself, made a noted outreach effort to Hispanics and essentially ran on the ideal establishment message of pro-growth and super optimism. Not only did Kashkari lose the race by 20 points, he also only won 27 percent of the Hispanic vote.
Even non-Hispanic voters aren’t too thrilled with this message, as evidenced both by Kashkari’s lopsided loss and compiled data. Combing through National Election Studies information, Vox’s Lee Drutman came up with the stark conclusion that far more Americans would prefer the populism espoused by Trump over the Republican establishment promises to cut social security and increase immigration.
While the Republican Party has done nothing to learn from its mistakes, it seems hellbent on purging the remaining Middle American Radicals from its midst. A top Republican consultant has gone on air to predict that his party will “cleanse” itself of Trump supporters after the primary. Every George Will column on The Donald comes with the hope that the loathsome sorts who support the mogul will soon return to their caves.
Meanwhile, the MARS still left in the party continue to support the firebrand mogul over the unified will of the Republican establishment.
And they’ve hit back at the party in the past as well. (See Eric Cantor’s humiliating primary defeat in 2014.)
Republican leadership may think the future of the party resides in demographics that have so far shown no interest in the GOP. But this quest comes at the cost of alienating voters that are essential to winning elections.
Every elected Republican president since Richard Nixon won their terms thanks to the help of MARS. Nixon called them the Silent Majority, and the radicals dubbed Reagan Democrats went for the Gipper en masse. Each candidate made sure to appeal to them and not needlessly alienate them on behalf of a smaller, more desirable constituency.
One of the results of the ongoing Republican civil war is exposing the deep ideological rift between many among the party’s rank-and-file and the guys in charge. If the leaders refuse to mend the fences and plow ahead in a quixotic hunt for a new base, they will not only lose the MARS, they will lose national elections — by wide margins.
Maybe it’s time the GOP realized that Trump is more than a carnival barker and has actually become an unlikely champion for the Middle American Radical.