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What a Trump-Sanders General Election Would Do to the Party Establishment

Author: Jesse S
Created: 01 February, 2016
Updated: 16 October, 2022
4 min read

Are the Democratic and Republican political establishments in trouble? That question seems to be the topic of many headlines since the presidential campaigns of Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump took off. But while support for Sanders can be easily explained -- and not a huge threat to the Democratic establishment -- the Republican Party is going to require some serious soul-searching as they seek to realign themselves with the American populous, should Trump be nominated.

Sanders’ popularity can be traced to a leftward shift in American voting attitudes overall -- capitalizing on the same liberal coalition that got President Barack Obama elected -- as well as the same systemic image issues that have haunted Hillary Clinton since her campaign’s historic collapse in 2008. Just as in 2008, this is still Clinton’s election to lose.

But the truth of the matter is that while the Democratic establishment will likely learn from its mistakes if Sanders is nominated -- distance itself from Wall Street and seek to reunite with the liberal fringe-edge of the party -- the Republicans have been in trouble for a long, long time.

The election of Barack Obama in 2008 all but refuted a popular political science concept called "realignment theory," which posits that the two major political parties fully reform every 30 or 60 years.

Realignment elections often coincide with a surge in support for third parties or populist appeals at economic reform, and require support from new coalitions and a shift in party ideology -- sometimes even a 180 degree turn in attitudes, as when the Republicans went from ending slavery in 1860 to supporting segregation in 1960.

Throughout the course of American political history, there have been five major realignments that political scientists generally agree on:

  1. The election of 1800, which ushered in the fall of the Federalists and the rise of the Jeffersonian-Democrats.
  2. Abraham Lincoln’s election in 1860, which secured a mandate to end slavery and saw the death of the Whig Party.
  3. The 1896 presidential election, when the debate over the gold standard divided the Democrats, who were overcome by a wave of populism, and secured a dominant stretch for Republicans.
  4. The election of Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1932, which began a period of Democratic dominance as they slowly became the welfare party and their coalition began to shift northward.
  5. The 1964 election, which officially secured the North for the Democrats as they capitalized on the Great Society coalition, but began a period of Republican resurgence.

Realignment theorists believed that the Republicans were due for a realignment by 1992; it obviously didn’t happen.

That year, Bill Clinton capitalized on a new moderate Democratic coalition and strong southern support to take back the White House, when that election should have been the exclamation point on a period of Republican preeminence. So what went wrong for the GOP?

It all began with Barry Goldwater’s unsuccessful presidential bid in 1964, in which the senator from Arizona mobilized a large conservative coalition to reject the legacy of the New Deal and usher in a new conservative political vanguard. This same coalition would later be mobilized to elect Ronald Reagan -- the figurehead of today’s Republican Party -- and would inspire Newt Gingrich to write the “Contract with America” in 1994.

Gingrich’s contract was a pledge that all new Republican congressman had to take before entering the House or Senate, which essentially tied them to a set of aging conservative principles from which they could never depart: no new taxes, no supporting LGBT rights, no abortion, etc.

This, in part, explains why Republicans have lagged behind on issues for which the American public has expressed overwhelming support, such as gay marriage and gun control; the Republican establishment is now way out of touch with the average American voter.

Additionally, the flaws of the closed primary system force presidential candidates to appeal to the fringe-edge voters -- the 1% of the respective parties that typically control the outcome of the primaries -- which is why candidates, such as Mitt Romney in 2012, are so often accused of flip-flopping when they enter the general election and are forced to draw a wider and more moderate appeal.

All of this, coupled with the theory of asymmetric polarization -- which posits that the parties have moved further and further apart from each other ideologically over the past 80 years, but that the Republicans have shifted further from the views of the average American voter than have the Democrats -- has given the GOP a serious disadvantage in the transition from the primary to the general election.

The Republicans were due for a major image makeover in 1992, and in 2008 and in 2012, but they failed to pay heed to the warning signs of those elections. Their inability to adjust to new voter trends has cost them a period of political dominance, according to realignment theory, and now it has led to a political outsider, Donald Trump, taking the reins of the 2016 presidential election.

So while the Democrats will likely feel the heat if Bernie Sanders receives their presidential nomination this year, they will recover quickly enough, but the Republicans won’t. They didn’t learn their lesson in 1992; they didn’t learn their lesson in 2008 or in 2012; and if history has proven anything, they likely won’t learn their lesson this year either.

Photo Source: Forward.com