Just How Deep Is The GOP Divide over Trump?
It goes without saying that the Republican Party’s nomination of Donald Trump, a high-profile businessman with no experience holding elected office, for the presidency has been the most discussed development in American politics this year. News coverage of Mr. Trump’s primary victory eclipsed even that of the first major-party presidential nomination of a woman, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
However, even as ocean waves can sometimes be accompanied by dangerous rip currents, the enthusiasm for Donald Trump’s candidacy within some segments of the GOP has been accompanied by distress within other circles of the party. These competing responses within the Republican Party to Mr. Trump’s nomination can be clearly seen in the behavior of the party’s elected leaders in Washington and in a variety of state capitals.
When it comes to skepticism about Mr. Trump’s nomination, two distinct strains exist within the Republican Party. Harry Enten of FiveThirtyEight wrote last month that “one, embodied by [Ohio governor John] Kasich, objects to Trump on experiential and temperamental grounds — Trump is playing to cultural grievances on issues such as immigration, and the Kasich camp wants a more inclusive GOP.” In the Republican primaries, this wing of the party had difficulty consolidating around one standard-bearer in a crowded field, having to alternate support for former Florida governor Jeb Bush, Florida Senator Marco Rubio, and, of course, Gov. Kasich.
There is another rip current within the Republican Party against Trump’s nomination, and it stems from those who believe that Mr. Trump doesn’t adequately or accurately reflect conservative values. Enten writes that this second strain, “embodied by [Texas Senator Ted] Cruz, objects to Trump on ideological grounds — he’s not a conservative, they argue.”
This critique was nowhere more apparent than when Sen. Cruz neglected to endorse Mr. Trump in a highly controversial speech at the Republican National Convention in July. Jennifer Steinhauer and Matt Flegenheimer at the New York Times observed in July that “Mr. Cruz is clearly gambling that Mr. Trump is likely to lose, perhaps embarrassingly, and that when he does Mr. Cruz will emerge as the strongest spokesman for the Republican Party’s core conservative principles. As the only contender to even put a dent in Mr. Trump’s support, and with a fully operational campaign apparatus still in place, he may be the best positioned out of the gate in 2020.”
It seems obvious that one factor uniting the two strains of anti-Trump sentiment in the Republican Party is the belief that the nominee will lose to Hillary Clinton, and that there will be a subsequent contest among these two groups for the party’s future.
How has Mr. Trump’s nomination complicated Republican politics in more local settings where support for the GOP has been a traditional staple? Looking at recent developments in Texas could provide some insight into this question.
It’s important to remember that the Republican Party hasn’t won a presidential election without a Texan somewhere on the ticket since 1972. Here, even as Sen. Cruz continues to refuse to endorse the nominee, state official George P. Bush, son of former presidential candidate Jeb Bush, has been inching toward support for Mr. Trump, as reported in early August by Patrick Svitek of the Texas Tribune.
Tensions like these in what has been a bellwether state for Republicans speak to the current divisions within the party, but also to the prospect that such divisions will continue even after Mr. Trump wins or loses in November.
Writers at The Atlantic have worked to compile a “cheat sheet” of Republican officeholders, both past and present, who have expressed concern or outright opposition about Mr. Trump, as well as some who have been noticeably silent when it comes to the question of his candidacy at all. These sentiments are reflective of what many rank-and-file Republican voters have expressed in a variety of polls and surveys. One such survey conducted by Quinnipiac University and released on August 25 showed that only 69% of Republican respondents had strong or somewhat favorable views of Mr. Trump, compared to 81% of Democrats who viewed Sec. Clinton in a similarly positive light.
Meanwhile, Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton does not appear to be suffering from similar rip currents within her party. This is because the relationship between the Democratic Party and Sec. Clinton is quite different from the relationship between the GOP and Mr. Trump.
First, Sec. Clinton has been a longstanding presence within her party, while Mr. Trump is only a relatively recent political force within his.
Second, Clinton received a far greater share of support in her party’s primaries and caucuses than Trump received within his.
Third, Sec. Clinton had the luxury of defeating an opponent, Vermont senator Bernie Sanders, whose prospects for another run in 2020 should Clinton lose are incredibly shallow, while Mr. Trump defeated several candidates this spring who see a future for themselves as the Republican presidential nominee in 2020.
These developments within both major parties can be most simply understood as a range of responses to the unconventional, explosive nature of Donald Trump’s candidacy. Democratic leaders have responded by uniting around a nominee about whom they may not have been as enthusiastic in ordinary circumstances, and Republican leaders have responded by working to deepen fissures within the party that existed long before Mr. Trump’s candidacy even began.