When Donald Trump spoke to the annual Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), he was largely addressing his core supporters, and he made three things very clear: first, he has no intention of forming a new political party; second, he will personally try to purge the Republican Party of any candidate not loyal to him by endorsing their opponent in the midterm election; and, third, he strongly hinted he will run again for president in 2024 — to the great approval of those in attendance.
The former president spent some time criticizing the policies being pushed by the far left of the Democrat Party, which includes some pretty expensive and goofy stuff. But it is not clear to me how much the left-wing tail is going to wag the Democrat dog. Executive rules are not laws, and there are a few moderate Democrats (yes, they do exist) who are likely to join with Republicans in opposing many of the more radical proposals when they come up in Congress, where the Democrats have just a 10-vote margin.
But Trump devoted most of his time to taking personal credit for the policy successes of his administration — some of which were a bit dubious — and maintaining that the election was stolen from him, despite all the evidence to the contrary.
One of the things I found most concerning about Trump’s statements was his refusal to acknowledge that many conservative Republicans split their ticket, holding their noses and voting for Biden because they didn’t like Trump’s polarizing style, combative personality, vindictiveness, trashing of his opponents and self-promotion and self-praise. He can say that it is just his “business style” of leadership that makes him so successful. But I know many people who operate successful businesses and they don’t act like Trump.
As best I can tell from watching Trump’s poll numbers over the years, his “base” support — those who believe everything he says and think he walks on water — appears to be around 25 percent of the voting population. That is a lot of people, but it is not all the Republicans.
Nationally, about 40 percent of voters are registered as Democrats, 30 percent are Republicans and 30 percent are independents. (It is hard to know for sure because not all states have voter registration by party.) But my experience working for the Republicans is that many Trump supporters are registered as independents and they don’t much like Republicans — they only like Trump. If that is the case, it means that about half the registered Republicans are not true-blue Trump supporters; they just dislike the Democrat left more than they dislike Trump.
If this is so, it means that about half the registered Republicans are potential ticket-splitters. We saw this in Louisiana, when John Bel Edwards was elected governor while every other statewide office was won by a Republican. The only way that can happen is if Republicans are splitting their tickets.
We saw something similar happen in the 2000 presidential race. Republicans picked up 11 seats in Congress, including all 27 swing elections, narrowing the Democrats’ control to 222 to 211. That suggests to me that there was a fair amount of ticket-splitting among my moderate Republican friends who were unwilling to vote for Trump.
What makes this relevant to the future of the Republican party is that if Trump carries out his purge of moderate Republicans, he is likely to end up with a base of 25 to 30 percent made up of his hardcore supporters. Those percentages are not the way to win national elections.
Our two-party system is based more on coalition building than ideology, with the goal of assembling and holding together a coalition of more than 50 percent of the voters. Nixon, Reagan and the Bushes won by drawing “The Solid South” away from the Democrat Party. Even today in red state Louisiana, registered Democrats outnumber registered Republicans by about 20 percent.
A lot of the credit for Trump’s surprising win over Hillary Clinton in 2016 can be attributed to his drawing blue-collar union workers in midwestern states like Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania and West Virginia who were once dependable Democrat voters.
So, the political question right now is, could a purged “Trumplican” party win a national election? The only way I see that happening is if there is a strong third party in the race, so that it only takes 35 percent to win.
If a third party were to form for the 2024 presidential election, what would that coalition look like? It would probably draw about half of the registered (traditional) Republicans. But that is only about 20 percent of the total voters. So it would need to pick up another 20 percent from independents and registered Democrats. Whether than can happen will depend on who the Democrats choose as their candidates. The far left makes a lot of noise, but they are probably less than 30 percent of all Democrats (15 percent of all voters) and concentrated in major metropolitan areas. So, if the Democrats went with a radical left ticket, you could see a lot of defections to a moderate third party.
If that were to happen, who might be the Democrat defectors?
Right now, the traditional conservative Republicans can only count on about 20 percent of the vote. Even in a three-way race, they would need to pick up 15 to 20 percent to have a chance of winning.
The biggest bloc up for grabs is the 22 million millennials and Generation X voters, who are growing in number while many of Trump’s older voters are dying off. These young people will be the key to the 2024 election.
I am now 75 years old. I was born in 1946, a few months within the birth dates of George Bush, Bill and Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, and about three years after Joe Biden. Recent polls indicate that most millennials are disillusioned with big government programs designed to fix things that end up making them worse while lining the pockets of their big donors. Millennials do want to change the world and make it a better place. They care a great deal about racism, gender equality, climate change, good health (not just cheap health care), education and social networking.
If a third party does emerge, it will have to be built around the issues that these young people care about and in a manner they trust. The internet, social media, individual action and modern technology are likely to play an increasing role in our political future.