The Republican Party has something much bigger than a Donald Trump problem
It has a voter problem
The Republican primary season ended precisely as one would expect — with the presumptive nominee sweeping all five of the states that voted. But in other respects, the outcome was just as surreal as everything that preceded it in this extraordinary political year.
While voters were lining up in five states to cast ballots in favor of Donald Trump, Republican senators were lining up to denounce him for his string of blatantly racist comments about Judge Gonzalo Curiel. Maine Sen. Susan Collins, South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake, Illinois Sen. Mark Kirk — all four have now spoken out against Trump, joining Nebraska Sen. Ben Sasse, who spent May as the lone senator who refused to join his fellow Republicans in embracing him. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Speaker Paul Ryan have been more muted in their criticism, but they, too, appear shaken by the need to distance themselves from the poisonous effluence emanating from the mouth and Twitter account of the party's presumptive nominee.
It may be the most blatant example of buyer's remorse in recent American political history. Yet there's not so much regret on the part of the purchasers themselves — there's no sign that voters who cast ballots for Trump have started to turn on him — as regret on the part of those who now have to live with the consequences of the purchase.
Imagine a father discovering that his immature and irresponsible son has taken it upon himself to trade in the family's minivan for a garish, souped-up hot rod. The car is thrilling, in a way. But it's also reckless, a death trap. And so dad frets, wringing his hands, wondering if there's any possible way to take the car back, to protect his son and the rest of the family from the danger.
Those of us who aren't Republicans can find it tempting to mock these men and women — to ridicule their cowardice for first embracing (or at least not standing in outright opposition to) Trump, and then desperately trying to distance themselves from him when he (predictably) proves that, yes, he's the same man who launched his campaign by describing undocumented Mexican immigrants as rapists.
But schadenfreude is cheap. The fact is that Republican politicians are in a terrible bind. Trump is very bad news. But he won the votes. He was the clear choice of the Republican electorate — just as every presidential nominee since the 1970s has been the clear choice of the party's voters. A lot of writers and analysts, especially committed members of the conservative movement, convinced themselves over the past few months that this wasn't true — that Trump's victory was somehow electorally illegitimate. But now that the primary season is officially over, we can see that this is clearly false.
Consider some comparisons:
- In 2012, Mitt Romney was declared the presumptive nominee on April 25 and locked up a majority of the delegates on May 29. This year, Donald Trump became the presumptive nominee on May 3 (just one week later in the primary calendar), and he crossed the delegate-majority threshold on May 26 (three days earlier than Romney did). That's pretty close to a wash.
- In 2012, Romney won approximately 10 million votes during the primary season. This year, Trump is on track to win roughly 14 million votes, four million more, and easily the most ever for a Republican primary candidate. That's a blowout.
- We won't know Trump’s share of the popular vote until all the California ballots are counted, but it looks to be around 45 percent, which is on the low end in historical terms — Romney won the 2012 nomination with 52.1 percent of the vote; George W. Bush won in 2000 with 62 percent; and Barack Obama won in 2008 with 47.3 percent. But it wouldn't be the lowest. That distinction goes to the 38.3 percent won by Walter Mondale in the 1984 primaries. Jimmy Carter won with 40.2 percent in 1976. Again: Trump's tally is somewhat low, but within the norm. (And of course the runner-up, Ted Cruz, finished far back, with just around a quarter of the vote.)
Which means that Republican politicians who take a stand against Trump are ultimately taking a stand against the voters — telling them, in effect, that they made a mistake, and that their will deserves to be thwarted.
That’s not something done lightly in a democracy. It's not even clear that it can be done successfully.
In the case of individual office holders, taking such a stand could easily lead to retribution at the ballot box, including victory for a pro-Trump challenger, which would ultimately further the overall Trumpification of the party.
As for the party as a whole, if its leadership plotted with pledged delegates to attempt to wrest the nomination from Trump at the convention (as some on Twitter appeared to be advocating on Tuesday), the party itself would be torn apart, with roughly 40 percent of its voters feeling justly betrayed. The only question would be whether they would bolt the party altogether to form a new one — or merely refuse to vote at all.
Either way, the GOP would be shattered — and the anger, discontent, and resentment that Trump tapped into with his campaign would still be out there in country, searching for a tribune and champion, only now it would be even further radicalized by the embittering experience of having its wishes scuttled.
The obvious lesson of the 2016 Republican primaries is that the GOP has a serious Trump problem. The less obvious but more fundamental lesson is that the GOP has a serious voter problem.
And that the rest of us do as well.