What has happened to the GOP — and what should be done about it?
Clearly the party is on the precipice of a disaster. But it’s a precipice familiar in the history of American political parties. What is happening to Republicans is not pleasant, but it is not unique. At least four times since the Civil War era, major parties have imploded from internal pressures among competing wings of the party. Indeed, the GOP in 2016 had a good chance of being torn apart with or without Donald Trump, given the party’s gaping divisions on the urgent questions of the day.
However, no party as strife-torn as the present GOP has ever won the presidency. The list of those that have tried and failed is long and sobering and includes both Democrats and Republicans.
In the 1850s, it was the national Whig Party that fell apart over the slavery issue when its northern and southern wings split apart. After the split, the Whigs never won another presidential election and soon ceased functioning as a major party.
During the 1890s populist uprisings, it was Democrat-infighting that split their party so thoroughly that they only won two presidential elections between 1896 and 1932.
Republicans accomplished the same during the Teddy Roosevelt insurrection in 1912 when the former president bolted the party after failing to secure the Republican nomination. He subsequently ran as the “Bull Moose” Progressive Party nominee, badly dividing the Republican Party and enabling Woodrow Wilson to capture the presidency for two terms. The GOP actually finished third that year, the only time that has happened to a major party outside the Civil War era
More recently, the disastrous 1968 Democratic convention, driven by acrimony over the Vietnam War, produced riots in Lincoln Park that spilled out onto the streets of Chicago. Witnessed by millions on television, the riots, the nomination of Hubert Humphrey as a pro-war candidate at that time, and some ugly scenes inside the convention arena allowed Richard Nixon to narrowly defeat Humphrey in November.
All these examples provide vivid testimony to the fate awaiting a party riven with division and factionalism — as were the Whigs in the 1850s, the Democrats in the 1890s, the Republicans in 1912, the Democrats in the late 1960s — and now the GOP in 2016.
What has happened to the GOP in 2016 is much less important than what Republicans do about it. Losing a presidential election is survivable, even strengthening for a party. No better recent example exists then the Republicans’ shocking loss in 1964 when Democrat Lyndon Johnson beat Republican Barry Goldwater, winning 61 percent of the popular vote. Johnson’s victory encouraged many pundits to predict the end of the Republican Party. Yet, the GOP went on to win five of the next six presidential elections.
But losing a presidential election and losing a party at the same time is not survivable, as the Whigs of the 1850s demonstrated. This is the real dilemma for the Republicans in 2016. Can they lose an election without losing a party?
There are probably two main ways they can lose a party. One is to promote independent or third-party candidacies that will only erode Trump’s fragile electoral strength, while defeating efforts to achieve some measure of party unity. Trump is unlikely to win the presidential race, but how he loses it matters. That was the main lesson of 1912 when Teddy Roosevelt’s third-party efforts relegated the GOP to minor party status and a third-place finish.
The other main way the GOP can lose a party in 2016 is to lose their majorities in Congress. Presently, Republicans hold a four-seat margin over Democrats in the Senate with Republicans defending 24 of the 34 seats up for election in 2016. Democratic control of the U.S. Senate is clearly in reach even without a weak GOP presidential nominee.
In an era of, increasingly, straight ticket voting, Trump likely will be the inevitable drag on “down ticket” races, including Senate seats. In fact, Republican senators in clearly “endangered” seats are already moving away from Trump while polishing their bona fides as “independents.”
The situation in the House seems much less perilous for Republicans since the GOP now holds a 246- to 188-seat edge. Yet some analysts are already speculating that a Trump ticket might threaten Republican control of the House as well as the Senate.
In a political year in which almost all assumptions have been turned on their head, Republicans would be foolish to assume the House is safe.
The strategic imperative for the GOP is clear: protect its congressional majorities while holding the national party together at the presidential level. Tactically, this means to fund the presidential race with as much money as necessary — not more money than necessary — to show the flag.
A Democratic president and a Republican Congress would be a status quo election for the country, a bitter disappointment for Democrats and a huge victory for Republicans.
The GOP will have lost an election but kept a party. Before this election is over that might look like a pretty good deal.
G. Terry Madonna is professor of public affairs at Franklin & Marshall College, and Michael Young is a speaker, pollster, author, and was professor of politics and public affairs at Penn State. They can be reached, respectively, at terry.
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