What are we going to learn from all this?
In the midst of a bitter, tumultuous, divisive primary season, Republicans have seen their chances of taking back the White House plummet as the number of likely scenarios dwindles: Ted Cruz or Donald Trump could ride into the fall as a damaged candidate and get slaughtered by Hillary Clinton; or Republicans could unite around the nominee in Cleveland and propel him to victory over Clinton, saving the party’s Senate majority, and ensuring that eight years of Obama’s progressivism is rolled back.
Whatever happens, 2016 will inevitably leave the GOP with a lot to ponder for the future. Here are the biggest questions that the rest of the cycle will answer for Republicans:
1. Is the failure of Republican governors in 2016 a trend that will continue in future cycles?
The post-mortems should begin at the beginning. A big piece of the conventional wisdom entering 2016 was that Republicans had a deep bench of successful governors who had enacted conservative policies and brought economic renewal to their states, and who could promise to do the same nationally. Scott Walker, Rick Perry, Bobby Jindal, Chris Christie, Jeb Bush, Mike Huckabee, and John Kasich entered the race to applause and great expectations. Then, they dropped out, one by one. (Kasich is still standing, but has no viable path forward, the protestations of his team aside.)
An accomplished governor who’s managed to pass big, consequential bills through a state legislature may still be the best presidential option for the GOP. But at least in this cycle, Republican voters have failed to respond to one man after another who fit that bill. Donald Trump’s success suggests Republicans want someone who is as angry as they are about illegal immigration, an insecure border, and a general sense that America’s economy is rigged against them. And that some of the governors above — most notably Jindal and Christie — attempted to project such anger and lost anyway is an indication that governing experience was actually a turn-off for many Republican voters.
Will Republican primary voters ever again be persuaded that the skills of a governor matter in a president?
2. If Ted Cruz wins the nomination, how successful will he be turning out new conservative voters?
Is there a mass of previously unmotivated conservative voters out there, who sat at home in 2008 and 2012, but who will be stirred to come to the polls by an indisputably conservative nominee? That is the big bet of the Ted Cruz campaign. The good news is that Cruz can point to states where his campaign’s data-driven, micro-targeting approach has worked in the primaries: Iowa, Wisconsin, Kansas.
But Trump has had significant success winning these stay-at-home conservatives away from Cruz elsewhere, especially in the South, which was supposed to be the Texas senator’s electoral bulwark. And there are also many states where such voters don’t appear to exist in meaningful numbers.
If Cruz’s campaign couldn’t awaken a sleeping giant of previously lethargic voters in the primaries, how likely is it that he — or any other hard-line conservative candidate — can do so in a general election? How certain can any campaign be that this mass of voters is even out there for the taking?
3. If Trump wins the nomination, what lasting ideological impact will his success have on the GOP?
Trump’s campaign represents nothing less than an attempt to completely redefine the Republican coalition that has survived more-or-less intact since Ronald Reagan was president. No less a figure than Rush Limbaugh has argued that Trump’s success proves the mass of voters traditionally thought of as the Republican base aren’t inherently conservative.
“The Republican Party establishment does not understand this,” Limbaugh said on January 20. “They do not know who their conservative voters are. They’ve overestimated their conservatism, and by that is meant they think they’re dyed-in-the-wool conservative theoreticians absorbed in such things as the free market and all these other bells and whistles, and they’re not. They’re not liberal. They’re not Democrat. . . . Nationalism and populism have overtaken conservatism in terms of appeal.”
Even if the Republican party could win by eschewing conservatism in favor of Trump’s nationalist populism, how many regular GOP voters would find that an unacceptable abandonment of fundamental principles? Is that philosophical objection a big factor behind Trump’s failure to pull away from Clinton in general-election polls of reliable red states such as Utah, Mississippi, and Arizona?
If Republicans nominate Trump, they will touch off a giant, live-action experiment in whether the GOP can win by abandoning traditional conservatism.
There’s considerable evidence that nationalism and populism haven’t overtaken conservatism in terms of appeal; Trump has won about 38 percent of the primary votes so far, and he’s getting demolished in the aforementioned general-election polls.
If Republicans nominate Trump, they will touch off a giant, live-action experiment in whether the GOP can win by abandoning traditional conservatism. Everyone who yearns for a Republican nominee who is protectionist on trade, or who supports a national two-year roundup of illegal immigrants and massive increases in infrastructure spending, or who sees our military alliances as rip-offs, will be happy for at least a moment.
But the general election will also mark a test of those ideas’ viability. If the head-to-head polls are right, and Trump loses, skeptics who think the American electorate is never going to embrace his platform will claim to be vindicated. The most clear-headed of Trump’s fans will insist that a less bombastic, less controversial voice could have won with the same agenda. Which camp’s view will ultimately win out?
4. Will Republicans learn the right lessons from 2016 if they lose?
After every defeat, some voices of the losing party inevitably look for the most soothing and self-congratulatory explanations. In 2004, 2010, and 2014, Democrats assured themselves that they lost because they were unwilling to play dirty the way the Republicans did, or because their ideas were too sophisticated and wonkish to compete with the Republicans’ bumper-sticker slogans.
#related#In light of the demoralizing food fight that this year’s cycle has become, the grim outlook for any GOP contender against the Clintons, and the seeming intractability of the Democratic advantage in the Electoral College, there’s little sign that Republicans learned anything useful from Mitt Romney’s defeat in 2012. The party appears set to have even less appeal to minorities, women, and young voters than it did then.
Every party suffers defeats. The best ones respond by shoring up their weaknesses and coming back stronger the next cycle. If Republicans lose in the fall, will they learn the right lessons?
— Jim Geraghty is the senior political correspondent for National Review.