Seriously. Is the GOP Establishment Failing?

by Charles J. Reid, Jr. Professor of Law, University of St. Thomas 19.10.2015

This is an important question. Indeed, the dominant news story of the 2015/2016 election cylcle might well prove to be the steady implosion of the Republican Party establishment.

At the risk of painting with a very broad brush, we should begin by defining the difference between establishment and insurgent Republicans. Establishment Republicans tend to be affluent. Their principal policy objectives tend to be economic -- lower tax rates and a deregulated business environment. By and large, they are indifferent to the issues that excite social conservatives, from gay marriage, to gun rights, to the teaching of evolution in the public schools.

Insurgent Republicans, on the other hand, tend to come from more difficult economic circumstances. By and large, they are not well off or even financially stable. They tend to be motivated by the same social issues that matter little to the establishment. Repealing or limiting Dodd-Frank does not stir their passions. Mention the Federal Reserve and interest rate policy and that may stimulate more talk of conspiracy than investment strategy. International trade agreements are apt to arouse fear, not enthusiasm. To the establishment, Medicare is an "entitlement" that should be limited, reduced, or privatized. To the base, Medicare is an important part of the social contract.

In other words, there is a real divergence between establishment and insurgent wings of the party -- they come from different social backgrounds and have widely divergent needs, interests, and policy concerns. It is hard to see the stars from reality television shows like Duck Dynasty or Nineteen Kids and Counting (or, better, their fans), socializing with Hank Paulson, the Koch Brothers, or the principal shareholders of Halliburton. But these two very different groups have shared the same political party for a long time.

Indeed, from 1988 to 2012, the Republican primary contests had a predictable structure. There would be an establishment favorite and one or more insurgent outsiders. In 1988, the establishment's choice was the sitting Vice President George H.W. Bush and the insurgent was Pat Robertson. In 1992, Pat Buchanan played the part of the insurgent. In 1996, Bob Dole was the insiders' choice while Alan Keyes was the darling of the social conservatives. In 2000, Alan Keyes reprised his role, but shared the stage with Gary Bauer. And so forth and so on. Thus in 2012, Rick Santorum played the insurgent to the establishment's favorite son, Mitt Romney.

The pattern seemed almost genetically wired into the Republican nominating process. With the exception of the pugnacious Pat Buchanan, whose speech at the 1992 Republican Convention popularized the expression "culture war," the insurgent candidate played an important but subsidiary and carefully-choreographed role: Arouse so-called "base voters," turn them out for the primary, keep them engaged and enthused, and at the end of the day graciously endorse the establishment's choice.

A chief reason for these foreordained outcomes was money. Establishment candidates, by definition, attract large sums of insider money. Insurgent candidacies have never, and almost by definition, can never be well-funded. And steady streams of unanswered negative advertising, such as the barrage Mitt Romney directed at Rick Santorum in the 2012 South Carolina primary, will take its toll.

But it is this pattern that seems to be shredding before our eyes. Journalists have had difficulty grasping what is occurring. Thus we have been witness to a plethora of columns and news reports predicting the eminent collapse of Donald Trump or Ben Carson or explaining how the establishment will soon rally the Party to its candidate of choice.

So far, none of these predictions show even the prospect of coming true. And until they do, we might want to entertain an alternative hypothesis: perhaps we are catching a glimpse of what certainly appears to be the dissolution of what had been the most stable if improbable of coalitions.

Just consider what is happening. Let's begin by dividing the candidates roughly into two large camps: "insurgent" candidates and "establishment" candidates. For the sake of analysis, let's group the religious right candidates with the insurgents. Rand Paul is in many respects his own special case, but his support is barely more than negligible, so let's leave his numbers out.

And to put names with categories, we should place Donald Trump, Ben Carson, Carly Fiorina, Ted Cruz, Mike Huckabee, and Rick Santorum among the insurgents. Included among the establishment candidates are Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, John Kasich, Chris Christie, Lindsey Graham, and George Pataki. The categories are not air-tight. Fiorina could well be acceptable to some portions of the establishment and Rubio might be acceptable to some elements of the insurgent right wing. Ted Cruz has raised the kind of money usually associated with an establishment candidate and he is a sitting Senator, but his campaign is based on opposition to the establishment. Still, the dividing lines seem to work well enough.

And if we sort the candidates into these two large categories, we see a pattern that has held steady for a couple of months now. The insurgent side of the equation receives somewhere around 55 percent and 65 percent of the vote, according to Huff Post Pollster. The most recent round of polls only confirms this trend. I am using poll results posted for October 16, 2015. According to the latest Ipsos Reuters poll, Trump, Carson, Cruz, Fiorina, Huckabee, and Santorum combine for 63 percent. In the latest NBC poll, this sextet receives 66 percent. The establishment candidates, on the other hand, are supported by 24 percent in Ipsos Reuters, while in the NBC poll that support drops to 19 percent. Thus if we look at this contest as insurgency vs. establishment, the insurgent candidates, as a group, are consistently receiving double the support of the establishment, if not more.

This analysis leads to two further questions: Why is this primary contest seemingly so different from those that have gone before? And what will the establishment do about it?

To ask why this primary is different, we must consider what amounts to a sociological question: Why have Republican base voters become so intensely alienated from the establishment?

It is a question that deserves a book. It is impossible to answer this question in a single column, let alone a paragraph or two. Still, we might impressionistically list a few factors. Conservative media has long profited from cultivating a sense of almost apocalyptic alienation among the most fervent true believers. Whole segments of the conservative movement, furthermore, such as the religious right, appear to be steadily withdrawing from association with the larger culture, a withdrawal that is highlighted by campaigns to obtain religiously-based exemptions from neutrally-applicable law. The Republican establishment -- think Lee Atwater and a host of others like him -- grew expert at emitting coded signals on questions like race. And the entire mix has become super-charged by the various opportunities presented by social media.

And what will the establishment do about it? Certainly, the establishment has money on its side. And in election cycles past that money was put to good use in opposition research and in carpet-bombing underfunded opponents with negative advertisements. Surely, those tactics will be tried again. But what if the old standbys no longer work? Will there be a convention fight? Then what? Stay tuned.

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