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Maybe Republicans Really Are In Disarray

As many of you have probably noticed, we’re suspicious of overarching political “narratives” here at FiveThirtyEight. Oftentimes, they’re applied prematurely to explain short-term fluctuations in the polls that prove irrelevant in the end.1 And even when narratives avoid this problem, they tend to be ad hoc, introduced after the fact to describe results rather than predicting them in advance.

Which narratives deserve more credit? We’re inclined to give more attention to theories of the 2016 campaign that (in the manner of testable scientific hypotheses) were proposed before it began. And we give more credence to narratives that rely on evidence other than polls,2 since polls just aren’t very predictive of much at this stage of the campaign.

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Here’s one narrative that passes these tests. You might or might not agree with it, but it deserves a hearing. I was reminded of it the other day when reading an interview with the political scientists Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein, who have written extensively about it. The theory is that Republicans are a broken, dysfunctional political party — that the GOP is in disarray, in other words.

This idea has a little bit of tenure, having been introduced by Mann and Ornstein several years ago. And it can conjure plenty of evidence other than polls. For instance:

  • The Republican speaker of the House, John Boehner, recently resigned under pressure from a dissident group of Republicans, the House Freedom Caucus.
  • Under Republican leadership, the House entered into an unpopular government shutdown and only narrowly avoided a crisis over raising the debt ceiling.
  • The 112th and 113th congresses were among the least productive ever as measured by the amount of legislation passed, with filibusters and other parliamentary tactics used frequently.
  • Statistical measurements of voting in Congress like DW-Nominate find that Republicans are, on average, more conservative than at any point in the modern era. Democrats in Congress have also become more liberal, especially in the past few years, but the polarization is asymmetric (Republicans have moved to the right more than Democrats have moved to the left).
  • Nonetheless, there are also high levels of disagreement among Republicans in Congress. Because Congress is highly partisan, Republicans may be largely united when voting against Democrats, but this conceals profound differences among Republicans about tactics, strategy and policy objectives.
  • In 2010, 2012 and 2014, Republican incumbents such as House Majority Leader Eric Cantor and Sen. Dick Lugar of Indiana were ousted in primary challenges. Meanwhile, “outsider” candidates such as Christine O’Donnell in Delaware and Ken Buck in Colorado won the Republican nomination in key open-seat Senate races, possibly costing the GOP several Senate seats.
  • Although establishment-backed candidates eventually won, Republicans were relatively slow to settle on presidential nominees in 2008 and 2012 as compared with previous years. The 2012 campaign featured several surges for candidates like Herman Cain and Newt Gingrich who were openly opposed by the party establishment.
  • Republicans are apparently having trouble choosing their 2016 nominee as well, not just as measured by the polls, but also according to other measures of support like fundraising and endorsements.

That seems like a coherent story. But before you get too comfortable with it, consider the following rebuttals.

The Republican speaker of the House, John Boehner, recently resigned under pressure from a dissident group of Republicans, the House Freedom Caucus.

Boehner may have resigned his speakership, but he served for a reasonably long time and was reasonably effectual at the job. Furthermore, after all the drama, the new speaker will probably wind up being Paul Ryan — who has plenty of establishment backing and who got the Freedom Caucus to accede to several of his conditions.

Under Republican leadership, the House entered into an unpopular government shutdown and only narrowly avoided a crisis over raising the debt ceiling.

The government shutdown was short-lived and probably did not cause substantial long-term damage to the GOP. And while the fights over the debt ceiling may have been scary, it’s not clear how close we actually came to breaching it — tense negotiations often involve brinksmanship.

The 112th and 113th congresses were among the least productive ever as measured by the amount of legislation passed, with filibusters and other parliamentary tactics used frequently.

This could just as easily result from plain ol’ partisanship and divided government — Democrats were in charge of the White House and (until this year) the Senate.

Statistical measurements of voting in Congress like DW-Nominate find that Republicans in Congress are, on average, more conservative than at any point in the modern era.

This data doesn’t necessarily prove that Republicans are dysfunctional. Instead, it just suggests they’ve become more conservative. A party can be extremely conservative (or extremely liberal) but also highly organized.

There are high levels of disagreement among Republicans in Congress.

Perhaps, but these intramural debates may be largely irrelevant. The GOP does not have much ability to affect policy so long as Democrats control the White House, and their behavior might change were they to win the presidency again. Republicans were reasonably unified when they last had unilateral control of government under George W. Bush.

In 2010, 2012 and 2014, Republican incumbents such as House Majority Leader Eric Cantor and Sen. Dick Lugar of Indiana were ousted in primary challenges. Meanwhile, “outsider” candidates like Christine O’Donnell and Ken Buck won the Republican nomination in key open-seat races, possibly costing the GOP several seats in the Senate.

Some incumbents lost — but the vast majority survived. And it’s hard to argue that the tea party was all that damaging to Republicans given that the GOP had historically great midterm results in both 2010 and 2014. Overall, Republicans are doing quite well electorally, with the obvious and important exception of the presidency.

Although establishment-backed candidates eventually won, Republicans were relatively slow to settle on presidential nominees in 2008 and 2012 as compared with previous years.

These elections seem par for the course: John McCain and Mitt Romney wrapped up their respective nominations by Super Tuesday or shortly thereafter, which is about average for past nomination races. Also, the “Party Decides” theory of presidential primaries favored by political scientists (we like it too) is mostly focused on the end result of the nomination process. It predicts that candidates must have some establishment backing to win their nominations in the end; it doesn’t have that much to say about the path they take to get there.

Republicans are apparently having trouble choosing their 2016 nominee as well.

Emphasis on “apparently”; it’s still early. Almost every nomination race seems dramatic in real time. Almost every time, people advance convincing-seeming arguments about how “this time is different” and how past rules should be thrown out. And yet, almost every time, a fairly conventional candidate wins the nomination in the end.


So then, the “Republicans in Disarray!” theory has been debunked? No, not really; I just wanted to present both sides of the case. (Welcome to FiveThirtyEight, the site where we argue against ourselves.) Grand theories of politics are hard to prove definitively given the paucity of actual election results (just one data point every two or four years, depending on how you’re counting). The “Republicans in Disarray!” argument is credible, and pretty convincing when applied to Congress. But it’s not dispositive. Even if you buy it, you also have to decide where the theory applies; what effect it has on presidential primaries (as opposed to congressional elections) or on election outcomes (as opposed to governance once a candidate is elected to office) is hard to say.

But there is one dynamic of the 2016 GOP presidential primary that lends credence to the “Republicans in Disarray!” case. Under the “Party Decides” theory, which presumes reasonably arrayed parties, the most important proxy for party support is endorsements. And so far, Republicans lawmakers aren’t endorsing much of anyone.

Take our endorsement tracker. It finds that Republican lawmakers are issuing endorsements at their slowest pace ever.3 We’re at a time in the campaign when the rate of endorsements ordinarily accelerates — but Jeb Bush, the putative leader in endorsements, has received just two since Labor Day. There have been just three endorsements for any Republican candidate in the past two weeks (all three were for Marco Rubio). Hillary Clinton has roughly twice as many endorsements as the entire GOP field put together.

It may be revealing to break the endorsement data down by the ideology of the endorsers, as measured by DW-Nominate. In the chart below, I’ve split the 301 current Republican members of Congress (both senators and representatives) into three groups: the most moderate 100 members, the most conservative 100 members, and the 101 in between.

silver-gopdisarray-01

Among the most moderate Republicans in Congress, it’s mostly business as usual. The pace of endorsements is sluggish (about two-thirds of these relatively moderate Republicans haven’t endorsed anyone yet) but largely in line with past elections, including 2012 and 2008. Jeb Bush is the clear front-runner with this group, with 16 percent of the endorsements from moderate Republicans in Congress; Chris Christie is in second place, with 5 percent.

A decade or two ago, the majority of Republicans in Congress would have fit into what we’re now calling the “moderate” group.4 But now, the center of gravity has shifted. And the 101 Republicans near the median of the party have had much more trouble reaching consensus. About 80 percent of them have yet to issue any endorsement. And no candidate (Bush and Rubio are nominally tied for first place) has received more than 5 percent of their support.

Look toward the most conservative 100 Republicans, and there are even more signs of disarray. As with the previous group, about 80 percent of them haven’t endorsed anyone yet. But among those who have endorsed, the leading choices are Ted Cruz and Rand Paul, two candidates who spend a lot of their time poking a finger in the eye of the Republican establishment.

Looking at these endorsements, the Republican Party appears to be disarrayed, or at least not as arrayed as it usually is. Most elected officials haven’t yet picked a candidate, and there’s substantial disagreement among those who have.

So then: President Trump? Well, probably not. Trump (and Ben Carson) has a lot of problems other than lack of support from the Republican establishment. And even if the Republican Party is too weak to easily reach consensus on a candidate, it may nevertheless be strong enough to veto an unacceptable nominee from being chosen. (Trump has little support even among the Freedom Caucus.)

But someone like Ted Cruz could be a more plausible nominee than under ordinary circumstances. And even if the establishment “wins” and gets its preferred nominee, that process might take longer than normal, possibly including a race that’s undecided after the final primary and caucus states vote in June.

Republicans have had a lot of close calls in recent years. Events such as the debt ceiling debate and the speakership transition looked like potential crises, but cooler heads prevailed in the end. Close calls, however, are usually a sign of being accident-prone. The risk of an “accident” is higher than usual.

Check out our live coverage of the GOP debate.


Footnotes

  1. Or that were just statistical noise in the first place.
  2. At least for the time being; this will change as we get later in the race.
  3. Or, at least, at their slowest pace since the first year the endorsement tracker covers, 1980.
  4. According to DW-Nominate.

Nate Silver is the founder and editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.

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