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Can The GOP Stop Running Toxic Candidates?

Welcome to FiveThirtyEight’s weekly politics chat. The transcript below has been lightly edited.

micah (Micah Cohen, politics editor): For your consideration today: Can Republicans find a way to stop nominating toxic (perhaps fatally flawed) candidates?

The immediate spark for this question is, of course, the GOP managing to lose a Senate seat in Alabama, one of the reddest states in the nation. But there’s a long (recent) history of other races the GOP has seemingly thrown away with bad candidates.

For example …

harry (Harry Enten, senior political writer): Ken Buck in Colorado in 2010.

Sharron Angle in Nevada in 2010.

Christine O’Donnell in Delaware in 2010.

clare.malone (Clare Malone, senior political writer): Todd Akin in Missouri in 2012.

harry: Richard Mourdock in Indiana in 2012.

micah: Also, before we really get going, I just wanted to note that Nate wanted today’s chat to be about why Doug Jones is a legit 2020 presidential contender.

natesilver (Nate Silver, editor in chief): That was Harry’s idea. He got it from a Twitter egg and talked about it on the podcast Tuesday night.

harry: There are no eggs anymore.

natesilver: My idea is that he’ll be the vice presidential nominee to a female nominee.

clare.malone: aaaaand we’re already sidetracked.

micah: In fairness, that was my fault.

harry: It’s always your fault.

micah: OK, so let’s start with why the GOP keeps putting up toxic candidates. (Then we’ll dive into ways they can not do this.)

What’s going on here?

In Alabama, for example, Republicans had two other deeply conservative, perfectly viable primary candidates — Luther Strange and Mo Brooks. They went with Moore.

clare.malone: The GOP base has gotten a lot more conservative.

harry: It ranges, right? In Alabama, the GOP establishment candidate, Strange, was flawed too, with ties to an unpopular governor. (Brooks, on the other hand, likely could have beaten Moore in the runoff.) In Delaware in 2010, the GOP candidate running against O’Donnell was too liberal for the base.

But at the end of the day, it’s the voters who are doing this.

natesilver: I’m not sure it’s just that the base has gotten more conservative, in a traditional left-right sense. It’s more that Republicans have been trained to distrust the establishment and distrust the media, and some candidates have been able to exploit that.

clare.malone: Well, GOP voters certainly identify as more conservative:

And those things that you mention, Nate, are now intertwined with what it means to be a conservative in America.

harry: Dare I say it’s both?

micah: I think Clare is right that they’re intertwined now.

natesilver: I actually don’t think it’s both. President Trump’s nomination last year is fairly powerful evidence of this, IMO. Because he was one of the least conservative candidates in the field, in kind of an American Conservative Union sense.

micah: But when someone identifies as conservative these days, part of what they mean is “anti-establishment.”

clare.malone: Right. Most people don’t think in DW-Nominate scores; they think in terms of where their views fall on our cultural spectrum. And conservatism has taken on new contours — it’s not about economics anymore.

Right? Or, that’s not the motivating factor for voters.

natesilver: I don’t think “conservative” is a good term to describe those characteristics. Among other reasons, because it’s quite a radical viewpoint in some ways.

harry: Sometimes it really is about ideology though.

micah: But anti-establishment sentiment seems to correlate so strongly with “conservative,” Nate.

So, it’s like: There’s nothing about old-school conservatism that leads to toxic candidates. But contemporary conservatism is, in part, defined by anti-establishmentism. And that does lead to toxic candidates.

natesilver: Right and then we had a test case — named Donald Trump — who kept all the anti-establishment parts and dropped the movement conservatism. And he did just great. It’s just one data point, but a pretty influential one.

clare.malone: Yeah … I think it’s not just that some of these candidates are anti-establishment. It’s that there’s a certain strain of contrarianism that runs in the veins of some of these candidates.

micah: I think we’re having a semantics debate and in fact we all agree.

clare.malone: This is what we have to do when we agree!

micah: lol

harry: I hate you all.

clare.malone: The people want to see a fight.

micah: OK, so far we have: Republicans are more prone to nominating toxic candidates because anti-establishmentism has become so core to the party.

But why has anti-establishmentism become so core?

And why can’t they nominate an anti-establishment candidate who nonetheless appeals to a broad swath of a general electorate?

natesilver: Because anti-establishmentism is sort of defined by opposition to established order, and the established order is usually popular.

clare.malone: Conservatism is about, on a simplistic level, reducing government intrusion, allowing people the freedom to think and act as they like, within reason. (If you want to see a version of “think and act as they like, with no bounds of reason,” talk to some folks at a Libertarian convention.)

When the culture is moving at rapid clip toward cultural liberalism — the acceptance of what was not long ago considered out of the norm, such as allowing women to have abortions, gay marriage, the widespread acceptance of premarital sex — then you see more and more candidates capitalizing on an appeal to people who feel more and more like they are in an out group.

micah: Oh god, Clare … your inbox will suffer for that libertarian comment.

harry: It’s also important that Republicans don’t have a sizable group of base voters who are generally pro-establishment. Democrats have that with African-American voters, who delivered the nomination to Hillary Clinton in 2016.

natesilver: Now, in theory, anti-establishmentism could morph into populism, which can be more successful as a long-term, majoritarian political strategy. But that would require Republicans to give up putting so much emphasis on things like tax cuts.

harry: Well, that’s what’s so bizarre, right?

clare.malone: Right, in theory. But as of yet, with the exception of Trump, the anti establishment/contrarian GOP candidates have been more in the vein of culture warriors. Right?

micah: Yeah, Moore, Akin, etc. were definitely not populists.

natesilver: I think a few of the tea party candidates in 2010 weren’t really culture warriors. Like, Wisconsin Sen. Ron Johnson isn’t a culture warrior. But he sure as hell isn’t a populist, either.

clare.malone: Well, he won! So he wasn’t a bad candidate. He was more buttoned-up. And I think it helps to have a more buttoned-up facade if you’re going to run as an ideological anti-establishment person.

micah: Yeah, I wouldn’t put Johnson in this group.

clare.malone: This is actually where I think sexism and people’s unwillingness to see women as “serious” politicians comes into play with someone like Kelli Ward in Arizona’s Senate race.

Ward has been easily painted as a crazy conspiracy theorist when in fact she never said she believes in chemtrails.

She made an ill-advised comment to a constituent that she would be happy to answer questions about it. But a lot of the “chemtrail Kelli” stuff is excellent spin against her from fellow Republicans.

micah: I didn’t know that!

natesilver: Wait, chemtrails aren’t real?

clare.malone: Guys, this was the lede of my piece about the Arizona race!

micah: Busted.

(Kidding, I read that.)

harry: Oh boy.

clare.malone: From my piece:

Polished might not be what you’d expect from Ward if you first heard about her, as many outside Arizona did, in an ad from the Mitch McConnell–allied Senate Leadership Fund PAC that labeled her “Chemtrail Kelli,” a nickname spun out of an incident at a Ward town hall where she didn’t shoot down constituent concerns about the chemtrails conspiracy theory.

I mean, maybe that’s a more precise way to say it, but she was never saying, “Hell yeah, chemtrails are gonna killlll you.”

micah: What are chemtrails?

harry: But I think this points to a greater thought. These candidates aren’t all the same. They share some form of anti-establishmentism, but sometimes that works. Sometimes it doesn’t.

The airplane thing.

clare.malone: They’re gonna kill you, Micah.

micah: ohhh

clare.malone: They’re the government coming to get you.

micah: Before we turn to measures to prevent toxic candidates …

Are the nominations of candidates like Moore, Akin, Mourdock, etc., a manifestation of a fundamental problem with the Republican Party — a split between the base and elected officials?

Like, isn’t that split real, unusual and a big problem?

I mean, it’s easy to overlook how weird it is that Moore basically ran against his party’s senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell.

McConnell’s net favorable rating in the exit polls in Alabama on Tuesday was like -245 percentage points. (It was actually -50 points.)

That’s crazy

harry: LOL.

natesilver: My favorite number from the exit poll was how McConnell was equally unpopular with Jones voters and Moore voters.

harry: Actually my favorite number is that those who had a favorable view of McConnell only barely went for Moore. That’s a Republican establishment “screw you, Moore” vote right there.

By the way, there were more Republican senators who lost primaries between 2010 and 2012 (three senators) than in the eight elections between 1994 and 2008 (two). And one of those Republicans between 1994 and 2008 was appointed.

clare.malone: A lot of this comes down to the fact that a chunk of the Republican base is simply receiving ill-conceived ideas about how realistic it is for a “pure” conservative agenda to be pushed through.

If you just watch Fox News … you’re not getting the full picture.

natesilver: That’s putting it mildly, Clare. I think the conservative media bubble is a big part of this story.

clare.malone: And the politicians in the party read the real news.

natesilver: Fox News was once sort of a bridge between the establishment and insurgent wings of the GOP. In the Trump era, it’s gone much more fully to the insurgent side.

clare.malone: It has certainly jumped the shark.

micah: Jumped the horse, if you will.

clare.malone: Wouldn’t the fox jump the hound?

natesilver: By the way, it’s relevant too that doing well among white working-class voters happens to really help you in the Electoral College, and also the Senate and the House, given how voters are distributed (and how districts are gerrymandered). So Republicans can be competitive essentially playing to 45 percent of the country, when Democrats couldn’t really be.

harry: Well, it’s not just that Fox News has become more anti-establishment. It’s also that it’s become the dominant news source.

micah: OK, to change gears: What can Republicans do about this?

natesilver: Nothing.

To a first approximation.

Or at least, nothing easy.

Not while Trump is their president.

clare.malone: Right, they can’t do jack.

This is the identity crisis that they’re going through, that they’ve been trying to paper over.

harry: Well, I think what you might want to do is play it safe. What do I mean by that? Don’t try to get your preferred candidate. Try to ensure the least desirable candidate doesn’t win the nomination. In Alabama, for example, don’t go after Brooks. In last year’s presidential election, go after Trump early.

I don’t know if that works.

natesilver: For sure, there are some cases where they could work to ensure the establishment candidate isn’t a total stiff. They did a better job of that in 2014/16 than in 2010/12, for instance.

harry: Yes, they did.

What I’m essentially saying here is that the GOP thought they could beat the clown car that was Moore because they assumed Brooks voters would join up with Strange voters in the runoff. Don’t assume anything.

micah: Wait, that’s all they can do?

What about not easy things?

What difficult things could they do?

harry: Well, they could eliminate primaries.

clare.malone: What does that mean?

That would be … radical.

micah: 🏄

natesilver: They could impeach Trump.

micah: How would that help?

natesilver: It might make things harder in the short run.

micah: That doesn’t answer my question.

natesilver: Basically all the characteristics that make for “toxic” candidates are also the characteristics that got Trump the GOP nomination.

clare.malone: They could wage a campaign against media disinformation from the Bannon/Fox corners of the universe.

Now THAT would be hard.

harry: Here’s a thought. What ultimately killed the Bush wing of the party was what was seen as a disastrous presidency. Maybe just maybe? If Trump loses in 2020, it could help out?

micah: I buy that.

clare.malone: Possibly, though don’t you think there are enough Trumpians to keep things going?

micah: See Gov. Matt Bevin in Kentucky.

clare.malone: Right.

natesilver: Republicans should be rooting for Trump to lose in 2020? #slatepitches

I think there could be a pretty big backlash to everything associated with Trump in the long run if he’s deemed to be an unsuccessful president.

There’s a pretty big backlash even to successful presidents sometimes.

micah: OK, what would happen if elected Republicans tried to correct the bad info flow, as Clare mentioned? Basically, every GOP member of Congress stops playing footsie with media outlets that skew the truth — talk radio, digital, TV. So the only stuff we hear from them is straight-dope truth. Would that help?

The goal would be to align voter expectations more with what’s possible.

clare.malone: Although, of course, there are also the powerful factions, like the House Freedom Caucus, that exist within Congress that skew the idea of what’s actually possible from the inside.

natesilver: I think you have to pick your battles more. Like, stop picking fights with the Congressional Budget Office or lying about the effects of your health care plan or tax bill.

Also, start thinking about policies that will benefit the actual GOP base, and not just the donor base.

micah: Nate, you just named the two biggest GOP priorities.

natesilver: They picked about the most unpopular ways possible to do health care and tax reform.

They could easily have had an across-the-board, Bush-style tax cut. Instead they do something convoluted where the winners and losers aren’t obvious to anyone, apart from corporations and certain types of very-high-net-worth individuals.

micah: So maybe the disconnect is really between the GOP base and the GOP donors. And elected officials are stuck in the middle.

harry: I mean, who are the donors?

micah: People who give the party 💸

clare.malone: Oh wow, I thought it was all just powered off of ideas!?

natesilver: The super PACs, basically. The Mercers and the Adelsons. Not the well-off lawyer maxing out his individual contribution to the party.

When you’re catering policy to people making $200 million a year instead of $200,000, some things are going to change.

Meanwhile, the GOP has retreated on Bush-style “social issues.” So basically all they can offer the masses is a sense of grievance, which has become increasingly racialized.

clare.malone: That’s very true. I think the nativist notes being struck over the last year or so really created a permission structure to let a lot more of the subtle (eh, maybe not so subtle) racism of the Obama era just go bananas.

natesilver: Yeah. And the thing is, it works pretty well as an electoral strategy. Not brilliantly, by any means — Trump and the GOP are in a lot of trouble for 2018 and 2020. But the Trump version of it works a lot better than the Ted Cruz version, for instance.

harry: Well, the Trump stuff isn’t religious. And yet he wins over white evangelicals.

micah: Final thoughts?

clare.malone: Not all the anti-establishment candidates are bad!

I think Marsha Blackburn is really interesting. This is a good ad!

harry: The GOP has problems. It has problems. Those problems could potentially be solved by 2020, but it’s going to be tough to solve them by 2018.

natesilver: Just that I think the “toxic candidate problem” is endogenous (to use a fancy term) to where the GOP stands as a party, overall. You can’t eliminate the risk of toxic candidates without changing a lot of other things about Republicans.

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

Clare Malone is a former senior political writer for FiveThirtyEight.

Harry Enten was a senior political writer and analyst for FiveThirtyEight.

Micah Cohen is FiveThirtyEight’s former managing editor.