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Does The GOP Belong To Trump?

Welcome to a special edition of FiveThirtyEight’s weekly politics chat. Today, we’re partnering with The Weekly Standard to explore a question that everyone seems to have an opinion on: To what extent does the Republican Party now belong to President Trump?

micah: This being a special chat and all, let’s just start with quick introductions!!!!

Mike and David, can you briefly introduce yourselves to FiveThirtyEight readers?

Nate and Julia, can you briefly introduce yourselves to Weekly Standard readers?

(Just ~1-2 sentences … we don’t need your whole life story, Nate.)

natesilver: My name is Nate Silver and I’m editor in chief of five-thirty-eight-dot-com

I was born in 1978 in Lansing, Michigan …

julia_azari: Hello! I am a political science professor at Marquette University. I study the president-party relationship and presidential communication. I am a contributor to FiveThirtyEight. I prefer the title “hired nerd,” but that’s not official.

David_Byler: Sure! I’m chief elections analyst at The Weekly Standard. Basically I cover elections from a quantitative/data-driven angle — it’s similar to a lot of the stuff you see at FiveThirtyEight.

Mike_Warren: Hi, everyone. I’m Mike Warren, and I’m a senior writer at The Weekly Standard. I cover the White House, politics, national security and everything in between.

micah: 👏 (Oh, and I’m FiveThirtyEight’s managing editor.)

OK, now to the meat of things. We’ll break this down into two main parts:

  1. Why are so many people obsessed with asking whether it’s Trump’s party? (I don’t remember people asking this about Democrats when Barack Obama was president.)
  2. How do we tell if it’s Trump’s party? What voters think? What Congress does? What elected Republicans say? Something else?

First, thoughts on No. 1?

David_Byler: People ask because Trump is, in substance and style, pretty different from past Republicans.

Mike_Warren: Well, doesn’t the fact that people keep asking if it’s Trump’s party suggest that … it’s not?

Or, at the very least, it’s still an open question.

julia_azari: That point is really interesting, but it’s also possible that this question is raised because Trump was so lacking in elite support. Obama wasn’t lacking that support going into the nomination.

natesilver: I mean … Trump is the most unconventional presidential candidate to have won in many years — probably ever under the current, two-party system. And one of the ways he was unconventional was by somewhat proudly and blatantly violating the taboos of the Republican Party, such as by criticizing their past presidents and nominees. He also had much, much less support from Republican “party elites” than nominees typically do, as Julia said. So it’s natural to ask how all of that is playing out two years into his presidency.

julia_azari: The “whose party is it” question was also primed by debates that started when George W. Bush was president and continued with the rise of the tea party.

micah: So everyone thinks it’s a fair question?

Mike_Warren: It’s a weird thing, though, because usually it’s a moot question: OF COURSE the leader of the party is its presidential nominee/president. But Trump’s was a hostile takeover.

micah: Yeah, I have sorta two reactions to this question overall:

  1. “This is a silly question that only elites ask — of course it’s Trump’s party.”
  2. “Good question.”

julia_azari: In political science, we have a concept called a “factional candidate” — a candidate who is very popular with one segment of the party and sometimes wins the nomination if the other candidates get in one another’s way. Trump did consolidate the party to some degree in 2016, so that may not be an accurate characterization. But he sure looked that way in the spring and early summer of 2016.

natesilver: Are “how much is Trump a Republican?” and “how much are Republicans Trump’s party?” two versions of the same question?

julia_azari: So, again, coming from the poli-sci perspective, I also think Trump makes the question interesting to ask, but it’s under-asked. There’s a lot going on in the party that’s not the president.

Mike_Warren: Ultimately, people are asking the question because they don’t know the answer. Trump’s hold on the party still feels temporary, even if he ends up changing it in important ways.

David_Byler: Right. Mike said what I was trying to say, but in a better way.

Mike_Warren: Yes, I agree with me.

micah: Haha.

Now the hard part …

How do we answer the question?

Opening bids?

David, wanna start us off?

David_Byler: So my approach would probably be to break the GOP down into parts and see how much Trump “owns” each part.

micah: Give us the parts.

David_Byler: The electorate.

Elected officials.

Sort of the intellectual parts of the party. (I’m thinking think tanks and such.)

We could include media, too, though I think sometimes the lines between conservative media and the sort of think tank-y parts can get blurry.

Mike_Warren: So when we say the electorate (to take that to start), we’re talking about the people who vote in Republican primaries and for Republicans in the general election, right?

David_Byler: Yeah that’s what I was thinking — basically the voters.

Mike_Warren: That seems to be where Trump is strongest, in my view, in terms of his ownership.

David_Byler: This is the data point that gets tossed around the most, right? Trump’s job approval rating among Republicans? It’s typically near 85-90 percent.

natesilver: Trump was less of a departure for GOP voters than for other parts of the party.

Mike_Warren: That’s a great point, Nate.

David_Byler: Agreed

julia_azari: My read on this is that Trump’s support among GOP voters is both powerful, in that it shapes the incentives for members of Congress and activists, and potentially flimsy, because it’s not clear how deep it goes.

Mike_Warren: The issues that motivated GOP voters over the past decade or so are: immigration, out-of-touch elites in Washington, a broad sense that the U.S. “as we know it” is going away. Just spend time on the trail and you’d learn that.

natesilver: I think one thing people like me got wrong in 2015/early 2016 was in overestimating the importance of policy to the electorate … policy as opposed to what you might call identity.

micah: Or “culture.”

Mike_Warren: Allow me to deploy my favorite bon mot, from George Will:

He once said that parties “organize our animosities.”

Which is undoubtedly true, and Trump kind of elevates the subtext of that truth to the text.

natesilver: That’s pretty good.

micah: To go back to what extent Trump owns the Republican voters, though, has he also changed who identifies as a GOP voter?

David’s right that Trump’s approval rating is sky-high among Republicans. And Trump owns those Republicans.

But are they not totally the same Republicans?

David_Byler: That’s a fair point — asking whether Trump owns, say, the 2014 version of the GOP is a little different than asking if he owns the 2018 version.

Mike_Warren: This gets to a chicken-or-egg question. Non-college-educated whites have been a growing part of the GOP coalition for years, and Trump saw that and sort of accelerated it.

College-educated whites are falling away from the party rapidly.

Did Trump build this new party? Or just recognize that’s what the party is now? Probably a bit of both.

natesilver: Yeah, there’s the issue of party identity being fluid. If you’re a #NeverTrump Republican, then at some point, do you stop identifying as a Republican? That probably slightly exaggerates Trump’s intraparty approval, although from the research I’ve seen, the effect is fairly minor.

Mike_Warren: I’d say the bigger problem for a Trumpy GOP is not #NeverTrump, which is small in numbers and concentrated in the media, but the loss of the suburban whites, who have mixed education (some college, some not) and have been the backbone of the Republican Party.

julia_azari: I’m still not sure that it’s a new party in this regard. I was just talking to a political scientist who has done research showing that the college/non-college gap between Democrats and Republicans is really pronounced among high-income voters. Working-class voters are still pretty heavily Democratic, he said. (I haven’t independently looked at this data.)

Mike_Warren: Look at what happened in the special election in Georgia’s 6th Congressional District last year or in Pennsylvania’s 18th District this year — suburban districts where the GOP vote dropped off significantly. Service-sector industries, not manufacturing/blue-collar.

natesilver: Counties that were high-income but with lower education levels were pretty good for Trump, whereas middle-income but high-education counties were quite bad for him.

julia_azari: Right, Nate, I think this is the same thing my colleague was saying — he was looking at individual level data that told the same story.

Mike_Warren: That suggests the cultural component is the most important.

julia_azari: I have a question about #NeverTrump Republicans. Do you all have a sense that this group is primarily motivated by policy (immigration, trade) or by Trump’s political style?

Because the former would seem like a much stronger candidate for durable partisan ID change. If it’s a style thing, then perhaps the alienation is more likely to be temporary.

micah: I think it’s mostly style?

David_Byler: Yeah, I tend to think that among voters, it’s style and that among GOP politicians and intellectuals, it’s both style and policy.

julia_azari: Can I throw out something about Trump approval among Republicans? It’s about identity and ego protection.

I think Democrats would do the same thing: Someone wins your party’s nomination, he or she becomes the face of your party, you don’t much like them, but it’s your identity and you need to reconcile that.

Mike_Warren: Yes. That seems right, Julia.

David_Byler: The only other thing I’d throw out there about Trump approval and the electorate is that a lot of people who approve of Trump feel pretty mild about it — they’re in the somewhat approve category.

But I don’t think these qualifications really change the answer — that when it comes to the electorate, Trump can fairly be said to “own” the GOP.

natesilver: That’s an interesting point, David. Trump actually doesn’t have particularly high “strong” approval numbers. There are a lot of voters with lukewarm feelings toward him. And some sort of loyalty to the Republican Party was important in getting them to get out to vote in 2016.

Mike_Warren: Yes. Organized animosity toward Hillary Clinton, more than love of Trump. At least in November 2016.

micah: So, it seems like the consensus on voters is this: “Yes, Trump owns the GOP. There are a couple of caveats — maybe it’s a slightly different GOP than 2014, maybe that grip isn’t ironclad — but this one isn’t that hard to answer.”

OK, next!

Does Trump own the Republican Party’s elected-officials wing?

David_Byler: The answer to this one is complicated because the ownership sort of seems to run both ways. Like, you see GOP politicians generally voting for stuff that Trump proposes. And you see a lot of loyalty in public statements and such. But what you also see is Trump proposing and passing a lot of stuff that’s more conventionally GOP-ish than people might have expected from the campaign.

julia_azari: Part of the answer is that there was an expectation that fewer elected officials would go along with Trump on stuff given the elite reaction to him during the election — in both the primary and, like, after the “Access Hollywood” tape.

I also think it’s pretty important that a lot of the prominent people to push back are either retiring (Jeff Flake) or not elected officials, like George Will (media) or Steve Schmidt (I am not sure where he fits in our schema).

Mike_Warren: I’d submit three articles from my colleague John McCormack for us to answer this question.

First, Sen. Lindsey Graham is now a neo-Trumper.

Second, Sen. Marco Rubio is now a nationalist.

And in the recent Wisconsin GOP primary for Senate, the candidates were just trying to out-Trump each other and had no real policy differences.

It’s been a slow but steady march toward embracing Trump and, in some cases, Trumpism by electeds. There’s been more resistance in the Senate and much more resistance from governors. But politicians seem to be recognizing where their party is now, in ways that Trump had a better sense of in 2016 than they did.

David_Byler: That’s fair — a lot of primary candidates try to basically out-Trump each other.

julia_azari: Depending on how many of these new candidates are successful, this seems like it could be a longer-term effect than superficial shifts in the electorate.

David_Byler: But I’d also note that a lot of the major legislative stuff that’s either been attempted or passed has been more conventionally GOP-ish — suggesting that Trump has been influenced by the party.

Take the Obamacare repeal bill that the House passed (the American Health Care Act), the tax reform legislation that became law, Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh.

I don’t think those are necessarily the “Trump-iest” things when we think about how Trump differs from previous iterations of the party.

natesilver: How much of that will change if Republicans have a bad midterm? Especially for officials up for re-election in 2020 in swing states who have to worry about the general election as well as the primary?

Mike_Warren: If it’s a blowout against the GOP, Nate, you have to expect a retreat from Trump. What he’s been offering them, as David points out, is a bargain. “I have the power to do what you want, so support me so I can do what I want.” If the power’s diminished or gone, politicians will recalibrate accordingly. But it may not be a blowout!

julia_azari: I want to answer Nate’s question in a roundabout way: Trump may or may not have changed the Republican Party, but he’s definitely kept anyone else from changing it.

Parties are always changing, so a lot of influence is actually blocking what others are trying to do to change the party. Presidents who have bad midterms — Ronald Reagan in 1982 and George W. Bush in 2006 — still influence their parties. But maybe not as much as if a bunch of candidates like them had entered Congress and stayed for 40 years.

Mike_Warren: There’s an issue with the electorate, too: If 2018 shows a big enough shift away from the GOP by those suburban white voters the party has relied on for decades (or if they stay home), that’s a significant part of the party that politicians with long-term interests can’t just ignore.

julia_azari: Bill Clinton is a good example of this: If a bunch of DLC Democrats had been elected in 1994 instead of Republicans, then we’d say he transformed the Democratic Party. But it was still a party influenced by his ideas for many years and I’d argue still today, even if it’s no longer “Bill Clinton’s party.”

Mike_Warren: Lots of potential parallels between Trump and Clinton.

julia_azari: Ha!

I mean, I think that’s a serious point too. But I can’t resist a good snark. Especially a good bipartisan snark.

I think that parallel also works for impeachment threats.

Mike_Warren: If the ’18 class of Democrats in the House go overboard, that could be enough to consolidate Trump’s support for 2020 among Republican leaners who can’t stand the guy but don’t like all this “abolish ICE” talk and kneeling for the anthem, etc.

I’d say that GOP overreach in 1995 and 1996 helped Clinton in 1996 in a similar way.

natesilver: Ordinarily, you’d think the party would mostly stick with Trump through 2020 just because lots of parties have bad midterms, there isn’t an obvious alternative, and having a primary fight is usually really damaging when you’re trying to get re-elected. But, I don’t know … at a minimum, the Mueller investigation could require Republicans to actively start thinking about whether sticking with Trump is the best move for them, instead of just doing that as a default.

Mike_Warren: Yup. Mueller is big question mark in all of this.

julia_azari: Yeah. I could see impeachment being a mess politically for Republicans OR for Democrats, depending on public perceptions of its legitimacy. #promoformyrecentpiece

Mike_Warren: We tend to underestimate the effect of having one credible GOP politician challenge Trump in a primary.

Even if Trump wins handily (which I think he would), it would suggest there’s more to the GOP than Trump, and it would open the floodgates for a lot of criticism that elected Republicans have that they say privately but not publicly.

David_Byler: Right.

micah: I’m having trouble tying a bow on this section — is the consensus that Trump owns elected Republicans in terms of politics/rhetoric/deference but that the ownership runs both ways on policy?

julia_azari: Yup, I agree with that.

I think that’s fair.

David_Byler: Yeah.

And I think that matters for what the party does post-Trump and what it looks like then.

But that might be a whole different can of worms.

natesilver: Another big post-midterm contingency is whether Trump decides that maybe he wants to be a centrist after all.

I know a lot of people discount that, but I don’t think he has strong ideological moorings, other than on a few issues like immigration.

David_Byler: If that happened, I think that’d help us answer this question more thoroughly. Whether Trump could get Republican politicians to really bend on policy instead of passing the sort of stuff they probably would have tried under President Rubio or something.

Mike_Warren: There were hints to this last year, Nate, which I wrote about.

julia_azari: I think that’s true, but Trump also seems to provoke a strong reaction (two decades of political science education for this observation). That seems to keep moving him away from moderation.

micah: I just feel like no one would let that happen, Nate — not Democrats, not Republicans, not members of Trump’s own administration.

Anywho …

Final section of the GOP: Does Trump own the Republican Party, smarty-pants wing?

I.e., the intellectual conservative movement.

David_Byler: This is where Trump gets the most resistance.

micah: Yeah.

This one is a clear “no,” right?

julia_azari: Yup.

David_Byler: And I think it’s easy to discount this part of the party as unimportant because it’s basically a non-existent slice of the electorate. But I would say that policy doesn’t spring up from the electorate fully written and that some of these people are still going to be (at least trying) to influence policy after Trump is gone.

Mike_Warren: It’s not as if Trump doesn’t have a foothold in this “wing,” though. Particularly on the media side.

But on the policy side of things especially, this is one area where it’s the Republican Party (or in this case, Conservative Inc.) owning Trump.

There are a LOT of Koch policy world folks in the administration and even the White House.

The more hawkish Trump decisions in areas like Afghanistan and Syria are what tick off the Steve Bannon true-believer types, because of the supposed nefarious influence of the neocons in the National Security Council.

natesilver: I seem to remember a lot of predictions from liberals that the intellectual wing of the Republican Party would become more Trumpish after the election. And to a large extent, I think that hasn’t happened. (On the other hand, as David points out, the intellectual wing isn’t very large.) Still, I’m curious to see what this looks like in 2020 once there’s a Democratic opponent to demonize.

Mike_Warren: And the judicial appointments, Trump’s most successful area, were basically farmed out to a group of really serious, dedicated legal folks who forced the “list” on Trump and won.

David_Byler: I think the longer Trump sticks around, the more the intellectual wing of the GOP will come around.

micah: That’s interesting.

I think of that group as pretty conviction-driven?

David_Byler: Yeah, I think so. I guess I would want to be a little more specific.

Mike_Warren: But also donor-driven, which is a reality, not a criticism.

micah: True, Mike.

David_Byler: Yeah, I think there are huge parts of the intellectual wing of the GOP that just won’t come around to Trump because of ideology. But there are also gradations here (i.e., people who really don’t like Trump but are willing to work on stuff they care about) and people who would get worn down over the course of four to eight years of Trump in the White House. But I could be tooootally wrong about that.

micah: OK, so let’s close here with some final thoughts. To summarize, it seems like we think the answer to “Does Trump own the Republican Party?” is, in three parts:

  1. On voters: “Yes” — Trump has near total buy-in from GOP voters. But that’s partly a circular statement, and that buy-in isn’t unconditional.
  2. On elected officials: “Kinda yes” — he does politically and rhetorically, but not as much on policy.
  3. On the conservative movement intellectually: “No” — there’s a possibility that could change, though.

Is that about right and any other final thoughts?

natesilver: That sounds about right to me.

David_Byler: I think that’s right, Micah.

julia_azari: When I look at our different parts of the party, what we see is not clearly ideological factions but ones that are determined by role and position. The intellectual wing is not accountable to voters in the same way lawmakers are. My second big thought, which is kinda related, is that style differences seem to be almost as important as policy differences when we think about the party’s reaction to Trump.

Mike_Warren: My final thought: All of this is subject to change given the circumstances — an economic downturn, something damning or exonerating of Trump from Mueller, or an international crisis. All presidents have a temporary hold on their party, but Trump’s seems the most tenuous and would change dramatically in those kind of circumstances.

natesilver: Yeah, I sometimes feel like we’re in that painting where we’re concerned about the medium-sized wave in front of us and not the gigantic wave that is formulating in back of us.

micah: Wait, what’s the gigantic wave?

natesilver: What Mike was talking about — Mueller, the economy, war, terrorist attacks — the known unknowns. And the midterm is also a known unknown.

David_Byler: True — maybe presidents only ever rent their parties.

FiveThirtyEight House forecast update for Sept 5, 2018

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

Julia Azari is an associate professor of political science at Marquette University. Her research interests include the American presidency, political parties and political rhetoric. She is the author of “Delivering the People’s Message: The Changing Politics of the Presidential Mandate.”

Micah Cohen is FiveThirtyEight’s former managing editor.