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Is It Paul Ryan’s Party Or Donald Trump’s Party?

In a special “emergency” politics Slack chat, we marvel at — and consider the implications of — House Speaker Paul Ryan’s non-endorsement of Donald Trump. The transcript below has been lightly edited.

micah (Micah Cohen, politics editor): Not two days after he took the reins of the Republican Party, Trump has gotten into it with the Republican speaker of the House, Ryan, one of the few GOP leaders with enough stature and credibility to rhetorically arm wrestle with the GOP’s presumptive nominee. To be fair, Ryan started it, going on CNN and saying about backing Trump, “I’m just not ready to do that at this point. I’m not there right now.”

Another few choice quotes:

  • “I think what a lot of Republicans want to see is that we have a standard-bearer that bears our standards.”
  • “I think conservatives want to know, does he share our values and our principles on limited government, the proper role of the executive, adherence to the Constitution?”
  • “There are lots of questions that conservatives, I think, are going to want answers to, myself included. I want to be a part of this unifying process. I want to help to unify this party.”

So, is this the first crack in the foundation of the Republican Party? Is it a minor disagreement that’ll get patched up? Is Ryan just trying to maintain some leverage over Trump to keep him — at least a little — in line?

clare.malone (Clare Malone, senior political writer): We should also include the Trump response, since he was basically counter-punching, as he is wont to do:

I am not ready to support Speaker Ryan’s agenda. Perhaps in the future we can work together and come to an agreement about what is best for the American people. They have been treated so badly for so long that it is about time for politicians to put them first!

julia.azari (Julia Azari, associate political science professor at Marquette University and FiveThirtyEight contributor): There are two fault lines here: One between Trump and Ryan/Mitt Romney/the Bushes/etc.; and one between that latter group and the established party leaders who are supporting and going to support Trump (Mike Pence, perhaps the Republican National Committee), even though they weren’t part of his movement initially.

These have different implications. A party at odds with its nominee can be at least partly written off as an organizational failure. A party at odds over its nominee has got bigger problems.

harry (Harry Enten, senior political writer): Honestly, I don’t know the answer to your question, Micah. But there are a number of Republicans who feel the way Ryan does. Not the majority of them, but some of them. Lots of polls show some straggling Republicans in getting aboard the S.S. Trump. In the latest CNN poll, for example, Trump gets the support of only 83 percent of respondents who lean Republican. Clinton gets 91 percent of Democrats and Democratic-leaners.

natesilver (Nate Silver, editor in chief): Stepping back here, consider how unusual it is for a party nominee to be opposed by any major figure within his or her party.

micah: Well … it’s freaking crazy. Has it happened before?

natesilver: When Georgia Senator Zell Miller opposed John Kerry in 2004, it was considered a pretty big deal. And Miller was a Democrat-in-name-only who had a voting record like a typical Republican.

This time, the freaking speaker of the House isn’t able to endorse the nominee. So to some extent, it will be interesting to see whether (say) 70 percent or 80 percent or 90 percent of Republican party elites eventually get behind Trump. But since the usual benchmark is 99 percent or 100 percent, it’s a big story either way.

clare.malone: I think this is a smart move by Ryan, and one he can point back to when he eventually runs for president — he’s probably going to end up supporting Trump, but he can say to people in four years, “look, I was being thoughtful/skeptical about the direction Trump was leading our party.”

julia.azari: This goes back to the piece I wrote a couple months ago about party splits: When people grumbled or even opposed, say, William Howard Taft in 1912 or Hubert Humphrey in 1968, it was because there was a clear divide in the party over something — in both those cases, that party controlled the presidency and nothing splits a party like having to respond to its own ideas in practice. This is really, really Trump-focused.

Also, if you all will indulge me in a little 19th century party history: Supporting the presidential nominee was the essence of what it meant to be a political party back then. You could deviate from the party on policy (true in both parties) in order to please your local constituents, but you had to support the nominee if you wanted to stay in the party. Now it’s kinda the opposite in the Republican Party.

harry: I think Julia makes a really interesting point. I wonder though is it Trump-focused as much as it is what Trump stands for? How many people are merely opposed to what they see as heated rhetoric versus his stance on say taxes, as you could argue Ryan is?

micah: Harry, we’ll get to that in one second, but first: Is it possible the Republican Party basically splits into two groups, both still called the Republican Party, and one runs for president and one cares about Congress, and the two don’t really talk that much or support each other?

julia.azari: I’ve been thinking about this a lot, especially since the tea party, which paved the way for Trump in some ways, is a Congress-focused movement. It never gained traction in presidential politics.

The electoral map supports this. Challenging someone in a primary is way easier to do to members of Congress. And Republicans control some, you know, really red districts as well as some light red ones. But the presidential map is a much bigger challenge since urban areas dominate states like Illinois, Pennsylvania and New York.

harry: Of course, wasn’t the tea party thought of as mostly a conservative movement?

clare.malone: The Freedom Caucus in Congress is an interesting thing to look at when we’re talking about party fission.

julia.azari: Yeah. So tea party supporters look like Trump supporters in their racial/ethnic attitudes but not in their social issue attitudes or opinion of, say, Obamacare. But I think the structural connection is key there. The Freedom Caucus loosened up the party and made it acceptable and normal to challenge established figures. Trump followed their lead.

micah: Is the Freedom Caucus in Ryan’s camp? Trump’s camp? Neither?

julia.azari: I bet they will split.

clare.malone: They have been intransigent party members for years. … I’m not quite sure people have the stomach right now to up and create a whole new party, but it seems pretty unsustainable to simply bicker endlessly without wounding yourself pretty badly in the future (also, that’s maybe already happened). I think the Freedom Caucus doesn’t have a camp yet … but I’d be willing to bet they’ll get down with Trump, Micah.

micah: Interesting … so that brings us to policy, which seemed to be Ryan’s chief concern, i.e. “I think conservatives want to know, does he share our values and our principles on limited government, the proper role of the executive, adherence to the Constitution?”

But as Washington Post reporter Philip Rucker pointed out, do GOP voters even care about that crap anymore?

harry: I think most people don’t care. BUT! There is a section of people who do care. Here’s a YouGov poll from January (just before the primaries started) in which only 14 percent of Republicans said Trump was a “true conservative.” He, of course, still held a 16-percentage-point lead over Ted Cruz in that survey.

julia.azari: Ryan is trying to make the party a more policy-driven one again. This necessarily (and not just for Republicans) means it cannot be hyper-responsive to every emotion its voters have. Sorry to be elitist, but I think that’s just true.

natesilver: I mean, the cynical interpretation is that voters come to the Republican Party for the cultural resentment, and then Ryan et al try to sell them on the movement conservatism once they’re in the building.

Trump suggests that not only is movement conservatism not the main draw, but you don’t really need it at all. Although I’d caution, as always, that Trump could be a sui generis case caused by, for instance, total dominance of media coverage.

julia.azari: What percent of the Republican primary vote did Trump win?

micah: Forty percent. But that’s why I’m not sure I agree with you, Clare — aren’t the members of the Freedom Caucus movement conservatives? Or maybe what they care about most is throwing rocks at the establishment, and Trump is one hell of a rock?

clare.malone: I think if we’re talking about people who have been on the outside of the power establishment — the Freedom Caucus — and they see that a new pole of power is coming into existence in the party — Trump — it’s a savvy move to jump on board and at least drag off his popularity.

julia.azari: See, I think the issue is that the definition of “movement conservative” is now muddled. For some it’s rock-throwing. For some it’s social and/or economic conservatism. Cultural stuff for others. Having not been sufficiently wrong about enough things this year, I’ll boldly predict that the Freedom Caucus will divide on their Trump support.

micah: Bold!

julia.azari: Well. I don’t know if it actually will. But I’ll make that prediction. I really want to be in one of those “who was wrongest” pundit round-ups.

natesilver: When I’m using the term “movement conservatism,” I mean a Reaganish or G.W.B.ish agenda. Supply-side economics, hawkish foreign policy (U.S. as leader of the free world), “family values.”

Also, it’s not actually that fun to be in one of those roundups, Julia.

harry: The group that Trump consistently did worst with in the primary was those who identified as “very conservative” and those who attended church more than once a week.

micah: Let me shift this discussion … should Trump give a sh*t what Ryan says?

clare.malone: Yes. He needs institutional support to run a national campaign, and Ryan is a big part of securing that machine power that you need.

harry: Yes. Yes, he should.

micah: Didn’t we think that about the primary campaign?

harry: Big difference, Micah, is this …

clare.malone: $$$$$$

harry: You need a unified Republican base to beat Clinton. And right now, Trump clearly doesn’t have that. He’s trailing in almost all the polls. That’s a big difference from the primary, where he led in all the polls. You cannot win a general election with 40 percent of the vote. You have one opponent.

natesilver: If Trump only gets 85 percent of the Republican vote, he’s probably screwed. Hell, if he gets only 88 percent, he’s probably screwed, given all his other problems. So even if this stuff is only at the margin, the marginal stuff matters.

harry: And you saw, what I wrote at the top. Clinton is consistently getting more Democrats than Trump is Republicans. Keep in mind, more people identify as Democrats than Republicans in this country.

clare.malone: And Ryan would help get people in states where races are tight, etc. to support Trump. He’d give a certain imprimatur to the Trump campaign.

natesilver: Yeah. Perhaps the biggest point is that Ryan may signal to other Republicans, especially those running competitive House or Senate races, that it’s OK to distance yourself from Trump.

clare.malone: Right, which could kill him.

julia.azari: Mobilization. He needs mobilization in a general election. Ryan’s support isn’t a necessary or a sufficient condition to get that kind of organization going, but it’s probably related.

clare.malone: Ryan is out to get his, guys! He wants Congress to be powerful and he doesn’t want to lose those races.

micah: So Ryan is basically sawing off the gangrenous limb?

julia.azari: Well, that’s an interesting question. Is Ryan doing this for the party or for himself?

micah: Both?

julia.azari: Probably, and those aren’t necessarily totally incompatible or distinct.

harry: Ryan is, from all accounts, very loyal to Romney, who is not backing Trump. I think that plays part of it. I genuinely think he disagrees with Trump on the issues. I think he knows about the increasing relationship between House and presidential results. Ryan is not an idiot.

julia.azari: But the gangrenous limb is perhaps more than just Trump. That’s a bigger undertaking.

micah: Well, that naturally raises the question: Does Trump put Ryan’s speakership in jeopardy? Is the GOP majority in the House in danger?

clare.malone: Ryan is in it for himself and Congress … the “himself” part is also the party. Because he wants to run for president. Have I said that yet? I think that’s big! And he doesn’t want to run to be the nominee of Trump’s Republican Party.

julia.azari: Going back to what I said earlier, I think Ryan wants to refocus the party away from being so responsive to its primary electorate. Trump is perhaps the most extreme version of this but the phenomenon is not limited to him.

natesilver: Right, but Clare’s point is right: Some of this is about Ryan positioning himself — and the party — for 2020. It’s very very likely that there’s going to be a competitive Republican primary in 2020 — certainly if Trump loses and possibly also if he wins. There’s a scenario where Trump loses to Clinton in a near-landslide, and things sorta go back to semi-normal in 2020 and everyone pretends that never happened.

julia.azari: Nate, I think that’s a pretty likely scenario, and in that case the rules won’t change a whole lot.

micah: OK, so we think Ryan is 1, genuinely concerned about Trump re policy; 2, worried Trump will hurt the GOP electorally; and 3, positioning himself for 2020.

BTW, the mere act of reading “2020” makes me sick.

harry: Go back to 1998, when the Republicans did the Clinton impeachment, and they lost seats in the House. They turned around in 2000 and went with George W. Bush, who at the time was viewed as moderate and advocate of “compassionate conservatism.”

micah: Ryan is sort of the anti-Trump. Maybe even a better anti-Trump than Kasich, Clare.

clare.malone: Kasich was a pretty flawed anti-Trump. He was older, used to work for a bank (oof!) and, frankly, wasn’t all that charming. More of an acquired taste on the campaign trail.

julia.azari: Yeah, Kasich was like a strong French cheese that eventually made you go “hmm, that’s pretty good.” But not a crowd-pleaser.

harry: The betting markets still give Trump a roughly 1 in 4 chance of winning the general election. He probably won’t, but what happens to the party if he does?

julia.azari: That’s the nightmare scenario for some Republicans: Trump wins. That’s Andrew Johnson, John Tyler territory. It’s been awhile, but a president without party ties is a DISASTER. (That’s a technical poli-sci term.)

natesilver: I mean, the default answer is that it becomes the Party of Trump. A nationalist party instead of a conservative party.

clare.malone: If Trump wins, then there’s a serious third party candidate the next election, maybe.

julia.azari: Yeah, that seems quite likely.

clare.malone: Maybe that’s the scenario in which America finally gets what it’s been asking for (OK, some parts of America).

natesilver: This is a point I made a couple of months ago. For certain types of Republicans — committed movement conservatives, in particular — a Trump win really might be as bad as a Trump loss.

Listen to the latest episode of the FiveThirtyEight politics podcast.

A FiveThirtyEight Chat

micah: Last question, getting at whether Ryan gives cover to other Republicans and/or is a sign of things to come: There are 300 congressional Republicans (54 in the Senate, 246 in the House), choose either “more than” or “less than” and fill in the blank, “It’s Nov. 1, 2016, and ____ ____ 100 congressional Republicans have failed to endorse Donald Trump.” This is for the record, and if you’re wrong you get kicked off the island.

clare.malone: Less than.

harry: I’ll take less than. I think most will get behind him. But even something like 30 would be amazingly high.

julia.azari: Less than.

natesilver: I’m not in love with the question because I’m not sure what qualifies as an endorsement. There’s a lot of middle ground.

micah: Nate.

natesilver: No, seriously.

micah: I’m trying to oversimplify things.

natesilver: Something to watch as a marker, though: How many Republicans endorse a candidate other than Trump?


natesilver: Yeah, Gary Johnson may become a bigger factor than people realize. Parts of his agenda are pretty acceptable to the Republican Party and he’s a little bit of an oddball but otherwise relatively inoffensive. He was elected as a Republican Governor once upon a time. He’s on the ballot in 30-plus states and probably more by Election Day.

Johnson would have some incentive to pitch his campaign in a way that appeals to #NeverTrump Republicans, though. If the Libertarian Party gets 5 percent of the vote, it gets federal funding for next cycle.

micah: Let the record show Mr. Nathaniel Read Silver did not answer the question.

Nate Silver founded and was the editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.

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

Clare Malone is a former senior political writer for 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.