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Is This What It Looks Like When A Party Falls Apart?

In this week’s politics chat, we discuss the implications of Donald Trump’s fight with Republican officials. The transcript below has been lightly edited.

micah (Micah Cohen, politics editor): Choosing a topic this week was easy, as the Republican Party appears to be ripping itself apart. So, today’s question: How freaking crazy is what we’re seeing?

harry (Harry Enten, senior political writer): I think it’s perfectly normal to have the Republican nominee bash the Republican speaker of the House on Twitter. It’s also perfectly normal for Republican candidates nationwide to denounce the Republican nominee.

No, it’s completely bat-crap insane.

micah: So, as of our latest count, about 1-in-5 GOP governors, U.S. representatives and U.S. senators have denounced Trump. More than that, obviously, have condemned his behavior on the tape.

So let’s start here: Is there any precedent for this? Does anything come close?

natesilver (Nate Silver, editor in chief): Not in my lifetime.

clare.malone (Clare Malone, senior political writer): Yeah, I think we might need a presidential historian up in here.

micah: Maybe @julia happens to be on slack?

harry: There’s no good precedent for this as far as I know. Obviously, there were party divisions in 1872 and 1896, for example, but this is something different.

natesilver: I like how you’re just trying to beam people into the chat without their permission, Micah. It’s very Star Trek.

micah: OK, so there’s no good precedent that we know of. So then what do we make of this? Is this what it looks like when a party falls apart?

natesilver: It’s just a flesh wound!

clare.malone: I think it’s what it looks like when the national part of a party falls apart, for sure — it’s like a top heavy ice cream cone losing that precarious third scoop on top.

harry: It’s very difficult to break apart how much of this is an ideological division versus a referendum on Trump’s personality.

natesilver: The Washington Post’s lede yesterday referred to how the Republican Party “tumbled toward anarchy Monday,” and that seemed totally appropriate. I feel bad for reporters in future campaigns who will probably be exaggerating if they use language like that. Not so this time, I don’t think.

clare.malone: Maybe let’s take it in baby bites, starting with Paul Ryan, right? That guy, the speaker of the House, just basically conceded that his party shouldn’t win the presidency. That is, pretty effing astounding.

harry: Paul Ryan faces a nearly impossible task: a majority of GOP voters like Trump; a majority of all voters don’t.

natesilver: I feel more sympathy for Ryan than a lot of other Republicans. #confessyourunpopularopinion

clare.malone: It’s definitely, as Harry said, driven by an unacceptable personality in the form of Trump, but he’s also the embodiment of an element of their party faithful. He’s revealing motivations that they’re not totally cool with, aka, xenophobia, racism, etc. The national Republicans would LOVE to be courting conservative Latinos.

julia (Julia Azari, associate political science professor at Marquette University and FiveThirtyEight contributor): I am here! What’s going on?

micah: Julia!!!

clare.malone: Love the guest appearance!

micah: 🎊 🎊 👍

julia: I am loving the reception here. Is that confetti?

clare.malone: Damn straight, girl.

micah: Julia, quick question for you: What’s the nearest historical precedent for the recent wave of GOP officials defecting from Trump?

julia: Watergate.

micah: Interesting!

julia: Not just in terms of the numbers of possible disavowals, but in the sense of “this has crossed a line.”

micah: So that obviously didn’t happen in the context of a presidential campaign, but does that mean maybe we should look to the 1974 midterms or the 1976 presidential election two years later for lessons? (Side note: I highly recommend “The Final Days” by Woodward and Bernstein — sequel to “All The President’s Men” and much better, IMO.)

natesilver: I think almost no matter what we’re doing, we’re more extrapolating from historical patterns rather than citing precedents, if that makes sense.

julia: So, 1974 is a sort of obvious parallel in some ways.

harry: Context here: The GOP lost five seats in 1974, which is pretty remarkable given they had so few to begin with. They lost nearly 50 in the House. Again, that’s remarkable given they had fewer than than 200 to begin with.

julia: In 1974 and 1976, there was all this damage to the party brand.

But a distinction between Nixon and Trump (it was only a matter of time until I wrote that, right) is that Nixon did have a fair number of elite allies. And he’d won the 1972 election in a landslide. He wasn’t the most lovable guy, but he didn’t come in out of nowhere and win a bunch of primaries. He was vice president.

natesilver: Here’s the thing, though, which I think makes it different than Watergate. This isn’t just a crisis of party leadership. It’s also a crisis of the party’s voters.

harry: I guess what I’m most interested in figuring out is how much of the fight between Trump and other members of the GOP is based on personality/tone versus issues. And that relates to Nate’s point.

micah: Trump, in most ways, has the party’s voters on his side.

natesilver: I mean, what if we’ve reached a point where the white nationalist coalition is the largest plurality in the GOP?

clare.malone: Right, which is what scares the Ryans of the world.

micah: So it’s the leadership crisis of Watergate and the coalition crisis of …

clare.malone: Umm, mid-19th Century?

julia: Maybe the Democrats c. 1856

micah: bam!

clare.malone: I feel affirmed, Julia. Thank you.

julia: In the sense, the racist vote is always a bloc for either party. Until the 1960s, it was the Democrats. Now, the Republicans are contending with it. So they’re there, they vote. But they’re not often a plurality.

micah: So can’t we answer Nate’s question pretty easily? We have reached that point.

julia: The cost of drafting me without warning is that I’m going to geek out. The Democrats until the 1930s had the “two-thirds” rule for nominations, which gave the South a veto on presidential nominations. They lost that under FDR. The South went apeshit.

natesilver: The difference between the New Deal-era Democrats and today’s Republicans is that the Democrats had a much larger footprint than Republicans do now.

micah: What does that mean?

natesilver: It used to be that 40 or 50 percent of the country identified as Democrats, I think, in part because you had both Northern Democrats and Southern Democrats who didn’t agree on all that much but both called themselves Democrats.

Now, Republicans are 25 to 35 percent of the country, depending on how you measure it. So if 15 percent of the country consists of white nationalists, they have way more impact in a 30-percent coalition than in a 45-percent one.

harry: There are voters who “lean” Republican, they probably get the GOP to 40 percent, but it is a minority party in that sense. The pie isn’t large enough to slice two or three ways.

clare.malone: Yeah, also they were framing themselves as a big-tent party, the thing about today’s Republican Party is that despite the best efforts of some at the top, it definitely gives off the vibe of look-a-certain-way, act-a-certain-way. It’s not a party primarily for fiscal conservatives anymore — it’s a culture party.

natesilver: Yeah. There just aren’t many of those fiscal conservatives out there.

harry: The main fight for the Republican Party of the future, to me, is between cultural conservatives (Trump) and social conservatives (think Ted Cruz). The fiscal conservatives are a tiny faction. Someone like Ryan is lost, in my opinion.

micah: OK, so let’s talk consequences — short-term, then long-term.

Short-term: Does the wave of GOP candidates condemning Trump affect turnout? Do down-ballot Republicans have time to save themselves?

clare.malone: Short-term: Stock in Imitrex is going up. Down-ballot is kind of a wild thing right now!

harry: These are all theoretical questions. But they point to the problem Republicans have. If they denounce Trump too much, they risk lower turnout from the base. If they don’t denounce him enough, they risk turning off swing voters.

natesilver: Relative to the conventional wisdom, I think I’m slightly bullish on the GOP in the short term (and slightly bearish in the long-term, although the conventional wisdom is pretty bearish).

We haven’t really seen a big shift in the Senate polls yet, for instance. Every time it looks like Democrats are breaking away, they’ll get a bad poll in Pennsylvania, or Indiana, or something.

clare.malone: A Trump campaign spokesperson hinted the other day that they wanted their voters to vote Trump, but then screw over the down-ballot Republicans out of spite. I mean, that’s not a field-organizing thing you can do, but there might be some Republicans who get pissed with their senator for basically ceding the presidential race and take it out on him/her.

natesilver: I agree — that’s a new element they’ll have to contend with. But you could also have some voters going GOP for Senate as a check on President Clinton. There is some evidence that voters will split their tickets in that way when they’re confident about predicting the presidential outcome.

clare.malone: Obviously, Marco Rubio has read the populace and he ain’t abandoning ship — this just hit Twitter:

julia: As Nate mentioned, political science has this concept of anticipatory balancing — the idea is based on an assumption that voters would prefer governance that’s more centrist than either party will produce under a unified government. SO, if you know who’s gonna be president, you pick members of Congress from the other party. It’s often used to explain midterm results.

clare.malone: You’re saying people would vote for Clinton and then vote GOP?

julia: Right. I mean, maybe.

clare.malone: Or just that they’re voting GOP all the way on the ticket.

julia: Probably the latter. Sorry. It’s a little — or a lot — counterintuitive. and not really matched by other landslide victories in recent memory, but there is a theoretical basis for it. And all bets are off this year, no?

harry: The question as yet unknown is how does this balancing interact with the very strong tendency to vote straight ticket.

natesilver: You have contradictory effects and it isn’t clear which one wins out. So far, though, there hasn’t been that strong a correlation between the change in the presidential outlook and the change in the Senate outlook.

harry: There was in August, but not recently. No.

natesilver: With that said, races for Congress can break late since voters don’t pay as much attention to them until fairly late in the campaign.

julia: The other factor here is Clinton’s unpopularity. I could see the small slice of whoever these true independents splitting their tickets.

clare.malone: In some ways, I think people will default more or less to voting party-line down ticket if they’re Republicans, if only because it’s the most frictionless option, right? Once you reach certain lower state offices, people just don’t know a whole lot about those candidates.

julia: True. How many states still have the “vote straight ticket” option where you just pull the level for option 2 or whatever?

harry: About 10 states have straight-ticket voting.

micah: OK, let’s shift to the long-term consequences.

Consequence No. 1: The Republican Party’s brand is substantially damaged for years to come.


natesilver: T.

harry: F.

julia: F.

clare.malone: T.

natesilver: False? Oh, come on!

julia: Well, I kinda want to beg the question …

clare.malone: It’s tainted for minorities, especially. They just aren’t going to feel accepted by that party for generations — political affiliation is passed down in families.

natesilver: Also for women, Clare.

clare.malone: Yeah. Very true.

julia: I feel like it’s … entrenched. I had that recalibrating vs. realigning piece a while ago, which pointed out that gender and race disparities between the two parties were well-established before this election cycle. Women and many racial and ethnic minority groups tend to vote Democratic. The 2016 race hasn’t done anything to decrease these differences, but it didn’t create them, either.

natesilver: You can argue that a party brand doesn’t mean that much and isn’t very predictive of election results. But I don’t buy the notion that this election won’t damage the GOP’s image.

julia: But it’s not a fundamental change.

harry: Two years after Watergate, Gerald Ford lost by a very small margin. Republicans won the White House in 1980. I just don’t think things are ever that lasting.

julia: Yes!

micah: CONFLICT! I love it!

julia: There’s some good work on party brands right now, but I’m not sure that I’m totally enamored of it as a thing. Party ideologies, party affiliations, yes.

That’s the other dimension of my question begging.

clare.malone: But were more people identifying as Republican back then?

julia: No.

clare.malone: Hm.

natesilver: To a point I was making before, it’s a problem that we’re sort of off the charts here. There aren’t any good empirical precedents for something like Trump. So we’re extrapolating from cases we do know out to an empty part of the graph.

harry: Sure. But then we just throw the entire book out the window?

julia: I think that’s correct, what Nate said. But what we’re seeing now is that party elites — the formal organizations, the networks — don’t have much control over whatever output we might call their brand. Trump is the nominee. The platform reflects his views on immigration and trade. But partisanship is strong. Despite reservations, party voters are still supportive of Trump. We don’t have a precedent for that combo of things. But we do have some precedent for each piece alone.

harry: Doesn’t the fact, Nate, that down-ballot Republicans haven’t collapsed argue against your point? Voters are separating Trump from other Republicans. And if Trump loses, then the party can be recovered.

natesilver: I think you’re thinking about it too narrowly — in terms of the short-term electoral impact.

clare.malone: Well, locally they might be separating, and people who are already Republican rank-and-file are differentiating. But brands are national; if they are looking to grow their base (and they are) then this presidential election is shitty for them nationally to attract the kind of people they need. It ain’t great for brand building.

natesilver: There are a variety of long-term consequences that are liable to be negative for the GOP, but in a somewhat unpredictable way. It might or might not translate into their losing a bunch of elections. I know that’s not a very satisfying answer.

harry: The Republican Party has won two midterms in a row with ease. They control most of the state houses. If we want to argue they have a problem in presidential years, then maybe that’s true. I tend to think they have a structural problem, not an agenda problem.

natesilver: But the party’s agenda is in shambles. Maybe not at the state level, but certainly at the national level.

I just don’t see how you go from “this is totally unprecedented” at the top of the chat to “everything will turn out fine!” at the end. At a bare minimum, the GOP can’t govern effectively.

micah: Nationally and at the state level?

natesilver: In the states — OK, fine, although people would cite instances like Kansas. But as a functional, national party?

One consequence of the GOP’s problems could be, for example, that while eventually they’ll win the presidency again, that president might turn out to be very unpopular and face a high risk of losing after one term.

Historically, Democrats were the larger party but Republicans were the more unified party. Now, Republicans are both the smaller party and have less intraparty unity. How can that not have consequences for them?

micah: OK, we gotta move to …

Consequence No. 2: The Republican Party will split, and a new Paul-Ryanesque party will form. So you’d have Democrats, Trumpicans and Ryancrats.

harry: Possible, but Duverger’s law suggests our political system naturally leads to two major parties.

clare.malone: It will not split and become a new party.

natesilver: But what if it’s already become a new party?

harry: Boring answer. I was hoping you light this chat on fire and say yes.

natesilver: I think there’s a chance, sure, that the GOP could literally split apart.

Not a high chance, but a chance. That does happen in American politics from time to time.

micah: I think it’s clear the Republican Party is already a different party — in all the ways that matter — than it was in, say, 1990. Clare and Harry made this case very persuasively.

harry: It’s true. We did.

clare.malone: I think institutions die slowly, whimpering out rather than screaming.

So, I think we’re on track to have the party lose prominence over the next decade/two decades. Or as, who was it, George Will said, Trump is chemo for the GOP.

micah: I don’t buy the Trump-is-exorcising-the-demons argument at all. Could it help to lay bare these elements? I guess, but didn’t we already know this white nationalist bloc was there?

harry: Gosh, I have enough problems figuring out what I’m getting for lunch. I don’t know where the GOP is going to be in a decade. But I think Trump losing in a landslide could help the GOP longer term.

natesilver: I don’t know either, but I suppose I’m arguing against overly rigid empiricism. I’m not arguing against empiricism. But empiricism fails when it turns into rote learning.

micah: We’re off the map, is what you’re saying.

natesilver: Like there are a lot of features of the American political system circa 1952-2000 that people take to be permanent features but which might not be.

clare.malone: Is this our most philosophical chat ever?

micah: Here’s Jack Sparrow and Captain Barbosa from “Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End” talking about the 2016 election and the Republican Party (in this analogy, the Kraken is the GOP and Davy Jones is Donald Trump):

clare.malone: I’m so happy and upset that you could call that up immediately.

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

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

Clare Malone is a 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 the politics editor.