Typically, after losing a presidential election, a political party will undertake an intense intra-party debate over why it didn’t win and how the party needs to change to take back the White House. Democrats did so after losing in 1988, 2000, 2004 and 2016. In fact, even after winning in 2020 — taking control of the White House and U.S. Senate and maintaining control in the U.S. House — Democrats are having an intra-party debate, trying to figure out why they didn’t win more House seats and struggled with Latino voters. Republicans, too, have had such debates, after losses in 1996, 2008 and 2012.
But not this time.
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Despite Republicans losing the White House and Senate in 2020, and thus being totally swept out of power in Washington,1 there’s been no official “autopsy” or widespread consideration of appointing new leaders or anything else. In the period after the 1988 presidential election, the Republican Party has lost the popular vote in all but one presidential race (2004). It has lost three of the last four presidential elections and allowed itself to be dominated by former President Donald Trump, who was twice impeached for breaking with democratic values. But it is moving forward like none of that really happened.
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- Republicans on Capitol Hill and at the state level are returning to their Obama-era strategy of opposing everything the incumbent Democratic president does;
- Republicans at the state level are adopting laws that make it harder for left-leaning people to vote, just like they did before and during the Trump presidency;
- Republicans in Washington and at the state level are sticking with the party’s positions on issues of identity and race, which are a big part of the reason that the GOP is struggling among the growing parts of America’s electorate, namely people of color and white college graduates (this marks a change from the post-election periods in 2008 and 2012, when Republicans talked about how to better appeal to nonwhite voters);
- State-level Republican officials, in particular, are taking other extreme actions, from casting Democratic women as “witches” to trying to bar Democratic-controlled cities from requiring residents to wear masks to prevent the spread of COVID-19;
- And, perhaps most surprisingly, Republican Party officials are largely continuing to align themselves with Trump, even though the former president was both an electoral drag on the party and also a moral stain, with a string of racist comments and undemocratic actions that culminated in him encouraging his supporters to storm the Capitol in an attempt to overturn the election results.
The collective decision of conservative activists and Republican elected officials to stay on the anti-democratic, racist trajectory that the GOP had been on before Trump — but that he accelerated — is perhaps the most important story in American politics right now. At this moment, it’s unclear whether one of America’s two major political parties truly believes in democracy.
Why has there not been such a reckoning among conservatives and Republicans? This is a hard question to answer precisely because the Republican Party isn’t one thing, and the incentives of right-wing media outlets such as Fox News or Newsmax are different from those of elected officials such as Sen. Mitch McConnell. But based on my own reporting and interviews with people who are studying the Republican Party closely, I’d offer five (overlapping) theories.
1. The party’s core activists don’t want to shift gears.
This is the simplest and most obvious explanation: The GOP isn’t changing directions because the people driving the car don’t want to.
When we think of “Republicans,” we tend to think of either rank-and-file GOP voters or the party’s highest-profile elected officials, particularly its leaders in Congress. But in many ways, the party’s direction is driven by a group between those two: conservative organizations like Club for Growth and the Heritage Foundation, GOP officials at the local and state level and right-wing media outlets. That segment of the party has been especially resistant to the GOP abandoning its current mix of tax cuts for the wealthy and corporations, opposition to expansions of programs that benefit the poor and an identity politics that centers white Americans and conservative Christians.
You could see the power and preferences of this group in the response to the Capitol insurrection.
In the days immediately following Jan. 6, many GOP elected officials, most notably McConnell, signaled that the party should make a permanent break from Trump. Polls found an increased number of rank-and-file GOP voters were dissatisfied with the outgoing president. But by the time the Senate held its trial over Trump’s actions a month later, it was clear that the party was basically back in line with Trump.
What happened in the weeks between the Capitol riot and the Senate trial? Local and state Republicans censured Republicans such as McConnell who either voted for impeachment or sharply criticized Trump in response to the Capitol riot. Conservative activists started organizing primary challenges against the 10 House Republicans who voted for Trump’s impeachment. Trump-aligned Republicans in Congress like Sen. Rand Paul attacked the impeachment process, as did Fox News anchors. The message to McConnell and senior Republicans in Washington from some of the party’s loudest and most influential voices was clear: Breaking with Trump was an attack on the Republican base and would not be tolerated by anyone who wanted to remain a Republican-in-good-standing.
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In theory, political parties are principally focused on winning elections, since that is how they gain power to implement their agendas. So why aren’t these activists and elected officials changing gears out of sheer self-preservation? One reason is that they are doing pretty well electorally without such changes. (More on that in a bit.)
But just as importantly, many of the key people and institutions in the Republican Party might prefer a risky and often-losing strategy to one that would really increase their chances of electoral victories. The path to Republicans becoming a majority party in America probably involves the GOP embracing cultural and demographic changes and pushing a more populist economic agenda that is less focused on tax cuts for the wealthy. But some of the most powerful blocs in the GOP are big donors who favor tax cuts, conservative Christian activists who are wary of expanding LGBTQ rights and an “own the libs” bloc exemplified by many Fox News personalities and elected officials such as Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, who are very critical of immigration and the Black Lives Matter movement. The big donors and conservative Christian activists have policy goals that are fairly unpopular but that they are deeply committed to (such as overturning Roe v. Wade) — so they aren’t going to bend for electoral reasons. For the “own the libs” bloc, winning elections isn’t that important anyway — they aren’t really invested in policy or governing and will be fine if Republicans remain out of the White House and in the minority on Capitol Hill.
In short, the Republican Party has an activist base whose interests aren’t that compatible with pursuing a strategy that maximizes winning national elections.
This isn’t a new problem for Republicans. After their losses in both 2008 and 2012, Republicans talked a lot about changing the party, particularly doing more outreach to voters of color, in a way that the GOP has not in the wake of 2020. But that was mostly talk. Republicans didn’t make any real changes after either of those elections either, in part because the party’s base was very resistant.
In a recent column, former Republican National Committee Chair Michael Steele and ex-Florida Rep. Carlos Curbelo wrote, “This crusade against voting rights lays bare the GOP’s greatest political liability: The party remains frozen in time, even as new demographic blocs have begun to gain power.”
2. Trump is still a force in the party.
After the 2012 elections, prominent Republicans sharply criticized Mitt Romney and his campaign. Democrats did the same to Hillary Clinton after 2016 — and sometimes included former President Barack Obama in their criticisms, too. For a political party to change direction, it nearly always has to distance itself from past leaders.
Or put another way: For there to be an autopsy, there has to be a dead body.
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But Trump’s continued popularity among key GOP constituencies prevents Republican insiders from undertaking a formal, public discussion about his political shortcomings and how the party should move on from him. Everyone in the GOP knows that irritating Trump could result in the former president attacking them, which would make them vulnerable to a primary challenge, with conservative activists likely backing their opponent. So there will be no “autopsy” of the post-Trump Republican Party, akin to the Republican National Committee’s report in 2013 following Romney’s defeat, at least not in public.
3. Republicans almost won in 2020.
To torture this “autopsy” metaphor even more: There’s a good argument that the party is still very much alive.
Historically, parties have done more self-reflection and been more likely to change course when they’ve hit electoral low points. In the 1988 presidential race, Democrats carried only 10 states and Washington, D.C., and that loss was their third consecutive failed bid for the White House. In 2008, Obama won the popular vote by 7 percentage points — Republicans didn’t even carry Indiana. So of course the parties were ready to rethink things after those defeats.
In contrast, Trump would have won reelection had he done only about 1 percentage point better in Pennsylvania and Wisconsin and about 3 points better in Michigan. Republicans would still control the Senate had Republican David Perdue won about 60,000 more votes (out of nearly 4.5 million cast) against Democrat Jon Ossoff in Georgia’s Senate runoff. A slew of court rulings that forced the redrawing of House district lines in less favorable ways to the GOP helped the Democrats win several seats — otherwise, Republicans might have won back the House. Add all that up, and 2020 wasn’t that far from resulting in a Republican trifecta.
Considering the GOP’s decent showing last year, it makes sense that Republicans aren’t rethinking their party’s future. Change would be hard — because it would offend Trump and the party’s activists — and they may not need to make changes anyway. The traditional midterm backlash against an incumbent president, particularly combined with some election-rigging (voter restrictions, gerrymandering) by Republicans at the local level, could result in the Republicans winning control of the House, Senate or both next year without them changing a thing.
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“They see no reason to reassess,” said Glickman. “They are confident that they’ll retake the House. … They seem to think that their culture war/fomenting fear mantra will work well enough. They barely acknowledge that they lost in 2020 and are depicting the overall results as a win.”
Tim Miller, a one-time adviser to both John McCain and Jeb Bush during their presidential campaigns and who has left the Republican Party, said that the GOP’s efforts to make it harder to vote are essentially the party’s autopsy.
“Republicans see the turnout numbers for Trump and their increased advantage in the Senate and Electoral College and conclude that a juiced GOP turnout plus minority rule model is the best path forward,” Miller said. “And that requires not doing anything to alienate Trump voters, which would be the natural outcome of an autopsy.”
4. Republican voters aren’t clamoring for changes.
It might seem odd that we’re only now turning our attention to Republican voters, who may seem like the most important factor in keeping the party from shifting gears. I’m not so sure. We have a lot of evidence that voters tend to follow the cues of political elites (as opposed to elites following voters). In other words, I suspect that if GOP elites, from national elected leaders to Fox News to local activists, had collectively broken with Trump and Trumpism after the Capitol riot, the percentage of rank-and-file Republican voters ready for the party to go in a new direction would have grown.
Party elites aren’t completely unresponsive to popular will, of course. If, for some reason, a majority of Republican voters were positively clamoring for a new direction, perhaps elites would respond. But that’s not happening. Instead, polls suggest rank-and-file Republican voters seem fairly averse to major changes to the GOP, particularly a real repudiation of Trump.
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For example, polls of Republicans — nationally and in important presidential primary states Iowa and New Hampshire — found that more half of Republicans would back Trump in a primary if he ran in 2024. Republicans who don’t consider themselves “Trump Republicans” still embrace many of Trump’s views, according to polling from YouGov Blue. These Republicans strongly dislike the Black Lives Matter movement and Romney (a Trump critic) and strongly support building a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border.
“Trump’s ideas are extremely popular among Republicans …. Whatever the future of the Republican Party, it is hard to imagine it will be fully excising itself of Trump any time soon,” YouGov Blue concluded from its polling analysis.
5. There aren’t real forces within the GOP leading change.
There is some appetite for change within the GOP. In those 2024 polls, at least a third of Republicans either were supporting a GOP presidential candidate other than Trump or were undecided.
In YouGov Blue’s polling, only about 40 percent of Republicans identified themselves as “Trump Republicans.” A recent survey from Fabrizio, Lee and Associates, a GOP-leaning firm that worked on Trump’s presidential campaigns, found that about 40 percent of Republican voters didn’t want Trump to continue to be a leader in the party. Those numbers don’t necessarily mean that those voters want the GOP to change drastically. But there is a substantial number of Trump-skeptical/ready-to-move-on-from-Trump Republican voters. But that sentiment isn’t really showing up in the Republican Party’s actions during the last three months — basically everything GOP officials in states and in Washington are doing lines up with the Trumpian approach. So what gives?
There just aren’t many institutions in that middle tier of the Republican Party that are pushing the party to go in a new direction — or that give any voice to people in the party who favor change. Fox News doesn’t have many prominent hosts calling for a Republican Party that is less Trumpian; in fact, the network has pushed out journalists there who weren’t aligned with the president. Like Miller, many of the most prominent anti-Trump Republicans have essentially given up on reforming the GOP and are now more involved in the Democratic Party. Local and state Republican parties are dominated by Trump-aligned figures.
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Contrast this with the Democratic Party post-2016. After Clinton’s loss, there were at least two major constituencies within the party demanding changes: one faction (usually older white men) argued that Clinton had talked too much about issues of identity and race during the campaign; another (progressives) argued she had been insufficiently populist on economic issues. These critiques both influenced the party, with Democrats eventually nominating Biden, who avoided rhetoric like calling Trump voters “deplorables,” was likely perceived more favorably by some voters because he is a white man and moved to the left on economic issues.
It is hard to see Republicans changing course, even if a meaningful minority of voters in the party wants changes, without some elite institutions and powerful people in the party pushing a new vision. And it’s hard to see real anti-Trumpism forces emerging in the GOP right now.
We should note that the Republicans are making some slight shifts. They are trying to describe their identity politics in terms of fighting “woke” people, “cancel culture” and critical race theory, instead of bashing Mexicans and Muslims as Trump did in 2016. The GOP is emphasizing the idea that it is a “working-class party,” even if its economic policy ideas don’t necessarily align with that mantra. And there is a clear effort in the party to promote other Republican politicians like Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis as presidential candidates — thereby allowing the party to move on from Trump by 2024. We should also emphasize that this story is only capturing where we are in April 2021 — three years from now, Republicans could be on the way to nominating a Romney-type, such as former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley. Three years is a long time in American politics.
But right now, Republicans are basically doing a very slight rebrand while not even announcing that rebrand, because the party is both resistant to change and largely resistant to even talking about change. For now, as Glickman described it, the Republicans are in a state of “Nah-topsy.”