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Republicans are Still a Normal Party

Robert VerBruggen

George Hawley has done a great service, puncturing the myth of a Republican base that has suddenly, in the Trump era, adopted reactionary views on matters of race and sex. The Internet is not reality, and neither is elite punditry: There may be some crazy newfangled far-right subcultures on the web and lots of media interest in them, but they do not seem to have moved the needle when it comes to Republican attitudes overall. I especially like that Hawley makes his point with straightforward descriptive data.

Tasked with responding to these findings, I first suspected that the trends might look different among the young. Isn't Pepe the Frog all the rage with Millennials and Gen Z? But subsetting the American National Election Studies (ANES) data to Republicans under 40, I found patterns similar to Hawley’s.

Here are the four so-called “racial resentment” questions he compiled (which work as a measure of racial conservatism even if they don’t really measure bigotry), asking whether blacks could achieve equality by trying harder, whether blacks have gotten less than they deserve, whether blacks should work their way up without “special favors,” and whether the history of slavery and discrimination makes it difficult for blacks to succeed. Rather than tallying agreement with each question, I tally the allegedly “resentful” answers, such as disagreeing with the idea that conditions make it hard for blacks to succeed.

There’s certainly no Trump-era spike in racial conservatism, though of course a liberal would say that Republicans have long been too racially conservative. Things are similar for under-30-year-olds, but the smaller samples lead to even more random volatility.

I do think it’s worth keeping an eye on what Gen Z right-wingers are thinking, in particular given some signs of a growing gender gap in conservatism, the cesspool of some Internet subcultures, and the possibility of “thermostatic” reactions to woke victories in the form of lessening support for causes such as LGBT rights. Depending on the form they take, those shifts may present opportunities for conservatism or reasons to worry about its future. But younger Republicans in general do not appear to be getting much more racially right-wing.

So what I want to do here is tie Hawley’s findings into a broader point I’ve touched on in other writing in the past: Republicans have changed less than you might think in the Trump era, and those seeking to shape the future of the Right must understand what has changed and what has not. There is an enormous and under-appreciated continuity, for example, between Mitt Romney’s 2012 coalition and Donald Trump’s 2016 one, despite the two men being polar opposites in countless ways. Trump found new ways of appealing to Republicans, and new ways to exploit the nuances of the Electoral College by shifting key percentages on the margins, more than he fundamentally changed Republicans themselves or the sorts of people who tend to identify as Republicans.

It can be surprising how consistent vote shares are geographically, given the narrative that Trump remade the Republican coalition. Of course, Trump’s victory centered on razor-thin margins in longstanding swing states, rather than flipping territory that was entirely unfamiliar to the GOP. And even at the county level, Romney’s share of the 2012 two-party vote is an overwhelming predictor of Trump’s share four years later; statistically, variation in Romney support explains about 90% of the variation in Trump support across counties. In this chart, points are sized according to the total votes cast in 2016, and the data are from the indispensable MIT Election Lab:

So what did change? If preexisting partisanship sketches out most of the Trump-support picture, education fills in the details—this is the well-worn point that Trump appealed to whites without a college degree, particularly in the Rust Belt, who, given the partisan arrangement of the country, have a disproportionate impact on the Electoral College. One analysis of county-level data showed that, after controlling for Romney votes, places with more non-college workers moved toward Trump.

At the individual level, from the ANES data, here are the Republican shares of the two-party presidential vote since 2000 by race and whether or not the voter attended college (regardless of degree). There’s plenty of continuity even here, especially in that Republicans never perform well among nonwhites, but the education shift among whites, beginning pre-Trump, is quite noticeable.

(See also this from Pew and this from the New York Times, which also show the cleavage starting to develop before 2016.)

In the end, Trump still lost the popular vote by two points in 2016 (versus four points for Romney in 2012, whether because Trump had more appeal than Mitt or because Clinton had less than Obama), but his voters were perfectly distributed to win the election.

To keep the data in mind while diving headfirst into a little punditry and speculation, here is one way to see Trump’s rise and ongoing popularity vis-à-vis conservatism and the traditional Republican base.

First, there are reasons not to assume that Trumpism, whatever that means at this point, must represent the future of the conservative movement. It’s not clear his path to victory demands emulation, or even could be emulated in future elections with different candidates. For instance, GOP primary voters were split among numerous candidates in 2016, and most of them voted for someone else, even when one includes the uncompetitive primaries held after Trump had obviously won. Second, solidly losing the popular vote while capturing the Electoral College is an entirely fair but also precarious way to win. Third, as we have seen, Trump’s coalition represented a modest evolution rather than a revolution in terms of who was voting Republican anyway. Fourth, he lost in 2020, though we shall see what happens in 2024.

But there are also some lessons conservatives absolutely must learn from the past decade. Trump showed that a somewhat more blue-collar voter base has its advantages in the Electoral College, and toward that end he capitalized on growing educational polarization, which, again, was developing even before he hit the scene. He drew careful distinctions in terms of which standard GOP lines he hewed (abortion, guns, judges, taxes) and did not (entitlement reform)—and I suspect this was a big reason why Republicans so overwhelmingly voted for Trump in general elections even if they’d opposed him in the 2016 primaries. Outside of the commentariat, most Republicans simply didn’t find it that difficult to decide whether they wanted Federalist Society judges and tax cuts, however distasteful they might find the guy signing the papers, or Hillary Clinton. A candidate can keep the core GOP base with strong stances on a few key issues, and use the rest of his platform and personality to appeal to other constituencies.

And lastly, both in winning in 2016 and in maintaining Republican support over the past three years since his defeat, Trump demonstrated the value of “triggering the libs” in an environment where (as Hawley shows) the two parties hate each other. His racially charged comments prompted outrage from exactly the right (well, left) people while juicing media coverage of his campaign, and years of relentless Democratic attacks on Trump only solidified Republicans’ loyalty to him, to the point that most buy his story about the 2020 election being fraudulent and his 2024 primary polling lead seems immune to scandal. These dynamics are not healthy, but they are part of the current political landscape.

At this point, a successful Republican presidential candidate probably needs significant blue-collar appeal and, to get through the primaries, definitely needs to make liberals mad. But such a person also needs to hold on to traditional Republican voters with traditional Republican priorities, and will need to confront hard realities once in office—including, soon enough, shortfalls in funding for the entitlement system. The future of the party, of conservatism, and of the country lie in how right-wing elites ultimately strike these balances.

Republicans may not be changing, but the Republican party and conservative thought leaders have to decide where to go after Trump—whenever Trump himself decides to let the Trump era end.

Robert VerBruggen is a fellow at the Manhattan Institute.

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