As the race towards the 2020 presidential elections starts to heat up, the spotlight is on the Democratic Party. Indeed, after the march in the desert following Hillary Clinton’s defeat, the party is currently in the middle of a historic moment in which it is redefining itself. Thanks in part to the boost of the last midterm elections and in part to the polarization of Trump’s figure, the many candidates who have decided to run for the Democratic nomination have a double opportunity: not only do they have a realistic possibility of defeating Trump, they are also likely, and most importantly, to set the tone for the whole party in the years to come.
On the other side of the political spectrum, things seem a lot clearer: Donald Trump is the President and the GOP has clearly become the party of Trump. Polls consistently show that 80% or more of Republicans approve of the job he is doing – that is higher than any other president since George W. Bush at this point of his presidency.
And yet, Trump continues to be challenged from within his party. High-ranking moderate Republicans (known as “Never Trump Republicans”) are increasingly vocal against the President. For one, the recent editorial penned by former presidential candidate Mitt Romney in the Washington Post, in which he argues that the President lacks the “character to lead and inspire the nation”, shows that, notwithstanding his strength among the base, Trump’s opposition within the GOP is not yet sedated. And some politicians are actively launching, or rumored to be considering a primary campaign against the President: among them, the first official name is Bill Weld, the former Governor of Massachusetts, who recently announced he is launching an exploratory committee to this end. But other prominent Trump opponents that are commonly listed as possible challengers, either in primaries or as independents, include Ohio Governor John Kasich, who ran in 2016; Senator Ben Sasse of Nebraska; Maryland Governor Larry Hogan; and former Senators Bob Corker of Tennessee and Jeff Flake of Arizona.
Apart from Corker and Flake, most of these profiles are those of typical moderate Republicans, pragmatic and fiscally conservative, stemming from heavily contended or deeply blue states that have been left aside in Trump’s heavily populist Republican Party. Furthermore, they base their ambitions on the discontent against the President: the resounding defeat in the midterm elections and the Mueller investigations are undoubtedly eroding the GOP congressional members’ trust in Trump. Furthermore, some of his policy decisions risk further eroding the truce with the different souls of the party: the decision to remove US troops from Syria and the resulting resignation of Defense Secretary Jim Mattis irritated the congressional leadership and broke the delicate truce. Finally, the record shutdown on the border wall was probably the first blow to Trump’s popularity across his base.
For this reason, it can be interesting to ask: can the “Never Trump” mount a realistic challenge to Mr. Trump?
The brief answer is: not likely. Any primary campaign against the sitting President would meet huge hurdles. The first one of all is history: no primary challenger has ever been able to unseat an incumbent president, and furthermore, challenges to incumbent presidents are becoming ever rarer. As recalled by Nate Silver, the most recent one to be even remotely competitive was Pat Buchanan against H. G. Bush in 1992. Secondly, notwithstanding the possible tensions, it would be difficult to find Republican donors daring enough to openly finance a campaign against the President and risk a bad impact on their business. Also finding good and experienced people willing to staff a challenger’s campaign would be hard, with a person as vindictive and mercurial as Trump. In any case, the Republican Party seems ready to eliminate even the slightest possibility of a primary challenge: after the South Carolina GOP started to discuss the possibility of cancelling the primaries in the state, the Republican National Committee also started debating whether to simply declare Trump the official candidate before primary period.
In any case, in an institutionally bipolar political system like that of the US, even an independent run would be, by any means, doomed to failure. Even if some Republicans were ready to run as independents, to overcome the difficulties illustrated above, few of them would enjoy being held responsible by their fellow party members for stealing Trump’s votes and helping to elect a President Sanders, for example. The only one who appears ready to go down this road is John Kasich, according to one of his close advisors.
But the biggest obstacle to any potential success of the Never Trumpers is the structure of Trump’s Republican Party. As scholars Henry Olsen and Dante Scala described in their book “The Four Faces of the Republican Party”, traditionally the GOP was a tent putting together four big factions: fiscal conservatives, social conservatives (such as the evangelicals), business conservatives and moderates. When Trump arrived, he busted open the party by adding to these four a fifth faction, the nationalist conservatives, who are against immigration and pro-protectionism. But Trump not only increased the party’s base to get elected; once in power, he gave four of these five factions what they wanted most: the tax cuts made the business conservatives and the fiscal conservatives happy; the Supreme Court appointments give the social conservatives something to rejoice about; and the trade war and the hard line on immigration pleases the nationalist conservatives. In this way, he has been able to maintain high support among the majority of Republican voters, leaving moderates – the fifth group – the minority.
In such a situation, there is a very thin line for challengers, as they would need to win back the majority of the Republican base in order to get back the party. Their task, which now seems impossible, might be made easier by a combination of factors: if Trump loses his grip on the party, either by alienating parts of his basis or if the Mueller investigations uncovers clear crimes in the President’s dealings with Russia, this might open up big opportunities.
There is another development that, even if more on the long term, is much more promising for a de-Trumpified Republican party. A challenger who wanted to reconquer the Republican Party would have to rebuild a strong majority opposed to the Trumpian one. To do that, he or she could borrow from Trump’s own playbook, increasing the base by including more moderate electors. The last midterms show a path: a part of Democrats’ wins across the country was due to Trump-skeptical Republicans switching sides in tight races and voting for Democratic candidates. As Henry Olsen explained, “the biggest reason (…) Republicans lost control of the House is RINOs (Republicans in Name Only). Across the nation, moderate college-educated independents who had frequently backed Republicans in prior elections switched sides.”
Indeed, this interpretation fits with a wider phenomenon of US politics: in an increasingly polarised political sphere, self-professed independents are increasing. Which means that Trump might well have a record-high approval rate among Republicans, but these Republicans are fewer than they used to be. A possible viable solution for an ambitious moderate politician to conquer the political party, then, would be exactly to bring all those educated, fiscally conservative and business-oriented former Republicans back inside the Republican Party.
It is clearly a long-term plan, and any candidate wanting to challenge Trump in 2020 on these terms will most likely lose – unless Trump does not sabotage himself before. But even a losing primary tomorrow might mean success in the years to follow, in 2024, or even in 2020, if Trump loses the elections. That is why a Republican challenger playing the long game could make his bid the most successful electoral loss in the recent history of the Republican Party.