Tuesday, July 24, 2018

The Republican base, revisited

JAMELLE BOUIE, in an essay in Slate on July 22, deftly explores particulars of the deeply feared panoramic Republican base, and finds it may not be the boogeyman that Democrats are fearing and Republicans are counting on. The monster we’ve been told is hiding under the bed may not be as fearsome as advertised.

And digging further, it's possible to see that the identity of the Republican base is such a shifting sand that its value as a weapon against Democrats may be marginal or even illusory — not least of all because of the volatile nature of our electoral politics.

Bouie observes: “Presidents always have partisans, and it’s rare that they break ranks. On the eve of his resignation in 1974, half of Republicans still supported Richard Nixon, and 59 percent said he shouldn’t be forced from office. Likewise, around 80 percent of Republicans backed Ronald Reagan at the height of the Iran-Contra scandal. For Trump, the key question is less ‘how many Republicans still support his administration?’ and more ‘how many voters are still Republicans?’”

A fair question. Here’s another one: How many voters will vote Republican despite not being Republicans? In 2016 independent voters asserted their independence by voting for Trump. Likewise, there were Democrats who did the same thing. “I voted for Trump because I wanted some change going on,” said Sharla Baker, 28, to The New York Times. “But then again, maybe he's going to do the wrong change.”

Similarly, The Washington Post reported in May 2017 that “[a] sizable chunk of Obama-Trump voters — 30 percent — said their vote for Trump was more a vote against Clinton than a vote for Trump.”

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You can see why many variables should keep you from relying on any single facet of political identity. Party self-identification — an emotional connection to a party — is one thing, party registration — an official connection to a party — may well be another. And then there’s the vote itself — the actual connection to a party.

In an unusual election like 2016’s, this created a challenge to clearly identifying who and what the Republican base is. Then as now, people can self-identify with one party, register with that party (or another one) and then actually pull the lever — in a way that may be in lockstep with that party. Or not. That’s a decision arrived at in the privacy of the voting booth. And that reliably unpredictable human factor, played out in 2016, is what makes our current fears of (or confidence in) The Base so irrational. And probably wrong.

Even the GOP base as broadly sketched in November 2016 wasn’t responsible for putting Donald Trump over the top.

When all was said and done, the 2016 presidential election came down to three states: Trump won Michigan by 0.2, Pennsylvania by 0.7 and Wisconsin by 0.8 percentage points — in raw vote, by 10,704, 46,765 and 22,177 votes, respectively.

Those 89,646 votes hardly constituted a groundswell of fellow feeling for the Republican candidate, and they can hardly be seen as the vanguard, or even the representative, of a broad Republican base. There’s not much there there to extrapolate nationally. Especially compared to the 2.8 million more votes Hillary Clinton had over Trump in the final national count.

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IF NOT for that literal handful of states, the crazy-quilt electoral map, the power of gerrymandering, and the machinations of the Electoral College, Trump wouldn’t have won. All to say that, as a demon in the closet to Democrats and independents, The Base may not exist as it’s been conjured in recent months. Insofar as there’s a solid, unchanging, Pantone-red core of conservatives, it’s necessary to understand that the base as now identified was created long before the GOP’s current travails. Well before the current White House took power.

A lot of people have mightily convinced themselves that these voters will deliver a message about their belief and faith in Trump this November. They’re wrong. The election this November won’t be a referendum on Trump’s performance; that’s not until 2020. This coming election won’t even be much of a referendum on Trump’s legislative agenda — there’s too precious little of that agenda in the first place.

November’s election will be a referendum on the performance on the lawmakers seeking re-election — most of whom were in office, doing the people’s work, well before Trump even got to Washington — or first-time candidates hoping to give voters a better, fuller sense of Republicanism than Trump can. It’ll be less of a referendum on Trump per se than an assessment of voters’ willingness to elect or re-elect lawmakers willing to march off a cliff with the Republican Party that’s enabling him.

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One problem with the Republican base is that it derives its identity so aggressively, so assiduously, from what it is not. It is not, as a rule, a body as culturally inclusive, as demographically pluralistic as the core of Democratic voters, and that’s something Republican voters seem perfectly happy about. Which is, or will be, a shame.

In 2012, Barack Obama won re-election with just 39 percent of white voters; he defeated Mitt Romney with 93 percent of African American support, 71 percent of Latino voters, 73 percent of Asian American voters, 60 percent of the voters under 30, and 55 percent of women.

This combination was one that, for the second time in as many election cycles, captured the White House without a majority of the white vote.

However big the white vote may be within the storied Republican base, its size relative to the overall national population is greatly diluted. If what happened in 2012 holds to 2020, one party attaining the majority of the white vote may be even less necessary than it was before. Sooner or later, if the GOP base’s voting patterns aren’t transferable to that wider national population, the Republican Party is in trouble — regardless of how monolithic its leaders believe the base is.

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AND THANKS to the Trump White House and its enablers, widening that base appreciably isn’t much of an option. They’ve seen to that. Latinx voters? Not likely; look to the House Trump immigration policy of tearing apart migrant families, overwhelmingly of Mexican or Central American heritage, in the name of national security.

The power of the Latino vote isn’t to be ignored or overlooked. In 2012 an analysis by Resurgent Republic, a GOP-leaning research organization, forecasted that “the political influence of this voting bloc will increase exponentially as 50,000 Americans of Hispanic descent turn the age of 18 every month for the next two decades.”

From the analysis: “[T]he overarching trend of a less white electorate will continue as Hispanics, Asian Americans, and other minority groups increase their political participation and the white vote continues to age (white seniors increased to 14 percent in 2012).”

Unless the Republican base tries to reach this and other cohorts of an evolving America, the GOP is doomed to circle its own wagons in a tighter and tighter circle, preaching its gospel to a smaller and smaller congregation with every election cycle.

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These troubles for the Republican base didn’t just happen. Bouie borrows from Pew Research Center data (released in March) parsing party identification trends over 25 years, from 1992 to 2017. He cites Pew data that shows Republican Party identification fell 3 points, to 26 percent, from 2016 to the end of 2017. He also cites Gallup survey data showing a 5-point drop in those who called themselves Republicans, from 42 percent to 37 percent, between November 2016 and November 2017.

But that’s low-hanging fruit, the direct result of the antics of the Trump administration. What’s more telling are the numbers from earlier years. The same trove of Pew data shows Republican self-identification dipped to 26 percent in 2009, then climbed higher, but never surpassed Democratic numbers from then on. And Gallup data shows that Democrats have consistently eaten Republicans’ lunch on party affiliation going back to at least September 2008.

That’s where the real story of the Republican base lies: in a wider, more historically-driven overview, an overview that proves the stasis and decline of the GOP base didn’t begin with the Trump White House — and likely won’t end there either.

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THE REPUBLICAN base may not even be able to count on holding on to the people it's got. Whether their adherents admit it or not, some parts of the Republican base feel co-opted, disappointed, disenchanted by certain Trump policies since January 2017.

Policies like Trump’s aggressive pursuit of trade tariffs, which will deeply affect businesses large and small around the country. Like the workers at the Carrier furnace plant in Indianapolis, Indiana. During the 2016 campaign, Carrier's workforce was assured by candidate Trump that he’d fight to keep their jobs in the United States. Many of them voted for Trump, believing he’d do just that.

The reality? Not so reassuring; the Carrier plant went through three rounds of layoffs; the second, in January, saw the loss of 215 jobs. Many of the positions were outsourced to Monterey, Mexico.

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“We took him serious because he did seem to be an entrepreneur,” said Renee Elliott, ex-Carrier employee, to Charles Bethea of The New Yorker in January.

“He knew this offshoring shit was gonna go down, and ‘I’m not gonna stand for it’ is the way he made it sound,” Elliott said. “... I thought, ‘This man is not gonna be anybody’s puppet.’ It was an easy vote for me. Not just because of ‘The Apprentice.’ We believed in him here at Carrier. The vast majority of us. It was Trump deluxe in there. I told people, ‘He’s gonna find a cause somewhere. He’s gonna be a savior.’ Little did I know the cause was gonna be us.”

Same with workers for Harley-Davidson, the iconic motorcycle manufacturer that has hewed to a “Made in America” identity for generations. Until recently when the Milwaukee-based company moved some production jobs overseas, a reaction to retaliatory European Union steel tariffs that were a response to Trump’s tariffs. The company said July 24 that its tariff losses are estimated at $150 million, amid a sales slump in the United States, USA Today reported. But Harley workers don’t blame Trump for the tariffs, some going so far as to blame other countries.

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FOR SURE, many of these Americans will stand foursquare for Trump, despite the losses of their jobs. He is the orange hill they will die on. It’s to be expected right now. When you’re threatened with a vacuum, you hold on to whatever air supply you can find. Members of the GOP base may not say anything if they feel inclined to break with the president and his party. Not out loud anyway.

Part of the Republican base’s power is its presumed breadth, its apparent generality. What makes a boogeyman so scary is not being able to see where it is. That’s also what makes a boogeyman so potentially innocuous. There may not be much to see at all.

Bouie notes that “[v]oters have to identify themselves with a political party, and that identification isn’t stable; it ebbs and flows with events and circumstances.”

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The November election will give us a snapshot into what the Republican base has become, but only a snapshot, one concentrated on state and local issues — the bread and butter of midterm elections.

But we know already, on the basis of recent economic upheaval or longstanding polling data: The Republican base is no more monolithic than black America or Latinx America or any other slice of the national mosaic — and for most of the same reasons.

Within that presumably impregnable redoubt, inside that fortress are the seeds of its own vulnerability: the flexible, fallible, malleable, privately persuadable human beings that make The Base what we think, or fear, it is.

Image credits: Trump: The Washington Post. Obama 2013: Getty Images. Resurgent Republic logo: © 2018 Resurgent Republic. Party affiliation chart: © 2018 Gallup. Carrier logo: © 2018 Carrier/United Technologies Corporation. Harley-Davidson logo: © 2018 Harley-Davidson Motor Company Group Inc.

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