The Consequences of a Donald Trump Win

Imagine a steamy night in Cleveland in July. Donald Trump raises his arms in triumph, smirk plastered firmly on his face, as thousands of delegates cheer after his acceptance speech to the Republican Convention. Would the repercussions of this moment wreak havoc on the Republican Party, or even fracture it in two, thereby handing the presidency to Hillary Clinton? 

Two new columns, one by scholar Seth Masket, the other by veteran political analyst Jeff Greenfield, ponder these questions. 

Greenfield muses about the possibility of establishment Republicans greeting a Trump nomination by supporting a third party candidacy by one of their own in an effort to salvage both their brand and down ballot hopes. Masket ruminates about both this potentiality, and the inverse—Trump mounting a third party campaign if he falls short in the primaries. 

The two authors omit one highly possible outcome—no candidate capturing enough delegates to win the nomination before Republicans gather in Cleveland. Under this scenario, Trump might serve as kingmaker, throwing his delegates to an acceptable alternative, say, Texas Senator Ted Cruz, who rankles establishment Republicans as much as, if not more than, Trump does. 

While the current nominating process has long consigned dramatic conventions to history books or podcasts—a drama-filled convention last captured the attention of the masses in 1980 when former President Gerald Ford flirted with joining Ronald Reagan as part of a super ticket—such an outcome looms as a possibility. The rise of Super PACs permits candidates to linger long past the point at which their candidacies would have expired over the past forty-five years.

As a result, the field may remain large into March when winner take all primaries begin. If this happened, candidates might capture entire delegations with 25-30% of the vote in a primary. If so, four or five candidates could plausibly accrue enough delegates to prevent any one candidate from locking down the nomination. 

One question for scholars to tackle going forward—has the rise of Super PACs, new media, and social media altered the presidential nominating process (which has remained relatively stable since the democratizing reforms of the late 1960s configured the current process)? Or is 2016 merely an anomaly? 

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History offers useful tools and parallels for trying to gauge what impact a Trump nomination might have on the Republican Party. Indeed, both Masket and Greenfield wisely mention historical precedents for the scenarios that they sketch. History also, however, constructs a giant flashing warning sign for anyone tempted to hyperbolize about the impact of a Trump nomination or independent candidacy.  

Any negative repercussions generated by one of these scenarios are likely to be short term in nature. Republicans might lose a 2016 election that would otherwise be winnable. A massive margin of defeat could also catapult Democrats back into control of the Senate, and create enormous down ballot losses. 

Nonetheless, voters have short memories, and Republicans actually would be situated quite nicely for 2018 and 2020.

Twice in the last 52 years the parties have nominated candidates perceived by voters to be outside of the mainstream, prompting crushing defeats (Barry Goldwater for the Republicans in 1964 and George McGovern for the Democrats in 1972). Both times the respective party rebounded to win both large victories in the midterm election and the presidency four years later (though in the latter case, Watergate produced a highly unique situation). 

In a third historical case, 1912, the Republicans fragmented, propelling dueling candidacies—with former President Teddy Roosevelt representing the Progressive Party and incumbent President William Howard Taft serving as the Republican standard bearer. Yet, the party reunified in 1916 and came agonizingly close (within 23 electoral votes) to defeating the incumbent president, Woodrow Wilson. 

Furthermore, history tells us that parties face exceptionally long odds when trying to hold the White House for four consecutive terms. Republicans have achieved this goal twice since the Civil War— first beginning in 1868, and again beginning in 1896. In both cases they failed to maintain control for a fifth term, with Democrats Grover Cleveland and Wilson triumphing in 1884 and 1912 respectively. 

Franklin Roosevelt also captured four straight presidential elections between 1932 and 1944, but he benefitted from voters' reluctance to change horses in the middle of a war, and his margin of victory shrank from to 60.8% in 1936 to 53.4% in 1944.

When Roosevelt's final Vice President, Harry Truman, eked out a come from behind victory in 1948, allowing the Democrats to hold serve for an unprecedented (in the post-Civil War era) fifth consecutive term, he did so with only 49.5% of the vote over a progressive Republican ticket of Thomas Dewey and Earl Warren. 

In two other cases, 1932 and 1992, the Republicans aimed to maintain control of the White House for a fourth consecutive term. Instead, they suffered from voters' tendency to punish the incumbent party for all of society's ailments after such a long stretch in power.

All of this analysis indicates that, regardless of how bleak things might appear for Republicans on election night 2016, we must resist the temptation to proclaim the party dead for the foreseeable future. In reality, a Democratic tsunami in 2016 could easily trigger Republican triumphs in the 2018 midterm elections and the 2020 presidential election.

Under this scenario, the Republicans would be tremendously situated to regain the Senate in 2018 because Democrats must defend a whopping twenty-five of thirty-three seats on the ballot. 

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The analysis proffered by Greenfield and Masket necessitates one more observation. Both mention the influential book The Party Decides. Masket writes: 

Without the support of party insiders, explains the influential book The Party Decides, one can't really mount a serious presidential candidacy. But as one of the book's authors, David Karol, recently noted, Trump is the rare sort of candidate who's an exception. He's been so famous and so rich for so long, he's largely impervious to party insiders' efforts to push him out of the race. 

Greenfield echoes this contention, noting that Trump's nomination "would undermine the thesis of a highly influential book, “The Party Decides,” which argues that the preferences of party insiders is still critical to the outcome of a nomination contest."

I disagree with these lines of analysis. Rather than undermining the thesis of The Party Decides, Trump's nomination (or even the nomination of Senator Cruz, which just might provoke more handwringing from establishment Republicans than Trump's ascension) would actually reflect a crucial finding from my own research—the titans of the new media (talk radio, cable news, and the blogosphere) represent a new form of party insider.

Cruz actually provides a better case study than Trump. Establishment Republicans loathe Cruz. In September, his own Senate colleagues demonstrated their enmity by denying him a common procedural courtesy. Recently, Republican luminary Bob Dole slammed the senator. In early December, the New York Times' Jonathan Martin even reported that some Republicans repelled by Trump hesitated to attack him for fear that it would advance Cruz's candidacy! 

Equally importantly, unlike Trump, Cruz doesn't have decades of fame and celebrity to propel his candidacy in the face of resistance from traditional insiders. So Karol's exception wouldn't apply to him. Nonetheless, like Trump, Cruz's candidacy is flourishing. 

Both The Party Decides and Masket's own research argue quite cogently that we ought to construe modern parties broadly. Yet both omit new media titans, such as Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Erick Erickson, and Mark Levin, when considering party insiders or party leaders. My own research, by contrast, indicates that these media personalities actually epitomize the new sort of leader who dominates parties today. 

These media luminaries perform many traditional leadership functions—exciting voters in the waning days before elections, fundraising for candidates, etc. They also perform unique functions enabled by their platforms, including offering a sympathetic outlet in moments of crisis, energizing base voters at moments of disillusionment, and disseminating stories that the mainstream media might consider dubious or not newsworthy. 

Yet, media personalities, like other sorts of activist, outsider party leaders, prioritize the achievement of their preferred policy agenda over the party's electoral well being. They also place greater emphasis on maintaining a strong relationship with their listeners/viewers/readers and producing the best content possible than on Republican victories. 

Nonetheless, they wield tremendous power within the party coalition. The nomination of either Trump or Cruz would reflect their ability (along with activist allies) to guide the party's course. Greenfield perceptively observes that many of these media leaders have defended Trump against the establishment onslaught. Many of them also regularly rhapsodize about Cruz. 

The bold clarity presented by Cruz, and Trump's bluntness advance all of the goals emphasized by new media personalities. Both candidates' unvarnished approach also connects with the consumers of new media, who have marinated in anger for decades at the Republican Party's willingness to betray their principles in the name of electoral gains, pragmatism, or governing.

Media titans capably channel this anger into campaigns and employ the values that they share with their deeply conservative audiences to assess the candidates and their issue positions. Many of them also express little patience for establishment favorites. 

Put more bluntly, when appropriately conceptualizing today's decentralized parties, a Trump (or Cruz) nomination would actually support the argument proffered in The Party Decides. If anything, it would require an addendum to reimagine what constitutes a party insider in 2016. 

In a world in which new media, social media, and Super PACs diffuse power far more broadly than in the past, parties bear little resemblance to the parties of the 1950s, or even the 1980s. 

Overall, Trump might obliterate Republican dreams up and down the ballot in 2016. But whatever impact he has, it likely will only last through the end of this election cycle.