Party Like It's 1992
Five for five.
The first five people who told me they supported Trump in 2015 also supported Ross Perot in 1992.
I realize it’s a tiny sample size. Still, it’s pretty clear that Donald Trump is the reincarnation of H. Ross Perot. Conservatives–all conservatives and all center-right voters–need to come to terms with that fact. We must also deal with the realities of the 2016 election and choose a strategy.
The Search for the Missing White Voter
Remember that Trende wrote this in 2013, long before Donald Trump emerged as a serious candidate for the Republican nomination.
Describing the demographics and psychographics of the 6.6 million white voters who didn’t show up to vote for Romney in 2012, Mr. Trende explains the high correlation between counties that voted for Ross Perot in 1992 and counties that saw an drop-off in white votes in 2012 (from 2008).
Perhaps most intriguingly, even after all of these controls are in place, the county’s vote for Ross Perot in 1992 comes back statistically significant, and suggests that a higher vote for Perot in a county did, in fact, correlate with a drop-off in voter turnout in 2012.
What does that tell us about these voters? As I noted, they tended to be downscale, blue-collar whites. They weren’t evangelicals; Ross Perot was pro-choice, in favor of gay rights, and in favor of some gun control. You probably didn’t know that, though, and neither did most voters, because that’s not what his campaign was about.
His campaign was focused on his fiercely populist stance on economics. He was a deficit hawk, favoring tax hikes on the rich to help balance the budget. He was staunchly opposed to illegal immigration****as well as to free trade (and especially the North American Free Trade Agreement). He advocated more spending on education, and even Medicare-for-all. Given the overall demographic and political orientation of these voters, one can see why they would stay home rather than vote for an urban liberal like President Obama or a severely pro-business venture capitalist like Mitt Romney.
When we look at Trump’s positions over the past 20 years, they line up very well with Perot’s in 1992.
The biggest difference between the two is that Perot ran as an independent while Trump has stated unequivocally that he will run as a Republican and accept the results of the process.
What Conservatives Need to Accept
I realize that many people see Trump as a savior even though he is not a conservative. Conservatives who support Trump (or who refuse to reject Trump outright) must make the case that the most pressing need of the country right now is bold, unapologetic, patriotic action. These conservatives must believe that our pet positions on taxes, the role of government, and social issues need to take a back seat to the problems of illegal immigration, terrorism, and America’s place in the world. Conservatives can also argue that the Washington (and Jefferson City) establishment is so corrupt and so out of touch that the most pressing need in America is to blow up the political establishment.
I can accept that. I can’t make the case that Trump is a Conservative. He is probably right of center, so you can make the case that Trump is [lower case “c”] conservative. But he’s not a Conservative like Barry Goldwater or William F. Buckley or Ted Cruz.
It would be helpful if conservatives who support Trump would accept that their man is not one of them ideologically and boldly assert why they support him anyway. And it would also help if Trump’s opponents would make the case against him with a little less screechiness.
As Trende established in 2013, the road to the White House is tricky for Republicans. The GOP candidate will have to attract those “downscale, blue-collar whites” in big numbers in places like Ohio and Pennsylvania. They’ll need to activate all stripes of conservatives: fiscal, Constitutional, evangelical, foreign policy. They’ll need to be acceptable to libertarians. And they’ll need to get back to 10 percent of the black vote.
The Country Has Never Been This Polarized
The Reagan coalition offers no instructions for Republicans in 2016. Not only have demographics changed, but history has moved on. There is no Cold War to win. The triad of fiscal conservatives, foreign policy hawks, and evangelical Christians has been further fragmented by strict Constitutionalists, non-interventionist libertarians, and socially progressive libertarians. The Left and the Right are more doctrinaire and puritanical in their beliefs than ever before. No candidate is “good enough” for most plugged-in voters. Instead, candidates are either perfect or perfectly unacceptable. The more these voters learn about candidates, the less likely they are to vote at all for a Republican. (I know, I’ve helped fuel this absolutism.) The greatest economics writer alive, Ben Hunt, demonstrates the problem with this chart from the Pew Research center:
Greater income and wealth inequality reverberates throughout a society in every possible way, but most obviously in polarization of electorate preferences and party structure. Below is a visual representation of increased polarization in the US electorate, courtesy of the Pew Research Center. Other Western nations are worse, many much worse, and no nation is immune.
Notice how steep the lines were in 1994 and even in 2004 compared to 2014. The middle is gone, and right-of-center is now binomial (two humps). We were not so divided in 1980. As Dr. Hunt explains:
There’s one inevitable consequence of significant political polarization: the center does not hold. Our expectation that The Central Tendency carries the day _will _fail, and this failure will occur at all levels of political organization, from your local school board to a congressional caucus to a national political party to the overall electorate. Political outcomes will always surprise in a polarized world, either surprisingly to the left or surprisingly to the right. And all too often, I might add, it’s a surprising outcome pushed by the illiberal left or the illiberal right.
Simply saying “Trump is not a conservative” doesn’t solve the problem of getting to 270 electoral votes. Neither does saying “I’m for Trump.”
To win the White House, conservatives might have no choice but to work hard for someone who shares few of their ideological goals. Or perhaps Ted Cruz can find a way to inspire the downscale, blue-collar whites who eluded Romney and George H. W. Bush without alienating the other required constituencies.
Finally, another strategy conservatives can consider is to remain an ideologically pure, righteous remnant. That is a strategy, and a noble one. But don’t confuse it with winning. And don’t be surprised when policies move further from our ideal.
Whatever the case, the time for choosing is at hand. Choose wisely.