Donald Trump's ascent to the status of "presumptive Republican nominee" has forced political scientists to admit we were wrong about something. We hate that. The question of why this election has so far defied many of our theories and predictions is a worthy one. But for something different, how about ruminating on some blame for another group — GOP elites? What went wrong?
As Seth Masket pointed out a few weeks ago:
[Republicans] are nominating someone who is either ignorant of or hostile to many longstanding tenets of conservatism. His stump speeches demonstrate no real commitment to any idea other than his own strength. Even his prepared foreign policy address, to the extent it contained any policy prescriptions at all, was a self-contradictory mishmash.
Several of us have also thought about why this happened. Hans Noel, writing in the New York Times, suggested several possibilities — perhaps it was the candidate himself, or the changes in the media and political environment. Julia Azari theorized that the Trump candidacy, early on, provided cover for squabbles within the party.
But these early assessments had one thing in common: We didn't know the outcome, and we still thought there was a chance — a good chance — that the GOP would figure out a way to prevent Trump from becoming its nominee. Now, with the outcome far closer to certain, we take a step back to ponder what happened.
What does this outcome say about the Republican Party? Was this simply a unique event, driven by the nature of Trump's candidacy? Or can we better understand it as a reflection on the current political and media environment?
In a series of posts, we explore some of these questions about why the Republican Party couldn't stop this unique and, to many, troubling event from happening. Greg Koger argues that Trump didn't break the Republican Party; it was already broken. A healthy party coalition, he claims, would have sent Trump packing back to Mar-a-Lago, but the Republican Party coalition was already frayed by the failure of Reaganomics and George W. Bush.
Jon Ladd makes the case that major liberal interest groups and activists (whichever presidential candidate they support) still see themselves as part of a party coalition. In the Democratic coalition of policy demanders, professional politicians, and the formal party apparatus, party-oriented thinkers (among all these types of coalition members) still have the upper hand. That is sometimes no longer so on the Republican side.
We have learned this year that there are major factions in the "Republican coalition," including activists and some of the major conservative media like talk radio and some Fox News hosts, that care about conservatism but give no thought to the welfare of the party. In fact, their incentives are often at cross-purposes with the party and their actions are counterproductive to conservative policy change.
Azari looks at the various moments during the past 10 months when the Republican Party tried to coordinate but came up short. She argues that the absence of bargaining leverage among different party actors also undermined coordination.
Richard Skinner notes that a Ted Cruz victory would have been easier to interpret than the actual result, since Trump was actually not the darling of the GOP's most ideological supporters.
Masket looks at the field of Republican presidential candidates from last year and notes that a strong field can actually undermine the search for a strong candidate.