Why 2016 is Different for the GOP: The Establishment is Divided, The Base is Mostly United

Billions of pixels have been spilled about Trump, Fiorina, the radical extremism of the GOP base and the fecklessness of Republican establishment candidates. But while numerous ad hoc explanations exist for the bizarre way the GOP primary is playing out, the simplest story is often the most overlooked. Traditionally, hardcore movement conservatives find themselves split over who will be the anti-establishment candidate, while the establishment usually unifies early and rolls over the top of the divided opposition.

In the 2012 campaign, establishment Republicans backed Mitt Romney early. Romney never had the backing of a clear majority of Republican voters. A number of anti-Romneys collectively had a majority of the vote against him, and even as they dwindled to just Gingrich and Santorum those two continued to outpoll Romney collectively. Had either stepped aside and delivered their voters to the other, it’s conceivable that Romney could have been defeated. But Romney limped forward to the finish line and the rest is history. A similar pattern elevated John McCain from a nearly defunct candidacy to the nomination in 2008, despite widespread opposition from the most conservative GOP voters.

This year that pattern is reversed. The establishment is divided among a bevy uninspiring choices. The leading favorite until now has been Jeb Bush, but his unimpressive campaign performance has prevented him from coalescing support despite numerous advantages. The other GOP establishment picks from Rubio to Kasich to Walker have all had their challenges as well.

Meanwhile, of course, the Tea Party right has mostly fallen in behind Donald Trump, with a side of support for Carson. Where once the far revanchist right was divided and the corporate right was unified, now the reverse is true.

That’s partly a reflection of the corruption-fueled billionaire primary in which a variety of wealthy plutocrats can dictate their own terms, backing their own preferred candidates long after they would have normally bowed out. Party leadership no longer has the control of the moneyed establishment the way it once did; the Kochs and Adelsons fund whomever they please all the way to the convention.

It’s also the product of Trump’s singularly powerful understanding of the anti-establishment right’s desire not for a traditional presidential candidate, but someone who will declare war on the sort of cultural decency they view as “political correctness.”

It’s possible, of course, that the GOP will return to form and that the establishment will mobilize around a single candidate as conservatives split. But there’s no guarantee of it. Without that, we could easily see a Donald Trump nomination and a telling shift in the dynamics of Republican politics.

David Atkins

David Atkins is a writer, activist and research professional living in Santa Barbara. He is a contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal and president of The Pollux Group, a qualitative research firm.