Where Does the GOP Go From Here?

Another day, another series of very bad polling updates for the Republican Party.

First and foremost is the new CBS battleground tracker showing Clinton with sizable leads in Florida and New Hampshire, and within four points even in Georgia. Clinton’s lead is outside the margin of error in Florida at 5 points, and in blowout territory in New Hampshire at 9 points. Even if Clinton can’t pull ahead in Georgia (contrary to other polls that have shown her doing so), the likelihood of forcing Republicans to play defense there is already a big win for the blue team.

Meanwhile, a new USA Today poll shows that Trump is getting creamed among young voters by unprecedented margins, dwarfing even the gap faced by Richard Nixon during the Vietnam War. Clinton is leading Trump by an astonishing 56% to 20% margin among voters under 35. By contrast, Nixon got 32% among 18-29 year olds in 1972.The RCP average with no toss-ups gives Clinton a whopping 362 electoral votes In other words, this isn’t just a single-year disaster for the GOP. This is an ongoing generational and demographic catastrophe that threatens to permanently change the electoral map.

Nor is it entirely clear where Republicans can go from here. Younger and middle-of-the-road voters are deeply offended by the overtly racist and sexist appeals of the white supremacist Alt Right. But even the white male working class voters that Republicans have long relied on for support no longer buy into the Romney Republican supply-side argument: minorities aren’t being adequately disadvantaged by subtle economic discrimination on behalf of the rich to make up for the damage that blue-collar white men are facing from free trade and Wall Street friendly policies.

Meanwhile, the voters under 40 of all races and genders who so strongly backed Bernie Sanders’s democratic socialism are just as hostile to Paul Ryan’s objectivist economic agenda as they are to Trump’s bigoted cultural one.

The GOP could try to follow its own 2012 post-mortem (and the inevitable 2016 analysis) and moderate itself on economics, women’s issues and immigration in order to gain a hearing from the demographic groups that currently reject them out of hand. But the establishment GOP tried that tactic in the primary and it failed dramatically. The Republican base has been far too radicalized by decades of Fox News and talk radio, rising economic anxiety and demographic fears and resentments in a modern pluralistic world to allow the party to moderate itself in the culture wars.

The only option that seems realistically viable is for the GOP to become a double-sided populist party in the image of UKIP and some of the European far-right parties: bigoted and nationalistic, but with an anti-inequality streak that emphasizes jobs, protectionism and a distrust of financialization. That was the tack I expected Trump to take in the general election, but it was evident that Trump was both too ignorant of policy and too needful of big money billionaire GOP donor cash to abandon traditional supply-side doctrine. As long as money continues to dominate American politics, and as long as a few wealthy billionaires continue to play an outsize role in funding Republican politics, it will be difficult for the GOP to make this transition.

Add to all of this that most actual Republican legislators at the state and congressional level are still in safe seats, because demographic change isn’t coming quickly enough to their suburban and rural districts to make them fear for their positions. In fact, most GOP legislators are still more afraid of threats from their right than from their left.

So Republicans are stuck. They can’t win with Trump or Trumpism. But they can’t win with Romneyism, either. Their base won’t let them moderate in the culture wars, and their donors won’t let them moderate on economics. That’s not a good place to be.

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.