Trump and Sanders test Republican and Democratic Party orthodoxy. They do so in different ways and for contrasting reasons, but over the next few weeks first the Iowa caucuses and then the New Hampshire primary will tell us something about how real these candidates are and what it means for the future of the two major parties.
In my election law seminar one of the questions I ask is “Who is the Party?” By that, I am asking a legal question regarding who in a political party gets to assert what rights on behalf of whom. In asking that question possible answers are that the party is its elected officials, paid party officials, party leaders, convention attendees, primary voters, caucus attendees, general election voters, or even those who register or simply declare themselves to be members of that party. This same legal question applies to thinking about Trump and Sanders in terms of what they mean to the Republicans and Democrats.
Consider Trump first. Several months ago mainstream Republicans expressed with horror the prospect that he could be their party nominee. Trump was the fringe candidate, Bush orthodoxy. Trump’s polling numbers show his greatest support coming from white males without a college education, yet several recent polls now show that across the board Trump is consolidating support across broad portions of the Republican Party and that even its mainstream establishment is coming to accept the fact that he may be their nominee. Trump has a huge lead in NH and is second in Iowa to Cruz, yet the former is user the birther attack on the latter and it may succeed in weakening the latter. Additionally Trump is turning up is attacks on Cruz, potentially suggesting a tightening of the race there over the next several weeks.
The big variable for Trump is twofold. First, does he have a ground game to deliver his supports to the caucuses and polls in Iowa and New Hampshire. So far there is little indication of this type of organization. Second, assuming Trump does convert polls into votes, and as other candidates drop out, can he pick up their support and will he be able to consolidate the base around him? These are good questions and especially important as the battle beyond NH moves south and one needs to see how well Trump does in winning the Bible belt vote which is critical to the Republican base.
But Trump’s challenge to the GOP is fascinating. On the one hand he challenges party orthodoxy with his rhetoric, appealing to the fear, prejudice, and insecurities of white males who see a world no longer favoring them. Party leaders abhor his language. Yet in other ways some point to the fact that Trump’s views simply represent the chickens coming home to roost. The GOP for the last few years has appealed more to whites, males, working class, and those who espouse hostility to immigration and civil rights. He is both mainstream and not mainstream Republicanism.
The problem for the Republicans is that much of their current base does support these positions yet this base is old and dying off or demographically represents a decreasing proportion of the population and the electorate with each election. Unless Republicans reach out to new constituencies, perhaps necessitating a change in policy to do that, the GOP may simply see its base disappear in much of America. Trump appeals to those who are both part of the base today but not of tomorrow. He appeals to those who do not like the current Republican party but they are ones who often do not vote. Trump is a candidate who both does and does not challenge the Republican Party in so many ways.
Democrats are giddy with the prospects of Trump and how he is dividing the Republican Party but they should not be so gleeful. Clinton holds powerful advantages in 2016 within the Democratic Party as my friend Amy Fried points out. But the Sanders challenge underscores a huge problem for her and orthodox Democratic Party politics. First it is surprising that Sanders is doing so well in the polls given that he is not a Democrat. He is an independent running as Democrat. That alone should bring pause to the party that an outsider is doing as well as he is. But with that polls in New Hampshire have him leading and Iowa polls have also narrowed and it is not impossible for him to win there also. Both Sanders and Clinton have strong ground games in Iowa and lots of money to spend. Clinton could lose the first two states but still win it all once the primaries and caucuses head south.
Yet Clinton faces continuing challenges within her party. She suffers from a significant enthusiasm gap with the Democratic Party, even among women. Moreover, among younger voters she has problems, yet this cuts two ways. Short term Millennials do not vote in high percentages so perhaps this is not an issue. But if we think of the future of the Democratic Party residing in capturing a new generation of voters–the demographics is destiny argument–Clinton is not helping the party. Millennials are far more liberal than previous generations and more liberal than Clinton.
Millennials are more likely to identify as Democrats when they do identify. But overall Millennials are turned off by both parties, including the Democrats. Clinton does little to bring these new people into the party, Sanders potentially does. Sanders is like Eugene McCarthy once was, or Ted Kennedy to Jimmy Carter, Bill Bradley to Al Gore, Howard Dean to John Kerry, or even Barack Obama to Hillary Clinton in 2008. Sanders represents a power challenge to party, but this time the challenge has an age and generational aspect that overlays with ideology. Clinton is the Democratic Party as it is now or was 20 years ago when Baby Boomers were in charge. But Obama was the first Gen X president and soon power will pass to the Millennials. Clinton is perhaps the last gasp of the old Democratic Party, not one to build toward the future.
Clinton’s other problem is one similar to Trump’s; neither are very appealing to the independent or swing voter–especially in the swing states–who will really decide the presidency. Clinton is less unpopular than Trump but should the latter get the nomination it is not unthinkable that Trump could win if he uses the same tactics against her that he is using against his Republican opponents. Already Trump is going after Clinton via her husband’s sex life, and one can anticipate even other low blows and shots in a general election. Remember Willie Horton ans Swift Boats for Turth?
What we see in Trump and Sanders are rival challenges to party orthodoxy. In the same way that Trump speaks to voters whom the Republican Party appeals to but whom they have not benefitted, Sanders also appeals to a group of voters to whom the Democratic Party has ignored. If Bush and Clinton represent status quo orthodox in the parties, Trump and Sanders show a rejection of such orthodoxy. Trump is perhaps the logical extension of party policies and rhetoric that will appeal to a demographic that puts the Republican party out of business. Sanders potentially speaks to the coming Millennial generation without whose support the Democratic Party cannot survive in the future.