Off to the Races

The Story of 2016: Republicans Feeling “Betrayed” by Their Leaders

GOP voters are in no mood for bipartisan compromise. That’s why they nominated Donald Trump, and why Congress won’t get much done if Hillary Clinton wins.

House Speaker Paul Ryan, left, talks with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell on April 13 before the start of an organizational meeting of the Joint Congressional Committee on Inaugural Ceremonies.
AP Photo/Susan Walsh
Charlie Cook
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Charlie Cook
Aug. 29, 2016, 8 p.m.

Arguably the biggest political story of the past year has been the breadth and depth of the anger and alienation among Republican voters—not just toward President Obama, Hillary Clinton, and the Democratic Party, but also against their own party’s leaders.

This week, I was looking through a 65-page PowerPoint presentation that Republican pollster Neil Newhouse gave earlier this month to the Kansas City Chamber of Commerce. For the uninitiated, Neil is one of the brightest and most talented pollsters in either party, with more 30 years experience taking the temperature of American voters. His record includes service as Mitt Romney’s pollster and work for Jeb Bush’s super PAC this year, along with dozens of senators and governors over the years. One particular page was fascinating.

On the left side of the page was a compilation of results from 2016 NBC News exit polls of Republican primaries in 17 states to the question, “Would you say you feel betrayed by politicians from the Republican Party?” The 17 states were ranked by their “yes, feel betrayed” responses: Nebraska (63 percent), Florida (60 percent), Pennsylvania (59 percent), Missouri (59 percent), Tennessee (58 percent), Michigan (58 percent), North Carolina (56 percent), Georgia (54 percent), Ohio (54 percent), Arkansas (53 percent), Virginia (53 percent), Wisconsin (52 percent), South Carolina (52 percent), Alabama (51 percent), Indiana (50 percent), Illinois (50 percent), and West Virginia (48 percent).

The right side of the page showed the responses to September 2015 CBS News/YouGov Battleground Tracker polls of Republican voters in Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina asking the question, “In the last few years have the Republicans in Congress compromised with Barack Obama too much or too little?” The polls showed 81 percent of GOP voters in Iowa said that Republicans in Congress had compromised too much, in New Hampshire it was 59 percent, and in South Carolina it was 72 percent.

Two questions entered my mind looking at that slide: Exactly how did Republican politicians betray GOP voters, and what did Republicans in Congress compromise on with President Obama that was so horrific? Given that there are virtually no liberal and not many moderate Republicans left in Congress, and with the vast majority of Republican politicians pretty darn conservative, were they ideologically out of step? And given that there has been very little compromise of any kind in Washington, particularly between Republicans and President Obama, what did they compromise on that was so offensive? How can these numbers be so high?

These sentiments among Republican voters certainly explain how more establishment-oriented GOP presidential contenders crashed and burned this year, why Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, John Kasich, and Chris Christie got nowhere, and for that matter why every Republican who had been elected to dog catcher or school board or higher, no matter where on the ideological spectrum they were, didn’t make it far beyond the presidential launch pad. People whose qualifications and demeanor might normally be made to order for a presidential nomination didn’t really matter this year. In retrospect—I wish I knew this a year ago—the fix was in this cycle; establishment or conventional Republican candidates need not apply for the nomination. It just wasn’t going to happen, and the only question was which angry outsider was going to get the GOP nomination.

Numbers like these also explain the behavior exhibited by members of the House Freedom Caucus and other tea party-style Republicans who show little fear of being labeled as obstructionists or too extreme. Simply put, the Republican base has gotten so exotic in their views that it is little wonder that they are becoming isolated from the broader electorate and have picked someone who is trailing a very weak Democratic nominee. Given how much voters know about Hillary Clinton and how horrible a person most Republicans passionately believe she is, how do they explain why she’s ahead? As flawed as she may be, the product of the Republican nomination process appears to be even more so.

At some point, Republican voters need to look in the mirror and start asking some questions of themselves. What are they watching, reading, or hearing that has created an environment and mentality in their party that seems so different from the broader electorate?

Political economist Tom Gallagher, a veteran Washington-watcher if there ever was one, says this recent history suggests that the GOP base will not reward Republicans who compromise with Clinton, should she win, on anything. Looking at numbers like this, how can they? And that bodes poorly for anything getting done over the next four years.

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