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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