Political Connections

Will Young Republicans Lose Faith in Their Party?

Donald Trump remains popular with most in the GOP, but there are dire warning signs for the future.

The crowd cheers during President-elect Donald Trump speech at a rally at the Ladd–Peebles Stadium, Saturday, Dec. 17, 2016, in Mobile, Ala.
AP Photo/Brynn Anderson
Ronald Brownstein
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Ronald Brownstein
Aug. 30, 2017, 8:41 p.m.

Kristen Soltis Anderson is losing faith in her party. And that should trigger alarms for Republican leaders concerned about the GOP’s long-term health.

Anderson is a smart and telegenic young Republican pollster. She has specialized in studying how the party can improve its anemic performance among the millennial generation, which will pass the right-leaning baby boomers to become the largest generation of eligible voters in 2018.

Now she is wondering whether Donald Trump’s GOP has a place for people like her, who want a party that marries support for less government and robust national defense with a commitment to racial and social inclusion.

“There are still enough good people inside … that I agree with that I am still staying,” Anderson told me recently. “But I am significantly less convinced that I am going to succeed in this effort. [That’s] because at the same moment somebody like me is becoming very disheartened, there are voters who are thinking, ‘This is the Republican Party I have been waiting for.’ If I pack up my toys and go home, there are people in red MAGA hats who would be saying, ‘Don’t let the door hit you on your way out.’”

Anderson’s fear is that in a rapidly diversifying America, Trump is stamping the GOP as a party of white racial backlash—and that too much of the party’s base is comfortable with that. Trump’s morally stunted response to the violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, this month unsettled her. But she was even more unnerved by polls showing that most Republican voters defended his remarks.

“What has really shaken me in recent weeks is the consistency in polling where I see Republican voters excusing really bad things because their leader has excused them,” she told me. “[Massachusetts Gov.] Charlie Baker, [U.N. Ambassador] Nikki Haley, [Rep.] Adam Kinzinger—I want to be in the party with them. But in the last few weeks it has become increasingly clear to me that most Republican voters are not in that camp. They are in the Trump camp.”

The portion of the party coalition willing to tolerate, if not actively embrace, white nationalism “is larger than most mainstream Republicans have ever been willing to grapple with,” she added.

Anderson’s gloom is understandable. Even before Trump’s emergence, the GOP relied mostly on the elements of American society most uneasy with cultural and demographic change—the primarily older, blue-collar, rural, and evangelical whites who make up what I’ve called the “coalition of restoration.” As a candidate and as president, Trump has yoked the party even more tightly to those voters’ priorities—a tilt evident in everything from his “very fine people” remarks about the white-supremacist protesters in Charlottesville to his recent pardon of former Arizona sheriff Joe Arpaio.

All of this has predictably corroded Trump’s standing with the young people that Anderson has studied, both in her 2015 book The Selfie Vote and a perceptive post-2012 study for the College Republican National Committee. Her study reached much the same conclusion as the fabled “autopsy” that the Republican National Committee commissioned: that the GOP could court younger and diverse voters with a message of economic growth and government reform, but only if it embraced a more tolerant and inclusive vision on racial and cultural issues.

Given her perspective, Trump was never her choice in the 2016 primaries. But she didn’t exclude the possibility that in office he could reach a changing America. In February, she told me she thought Trump, as an outsider, could attract younger people with the growth and government-reform message she had championed in 2013—but only if he avoided decisions that would portray the GOP as intolerant and racially biased.

Now, though, Anderson sees Trump systematically advancing the most divisive elements of his agenda while slighting any reforms. “I cannot think of a worse possible direction we could be going,” she said glumly.

Polls showing Trump’s approval among young people falling to 25 percent or less justify her pessimism. And yet, as she noted, Trump’s approval among Republicans, while slightly eroding, remains at about 80 percent. Only one-fourth of GOP partisans in a recent Quinnipiac University national survey criticized his handling of white-supremacist groups.

All of this suggests that, as Anderson fears, any insurgency to define the GOP in more inclusive terms would face a tough climb. But it is nonetheless premature to declare Trump the permanent victor in the fight over the party’s direction.

In many ways, that battle has not been fully joined because other Republican leaders, despite their private misgivings, have been so reluctant to publicly articulate a clear critique of Trump’s insular, racially barbed nationalism. If leaders voiced a more defined alternative to Trump, more of the rank and file might rally to it. It’s worth recalling that even in 2016, Trump did not win 50 percent of the vote in any Republican primary until New York, near the finish line. And while he dominated among Republicans without a college degree, ABC’s cumulative analysis of all exit polls found he carried only about one-third of college-educated Republicans. Trump also lagged among millennial Republicans.

Those white-collar and younger Republicans would be the likely foundation of any potential effort to reverse Trump’s direction, whether that means electing House and Senate Republicans who reject it or supporting an uphill 2020 primary challenge. In polls, college-educated and younger Republicans are generally less supportive than their blue-collar and older counterparts of Trump’s hard-line approaches on immigration, and somewhat less likely to say he shares their values. In a Pew Research Center survey released Tuesday, these groups were also considerably less likely than others in the GOP to say they like Trump’s conduct as president.

Yet Anderson fears that Trump has “changed the balance in the party” by driving out those voters and absorbing more who are attracted by his winks toward white identity politics. Anderson isn’t interested in joining the Democrats, but she wonders whether “there is space that I haven’t considered before” for a centrist third-party ticket in 2020. Like the business leaders who stampeded away from Trump after Charlottesville, or the surveys showing the party’s standing collapsing among the rising millennial generation, Anderson’s step toward the exit measures the price Republicans are paying for tolerating Trump’s serial intolerance.

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