You might think that headline is an understatement, but bear with me. I want to point to two recent studies that complement each other to suggest that there’s a bigger story here than just the fortunes of Donald Trump.
The first is a piece at FiveThirtyEight on Monday from Harry Enten, arguing that in terms of both votes and delegates won so far, Trump is “the weakest Republican front-runner, at this point in the process, in decades.” You might not guess it from the volume of media coverage, but although he is ahead, “by historical standards Trump is limping along.”
The really interesting discovery, however, is that this is a trend that was already in place before Trump. Out of the seven presidential cycles since 1972 (when the modern primary system basically started) that have not featured a Republican incumbent, Enten’s figures show Trump to have the lowest level of support at this stage, measured either by votes received or delegates allotted.
But the previous two lowest are the last two nominees: John McCain in 2008 and Mitt Romney in 2012. Despite the tendency for primaries to shift earlier in the year, it’s not getting easier for front-runners. It’s getting harder.
McCain and Romney were both, by their party’s standards, relative moderates; both had to overcome extremists in order to win (although McCain had to beat Romney as well). By this stage of the contest they had done so – McCain had outlasted Mike Huckabee and Romney had beaten off Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum – but the fact that it wasn’t easy was a portent of what was ahead.
As I said four years ago, “The fact that Romney, a successful governor and former candidate with multiple endorsements and huge reserves of cash, is at best only marginally preferred by Republican voters to Santorum, the wingnut from central casting, speaks volumes about the sort of organisation that the Republican party has become.”
Now it is the extremist candidate, Trump, who is the beleaguered front-runner, but his main rival is another extremist, Ted Cruz. The one remaining mainstream contender, John Kasich, languishes at about 13.4% in the cumulative vote to date.
Nor is that just an artefact of the pattern of which candidates were still in when particular states voted. The polling average of Republican voters nationwide shows Trump in the high 30s and falling, Cruz low 30s and rising, with Kasich stable around 20%.
So although pundits have been using the term “mainstream” throughout the race (indeed I just used it myself), we need to be reminded that a candidate like Kasich, while he may be in the mainstream of voter opinion in general, is actually an outlier when it comes to what Republican voters want – and this state of affairs is getting worse rather than better.
Which brings us to the second item of interest, a survey published last week by the Public Religion Research Institute. It contains lots of the usual figures about relative support for the candidates among various demographic groups, but where it really gets interesting is in the middle section, where it breaks things down by cultural attitudes.
It’s worth reading the whole thing, but I’ll just reproduce the table here and let you take it in:
Caution, it’s just one survey and the numbers are not particularly large. But the pattern is consistent with other things we know about the race, and it’s striking.
On fairly fundamental cultural issues, about what sort of country America is supposed to be, Kasich supporters are barely distinguishable from the national average. But those who back Trump and (to a lesser extent) Cruz see the world very differently.
There’s already plenty of data on the relationship between authoritarian attitudes and Trump support, and more broadly on the rise of authoritarian parties generally. But America was never supposed to be like this. Its parties have historically been broad, amorphous coalitions, representing different regional or sectional interests and (often fairly minor) differences in policy, but not reflecting any deep ideological division.
The rise in partisanship over the last two decades has been often remarked on, but what’s not sufficiently understood is that there’s a difference, as Matt Yglesias pointed out last year, between partisanship based mainly on a contest for the division of spoils – which America has had before – and that based on real ideological or cultural differences.
The Republican Party has been going down some dark roads. Trump is leading the way, but the movement predates him and would continue (if a little more slowly) under his chief opponent.
And in a two-party system, what happens to one party cannot help but have a big effect on the other. But I’ll leave some thoughts about the direction of the Democrats for a later post.