Shuffling the Political Parties

There have been many articles written about how Donald Trump is killing the Republican party, or at least exposing its flaws. This narrative is attractive, because Trump’s rise seems so crazy compared with where people believed the party to be. It wasn’t that long ago that Jeb! was the prohibitive favorite for the nomination, but he recently dropped out with 5 others still in the race. The way many people rationalize this seeming contradiction is by effectively arguing this is all Donald’s fault.

While this argument is easy, it’s also simplistic, and, frankly, wrong. Donald Trump would not be doing as well as he is without garnering significant support from the voters. So if it’s anyone’s “fault,” it’s the voters’. That said, these results don’t match up with any anyone would have predicted prior to the elections, and the question does deserve more digging to understand. My contention is that Donald’s ascension could herald a shift in the definition of the parties.

To understand why, let’s start by breaking down the parties. While we tend to think of the parties as two separate monolithic entities, the reality is that the parties are coalitions of different factions which don’t always get along. This reality has been demonstrated by the difficulty the Republican party has had of keeping a unified front, most dramatically with the various flirtations Congress has had with a shutdown.

Thankfully, someone has done the hard work for us: The Pew Research Center regularly publishes a political typology which analyzes the various factions making up the US electorate and analyzing how they tend to vote. A brief summary, from most conservative to most liberal. (Note, while the consternation is mainly around Trump’s success, I’m going to zoom out a bit to understand how each group would view all of the candidates).

  • Steadfast Conservatives are socially conservative populists, meaning they have “traditional values” and tend to be anti-free trade and anti-Wall Street. They make up 15% of registered voters, are more politically engaged than average, always vote Republican, and would be mixed in their support for Trump. Some of them will appreciate his frankness and his xenophobic tendencies, while others will abhor his comments that Planned Parenthood does good things. I would guess roughly half would vote for Trump, half for Cruz.
  • Business Conservatives are pro-Wall Street and pro-immigration. They also almost always vote Republican, and ally with Steadfast Conservatives in their desire for limited government. They make up 12% of registered voters, are more politically active than average, and would almost definitely not vote for Trump. At this point they would mostly go for Rubio.
  • Young Outsiders tend to vote Republican, again because of their desire for limited government. While they tend to be fiscally conservative, they tend not to be socially conservative. They make up 15% of registered voters, but as the name implies, are less politically engaged than average. I think they would mostly break for Trump. The argument some Steadfast Conservatives have that Trump is not “traditionally” conservative would not dissuade Young Outsiders.
  • Moving into the liberal side of the spectrum, Hard-Pressed Skeptics are financially strapped and pessimistic about their ability to improve their lot in life through hard work alone. As such, they are distrustful of both Wall Street and government. They make up 13% of registered voters, and as you might expect, are less politically engaged than average. This group is interesting, as even though they ten to vote for Democrats, I can see them splitting evenly for Trump and Bernie.
  • The Next Generation Left are very socially liberal, but less liberal on fiscal and racial issues. They make up 13% of registered voters, but are less politically engaged than average. I don’t think either of the Democratic candidates speaks directly to this group, and I think they would split relatively evenly between the two.
  • The Faith and Family Left is a bit of an outlier from a Democratic perspective. They are very religious, and uncomfortable with things like gay marriage. But they tend to vote Democratic because of the party’s emphasis on providing safety nets for the poor. They are also racially diverse. The FFL is 16% of registered voters, and are less politically engaged than average. I think they would also split relatively evenly between Bernie and Hillary.
  • Finally, Solid Liberals are the core of the party and are liberal on all issues. Pro-gay marriage, pro-immigration, pro-choice, comfortable with an expanded government, and would prefer a smaller military. They make up 17% of registered voters, and are more politically engaged than average. While I think this group will vote for Hillary more often than not due to the Clintons’ long history of supporting the Party, enough will vote for Bernie to make it close.

There is one other group in the Pew Typology: Bystanders. These are people who just don’t get involved in the political process at all. While elections like this one can motivate some of these Bystanders to come off the sidelines, I believe most are disaffected enough to not get involved regardless of who’s running.

To figure out how the parties might re-configure, let’s start with the primaries. Unfortunately for establishment Republicans, based on the breakdown above, Trump takes almost 50% of the Republican vote, blowing away both Cruz and Rubio. Now admittedly, that assumes it’s a 3-person race. Should the field narrow, that result may be shifted, depending on whether Cruz or Rubio is the one face Trump. However, I’m not convinced either Trump or Rubio will drop out until they have to, which will only make things easier for Trump.

One the Democratic side, things are much closer. The question really comes down to how the Solid Liberals split. If Hillary gets any less than 60% of the Solid Liberal vote, she loses the nomination. If she gets more than 60%, she wins. My gut says she gets it, but we’ll look at both cases.

For this analysis I’m not going to try to drill down into the Electoral College vote and just make the simplifying assumption that the popular vote winner also wins the Electoral College. While this doesn’t always work out (sorry, Al Gore!), it’s a reasonable first approximation.

A Trump-Clinton battle provides the bigger potential for party re-alignment. In this scenario, I believe Steadfast Conservatives and Young Outsiders vote 100% for Trump, while Solid Liberals and New Generation Left vote 100% for Clinton. I think the Faith and Family Left could split a little, given Trump’s more socially liberal background, but ultimately go 70% for Hillary. Hard-Pressed Skeptics vote 60% for Trump. The interesting vote is from the Business Conservatives. Trump has made his anti-immigration stance clear, and has made many anti-Wall Street noises. Clinton, on the other hand, has traditionally been friendly toward Wall Street. I think Business Conservatives will realign and break hard for Hillary. The parties then unify on one side with values of “America First,” while the other side becomes the pre-Nixon socially liberal, fiscally conservative Democratic Party. At the end of the day, Clinton pulls out an impressive win, 58% to 42%.

A Trump-Sanders matchup is more difficult to analyze. Most of the groups vote the same way, but Hard-Pressed Skeptics break evenly, while Faith and Family Left split evenly, as neither Trump nor Bernie is particularly strong on race or faith issues. The election then comes down to the Business Conservatives, who are basically stuck with choosing between death and destruction. Whichever candidate can convince this group they will be less awful pulls out the election.

The wild card scenario here is if Michael Bloomberg decides to enter the race as an Independent in the event Trump and Bernie get their respective Parties’ nomination. Obviously having three options complicates things. While Bloomberg has a political life as a Republican, he is not dissimilar from Hillary in being more socially liberal and fiscally conservative. As such, Steadfast Conservatives will largely break for Trump, but a few will give a nod to Bloomberg’s Republican roots. Bloomberg will clearly pick up the Business Conservative vote. Young Outsiders continue their Trump focus, while Hard-Pressed Skeptics split evenly between the candidates. The Next Generation Left becomes the swing group in this election, as they go all in for Bloomberg’s mix of liberal and conservative values. The Faith and Family Left split, as some value Bernie’s commitment to social issues, while other values Bloomberg’s faith. Bloomberg’s faith is not a major part of his public persona, but is more prominent than either of the other candidates’. Finally, Solid Liberals go all in for Bernie.

Under the wild card scenario, it is difficult to impossible to predict whether any of the candidates would be able to pass the majority threshold of Electoral College votes. Bloomberg does the best in the popular vote, capturing 39%, followed by Trump at 33%, and Bernie at 29%. But again, there’s no guarantee that winning the plurality of the popular vote would translate into the majority of the Electoral College vote, and disentangling that will take someone far savvier than I.

So in the final analysis, there is some good news for Trump haters that the only way he can win the general is if Bernie gets the Democratic nomination, Bloomberg stays out, and Business Conservatives decide he is less unpalatable than Bernie. All other scenarios see a Trump loss. However, the coalitions that are formed in any of the elections envisioned above defy traditional expectations, and could result in a long-lasting shift in how the Parties are defined.

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