There were three main components of the Republican voting coalition that provided Donald Trump his narrow victory in 2016, and supported him in his narrow loss in 2020. They include, first, the voters who voted for Donald Trump for personal or for policy reasons. The second group are those who describe their votes more as a vote against Joe Biden than as a vote for Trump. And the third group are GOP partisans. These groups are not mutually exclusive even though each has different central motivations.
The critical factor for the future of the GOP is that none of these component groups represents a majority of the party. As a result, different combinations of two of these three imply different majorities controlling the GOP with correspondingly different policy and tonal emphases. But because of the possibility of cycling among these three groups, none of the possible majority coalitions represents a stable coalition for the GOP. Which two of the parts coalesce will determine to what extent the party will remain distinctly Trumpist or return more or less intact to its pre-2016 contours. Both are plausible futures given the component parts of the current GOP.
The size and identities of the first and third of the component groups are relatively stable over time. The group most subject to change over the next election cycle or two is the second group, those who characterize their vote as a vote against one of the two major candidates. Fully 24 percent of all voters in 2020 characterized their vote more as a vote against the other party’s candidate than as a vote in favor of the candidate who received their vote, according to New York Times exit polls. Of this group, 30 percent of Trump voters (or 7.2 percent of the entire electorate) said they cast their vote for Trump mainly as a vote against Biden, and 67 percent of Biden voters (or 16 percent of the entire electorate) said they cast their vote for Biden mainly as a vote against Trump.
This group is the one most up for grabs because its size and shape depends on the relative positions of the candidates to each other and to the respective voter’s preferences regarding policies and candidate characteristics.
Who are these voters? Those who cast votes for Biden as a means of voting against Trump did so mainly for reasons of temperament rather than policy. While the “Never Trump” moniker never took off as a self-identifier except among a small group of the Republican/conservative commentariat, nonetheless, of the 24 percent of voters in the NYT exit polls who reported that “personal qualities” were more important than policy for their vote, almost two-thirds voted for Biden over Trump. On the other hand, policy concerns rather than concerns with personal qualities appeared to motivate more of the anti-Biden vote in favor of Trump.
Despite the narrow 2020 loss for Trump, both numbers portend positive news for the Republican coalition going forward. Trump’s personal qualities will not be on the ballot for the Republicans going forward (unless Trump runs again in 2024). Voters who largely agree with GOP policy positions but voted against Trump because of concerns about his temperament can be expected to return to the GOP fold going forward. On the other hand, it seems unlikely in the future that the Democrats will nominate any candidate who is more moderate than Biden on the issues. Voters scared of Democratic policy positions will likely continue to be scared going into the future, and continue to vote against the even more-liberal candidates the Democrats will likely nominate in the future.
While there is lots of excitement among conservatives, particularly religious conservatives, about the GOP become a party of working-class populism, the exit polls don’t really paint a picture of anything that dramatic. According to Washington Post exit polls, Trump’s share of voters from households earning between $50,000 and $100,000 declined by 7 percent from 2016 to 2020, while Biden’s share increased 11 percent relative to Hillary Clinton. Further, according to Pew Research, in 2016 Trump’s support from whites without college degrees was only 6 percent higher than Romney’s support from the same group (67 percent to 61 percent). Those numbers do not really portend that 2016 (or 2020) was a critical election that would realign the two parties.
Where Trump did consolidate gains among non-college educated whites is among those whom I call blue-collar entrepreneurs. Support from these often-successful small business owners—building contractors, shop and service company owners, and others—is reflected in the 7 percent increase in votes Trump attracted from voters in households earning more than $100,000. While blue-collar entrepreneurs often do not have college degrees, they are not exactly working-class stiffs either.
Trump did see a drop in his support from white males with college degrees relative to 2016. But this movement is likely temporary, with this group’s return to the GOP expected when Trump is not on the ticket.
The critical question for the candidate and policy contours of the Republican Party going forward depends on the interaction of the first component of Trump’s coalition—voters who support Trump for policy and/or symbolic reasons (“symbolic” as with Trump’s position-taking and preference-signaling independent of any concrete policy implications)—and the third component of the coalition, Republican partisans.
There are strong historical and coalitional reasons to believe that Trump has permanently moved the Republican Party from its more globalist post-WWII policy emphases back to more nationalist policies the GOP emphasized in the 1920s and earlier.
To see the roots of this shift we need to go back even further. The antebellum American Party (or “Know Nothings”) streaked through the 1850s like a meteor —electorally here one moment and then gone the next. (The “Know Nothing” nickname referred to the party’s secrecy when meeting—members were supposed to say they “knew nothing” when asked about it. The label was not an ascription of ignorance, as it is often taken to mean today.) Nonetheless, the American Party/Know Nothings always formed a critical part of the Republican coalition from the time of Abraham Lincoln onward to today. (Lincoln had nothing but distaste for the Know Nothings, but needed their votes and so did not criticize them in public.) The size of that group has varied over time. Nonetheless, its existence and influence on the Republican Party can be traced in an unbroken line over the last century and a half.
As a successor party to the Whigs, the American Party/Know Nothings continued the Whig’s strong support for the protectionist tariff. More distinctively, the American Party/Know Nothings tended to be nativist and anti-immigrant, particularly where Catholics were concerned. This also formed much of the support for temperance in the Party. (The Know Nothings did, however, welcome German Lutherans, with support for temperance muted among state parties in the Midwest so as not to put-off these beer-swilling immigrants.) It drew on support from Evangelical and Conservative Christians (mainly Protestants at the time). It stressed and celebrated traditional American symbols. And it broadly articulated its policies as a program to support the American working man and his family.
This group reached a relative maximum as a part of the Republican coalition in the 1920s. As a result, the Republican Party of the 1920s reflected their traditional policy emphases. The GOP platforms of the 1920s articulate support for the protective tariff, limits on immigration (and promoting assimilation of existing immigrants), and a more isolationist foreign policy.
Also of note in relation to the Trump movement today, the American Party/Know-Nothing ascendency in the GOP during the 1920s also came during a time of heightened polarization in the American electorate. Often neglected is that a Progressive-Socialist Candidate for President in 1924 attracted 16.6% of the popular vote, and actually won the electoral votes of one state. The period was preceded by a period of heightened anarchist violence that roughly spanned from 1880 through 1920. Within the memories of almost everyone in the 1920s was the assassination of a sitting President by an anarchist in 1901 and anarchist bombing of Wall Street in 1920 that killed scores and injured hundreds. A Red Scare also rose in the U.S. after World War I in response to the Communist Revolution in Russia, and radical activity in the U.S.
While the “American Party/Know Nothing” component of the Republican Party shrank somewhat during the 1950s and subsequently, it remained a part of the Republican Coalition. Recall that Robert Taft actually outpolled Eisenhower in the states then holding primary elections prior to the Republican convention of 1952. Later, Nixon’s “Silent Majority” and Ronald Reagan’s 1980s coalition received critical support from this component of the Republican coalition.
Today, this component represents about a third of Republican voters. Despite Trump’s primary and general election victories in 2016, evidence suggests that the size of this group has not grown in recent decades. In his 1992 race for the GOP presidential nomination, Pat Buchanan regularly received the votes of around one-third of Republican primary votes. Trump’s vote share in these states in 2016 was almost identical.
The difference in Trump’s success and Buchanan’s failure wasn’t the proportion of the vote Trump attracted versus Buchanan. It’s that Buchanan faced a single (incumbent) candidate in the primaries, who received the other two-thirds of the votes, while Trump faced multiple opponents who split the remaining two-thirds of the vote.
There is no reason to think that this large minority of the Republican coalition will grow or shrink in the near future. The question is whether potential Republican candidates who are attempting to position themselves as Trump’s heirs can motivate this part of the Republican coalition as Trump did. Winning primary candidates may depend on serendipity such as the number of Trumpist candidates splitting the American Party/Know Nothing vote relative to the number of other non-Trumpist candidates splitting the other two-thirds of the Republican vote.
The final component of Trump’s coalition are partisan Republicans. While there is overlap between partisan Republicans and core Trump supporters, partisan Republicans also include the more hard-core free market Republicans, a continuing set of big business Republicans (Silicon Valley not withstanding), tax-cutting Republicans, deficit Hawks, strong defense supporters, Evangelicals and conservative Catholics (both whom shifted some support to Biden) and even some neo-conservatives.
Partisan identification usually forms early and remains stable. Partisans will often actually adapt their views to conform with the party’s platform, at least on matters that are not central to their partisan identity. Thus, Trump on immigration, or protectionism, or foreign relations, let alone his symbolic MAGA rhetoric, are well within the parameters of what Republican partisans will accept. They are just not wedded to it as Know Nothings are.
Conservative market-skeptics engage in wishful thinking that Republicans can win without traditional commitment to a relative emphasis on markets in a mixed economy and on tax cuts. While pro-Trump commentators sneer at what they style as the sterility of the pre-Trump Republican Party line—“there is no problem a tax cut cannot remedy”—they ignore two of Trump’s signature victories that secured him with Republican partisans: Trump’s cut in income taxes and Trump’s regulatory rollback.
If Trump runs for president in 2024, barring some other compelling candidate, he would almost certainly win the Republican nomination. If Trump does not run in 2024, policy inertia likely means that the Republican Party of 2024 will share more of the policy emphases of the Republican Party of 1924 than that of more recent decades.
This pull is only inertial. Trumpists do not currently own the Republican Party. The American Party/Know Nothing faction continues to represent about a third of the party. It’s been that way for decades. It is a sizeable fraction. But it is not a majority. Because there is nowhere else to go, it is, largely, a dependable component of the Republican coalition, and will continue to be so. Given the size of the three main components of the Republican coalition—each a minority—possible outcomes cycle, and are unstable. If Trump does not run in 2024, future outcomes will depend on the vagaries of the election cycle. This leaves plenty of room for Republican candidates to win the nomination (and the general election) who, taking pains to avoid offending Trumpists, nonetheless ignore distinctive elements of Trump’s policies and style.