There is a structural problem with the Republican Party that puts the party in a vulnerable position for the next presidential election — and I am not talking about the political positioning questions that Republicans are mulling over as they digest their latest loss.
It has to do with the electoral college and the party rules for selecting a nominee. When you look at the electoral map, there are now 21 Democratic states with 252 electoral votes. These are states a Republican candidate has no hope of winning, except in the unlikely event that the party nominates a candidate who appeals to the Democratic ideal of the “common good” (more about why this is so unlikely in a moment). Yet these Democratic states provide 47 percent of the electoral votes, barely short of the total needed for a candidate to win. For a Republican candidate to win, he must essentially sweep all of the remaining states.
But that is in the general election. The Republican nominee is selected in primary elections and caucuses in all of the states. This also means that a Republican can virtually assure himself of winning the Republican nomination just by winning the primaries in the Democratic states. In fact, this is probably the easier route to the Republican nomination. There aren’t so many active Republican voters in blue states like Pennsylvania and Delaware, so it is not prohibitively expensive to target all of them individually, using telephone and direct mail.
Compounding this problem, it doesn’t take many votes to win a primary election. To win a general election in a state, a candidate may need 50 percent of the ballots cast. But candidates can expect to win a primary election with 35 percent of the votes, and occasionally with as few as 22 percent. And, not so many voters participate in the primaries. As an example, the second-place candidate in the Pennsylvania Republican primary this year drew 149,000 votes. Romney could have won the primary with as few as 150,000 votes, barely 1 percent of the people in a state with a population of 12.7 million (in reality, he drew 468,000 votes, but that is still not many). In theory, fewer than 2 million primary votes cast mostly by blue-state Republicans would be enough for a candidate to lock up the Republican nomination.
Even if the process worked smoothly, it is a perverse obstacle course for a candidate, who must be nominated in blue states in the primaries, but then must carry all the other states in the general election. Why are Democratic states even involved in nominating a Republican candidate? The theory is that the party must select a candidate who has appeal in these states too in order to win. But the actual effect, as the Republicans have declined from a national party to a regional one, has become the opposite. With the dominant influence of blue-state Republicans, the party has a strong tendency to nominate a candidate from the political fringe, who then looks almost like a third-party candidate to the majority of blue-state voters in the general election. That, of course, is what happened in 2012.
To see why, consider who the blue-state Republicans are. They are more likely to hold views outside of the political mainstream than the Republican voters in a state like Kansas or Tennessee. After all, most of the mainstream voters in a state like Pennsylvania are aligned with the Democrats. Most of the Republicans in Pennsylvania, then, are voters who don’t easily identify with mainstream values. They won’t vote for a mainstream candidate if a more extreme alternative is on the ballot. This already has forced mainstream Republicans out of the primary process, and it pushes the party to nominate ever more extreme candidates as the party’s national reach shrinks. The extremism of the candidates, in turn, repels still more voters from the party, making it shrink faster and moving it farther from the views of most voters. It is a vicious cycle that probably can’t be interrupted without changing the nominating process. A regional party loses control of its identity if it uses a national nominating process, and this is what has happened to the Republicans.
And that is assuming the primary process is conducted with integrity. But if you look at the political process in the United States as a whole, you realize that the blue-state Republican primaries are the likely target of someone who wanted to spend a lot of money to manipulate the political process. They are the Achilles’ heel of the American political system. The Republican convention, including the party platform and a significant degree of control over the party’s future, could potentially be co-opted by a well-crafted and well-funded message designed to appeal to blue-state Republican primary voters. Given the demographic trends that are weakening the Republican party over time, political opportunists must already be starting to see it an easy target for manipulation.
In fact, this has already happened to an extent. The national Republican party has drifted uncomfortably far from the views and preferences of the average Republican voter, but under the influence of a SuperPAC determined to co-opt the party, it could shift farther, and in an unexpected direction. And don’t think the Karl Roves of the world haven’t noticed this vulnerability. Rove or someone like him may already be at work lining up anonymous corporate sponsors to attempt a party takeover in 2016. If you think this seems unlikely, compare SuperPAC funding in the 2012 election to the funding directly controlled by the Republican committees and candidates. The SuperPACs already have enough clout to overwhelm the Republicans if they choose to.
It is bad enough that Republicans face such a difficult task in trying to win a presidential election in 2016, but they are also at risk of losing control of their own party in the process. The Republican Party is hardly in a position to completely rein in the influence of corporate money, but they can slow it down by changing the nominating formula that, in its current form, hands so much influence to such a small number of blue-state Republicans.