It has become almost a consensus among Republicans and political observers: the Republican Party is in its death throes, and one of the party’s presidential candidates is to blame. Consider these headlines, and also consider how mainstream the sources and channels are:
- Bruce Bartlett at CNBC: I voted for Trump to destroy the GOP
- Huffington Post: If Trump Is a Cancer on the Republican Party, I Know the Cause and the Cure
- U.S. News & World Report: Why Trump May Be Here to Stay: The Republican Party spent decades unknowingly laying the groundwork for Donald Trump's insurgency to succeed.
- Peggy Noonan at Wall Street Journal: The Republican Party Is Shattering; Stop Trump? Unite behind him? No matter the outcome, nothing will ever be the same.
- NPR: Is The Republican Party On The Verge Of A Historic Crackup?
- Nate Silver at FiveThirtyEight: Republican Voters Kind Of Hate All Their Choices; Don’t Assume Conservatives Will Rally Behind Trump
- BBC News: Lifelong Republicans turned off by Trump
It is an exaggeration to talk about the imminent end of the Republican party, but there are scenarios in which that could happen next year. The scenario that the greatest number of analysts are talking about is if Trump wins the Republican nomination for president. Trump is the most unpopular presidential candidate in a century and would be hard pressed to draw more than 20 percent of the vote in the general election. Along the way his candidacy could help Republicans lose control of the Senate and the House. It could drive more than 10 million registered Republicans out of the party. Looking at this scenario, which does not seem easy for Republicans to avoid, some analysts are already saying that Trump killed the Republican party.
That would be the wrong way of looking at it. The Republican party is already dying of old age. Most Republicans are more than 50 years old. That also means that hardly any children are born into Republican households, since most children are born to parents under 50 years old. Republicans lose almost 2 percent of their share of voters every four years just from this one demographic trend alone. There is a reason there were so many Republican candidates this time around. Anyone looking at the trends could reasonably conclude that this is the last chance for the Republicans to elect a president. If you’re a Republican, you can run in 2016 or never. Some of the Republican party’s biggest financial supporters of the last 20 years have realized this too and no longer support the Republicans as a party, though they are supporting Trump and until recently were supporting Jeb Bush. It is the already weakened condition of the party that gives a candidate like Trump, or Bush for that matter, an opening to operate in.
But there is more to the decline of the Republican party than the declining number of voters. The popularity of the Republican party is in tatters. Even the average Republican now hates the national Republican party — see, for example, the Bruce Bartlett essay and the BBC News story above. If you tell Republican voters that their vote for Trump could be the end of the Republican party, as Mitt Romney prominently did a few days ago, that won’t give them a reason to reconsider.
The startlingly low quality of the Republican candidates is a puzzler, but gives voters another reason to be skeptical. People complain about Trump, but it is not as if any of the other Republican candidates rise above the problems that Trump is mired in. Christie, as a candidate, was more of a bully than Trump. Kasich has been put forward as a potential “moderate” candidate, but if you listen to Kasich’s interviews, his economic views are more extreme and more heartless than those of any of the other remaining candidates. Cruz has put himself forward as the obvious alternative to Trump, but Cruz has the same lack of respect for personal liberty that mars Trump’s campaign. You can continue through the list and not find a single candidate to rally behind. The Republican field is so weak and its debates such an embarrassment that voters who watch Democratic debates regularly wonder in social media why the Republican party exists.
In truth, any political party that has become such a destructive force that it has a hard time explaining the merits of its positions to anyone young enough to be on the Internet has earned its eventual fate. The actual mechanics of the disintegration of a political party are far simpler than most people realize. State party organizations with a simple vote can withdraw their recognition of the national party. It takes only two pages of paperwork for an elected official to change parties, and for a voter, only one page. After the Republicans have lost five states and hundreds of officeholders, we might be able to look ahead far enough to see the end of the party. At this point, it is more sensible to retreat to the familiar disclaimer of a democracy: the voters haven’t had their say yet.