We are experiencing generational political change, a shifting of the electorate that will likely require several election cycles to be resolved. Both parties have lost the committed allegiance of 15% of their voters since 2008. That means that 30% of the electorate could potentially become Republicans, or Democrats, or cohere around a third party over the next several election cycles. The success of Sanders and Trump during the primaries is evidence of massive, popular discontent with status quo.
The FOR and AGAINST attitudes concerning Clinton and Trump indicate the same level of disaffection that we saw in the primary elections. People who are committed Republicans or Democrats support their Party’s nominee regardless of who they are or who they are running against. A recent Pew Research Center study found that 15% fewer Democrats are FOR Clinton than were FOR Obama in 2008, and 15% fewer Republicans are FOR Trump than were for McCain In 2008. This year, the percentage of opinions AGAINST both candidates is proportionally higher.
The Sanders phenomenon was an insurgency that the Democratic Establishment was barely able to defeat. According to August opinion polls, it is likely that Democrat Clinton will win the 2016 election, but that does not mean that a November victory will secure her party’s future. Most of those who voted against Hillary in the primaries will vote against Trump in the general election – not for the kind of Establishment they see personified in Hillary Clinton.
I talked to some Sanders voters during the Democratic Convention at the Wells Fargo Center, and I was struck by the vehemence of their anti-Establishment anger. A Hillary Clinton Administration could keep them in the party fold, but her legislative agenda will have to satisfy them. If they are disappointed by her Administration, there is a real possibility that they won’t vote Democratic 2020. The Democratic Party’s future depends upon how Clinton governs.
On the Republican side, the Trump phenomenon is more complicated and more fraught. During the early primaries, members of the Trump insurgency came primarily from weakly affiliated registered Republican voters with conservative views on government, but not social issues. As Trump’s candidacy gained legitimacy after the early primaries, he attracted the votes of the socially conservative populists, that 15% of registered Republicans who would sooner vote for a space alien than for a Democrat. Together, these two groups represent about 40% of Republican voters.
More significantly, the Republicans whose Party loyalties are the shakiest are the disproportionally influential business conservatives. While they are only 12% of registered voters, they have dominated the Republican Party’s internal politics for most of its history. When surveyed, they trend strongly against Trump in 2016 and could potentially flee the Party if he wins the November election. The question is where they might go.
So we have two quite different dynamics shaping the Parties. The Democratic Party will be in a stronger strategic position after the election because it will have leadership representing a popular majority within the Party. But the Democrats could lose the advantage of stability at the top if they are unable to win the allegiance of the new left wing, the 45% of registered Democrats who voted for Sanders.
Painfully for the Republicans, the wounded, minority Establishment will contest with larger groups in the intra-Party conflicts that will be fought after November. If Trump wins, a significant percentage of business conservatives might conclude that they share more attitudes with Democrats than with the Republican rank and file. If Trump loses the election, business conservatives like Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell must either find a way to convince the disaffected outsiders who voted for Trump that they are Republicans, or watch the GOP shrink to less than 40% of the electorate.
One of the more intriguing, though unlikely, possibilities is that disaffected voting groups could form a third Party. Attitude surveys conducted by the Pew Center show that the views of Trump and Sanders voters, while by no means identical, are similar with regard to economic globalization, the role of government, and social issues. Should the disaffected business conservatives combine with the outsiders groups, even try to lead them, a third Party could represent as much as 54% of the electorate. But even if such an attempt is made, it is unlikely to attract a majority for several election cycles, if ever. Third parties rarely get 20% of the vote and few last for more than a couple of elections.
Democracies must evolve or die. Regardless of who wins in November, it seems clear that both political Parties are in the midst of significant change. A Trump Presidency would be disastrous, but it appears increasing unlikely. Whatever the outcome of the 2016 election, Party affiliations in 2020 are likely to be different. The loyalties of steadfast conservatives and solid liberals are unlikely to change, but a great number of Americans in the middle, millions of voters with weak ties to the traditional parties, are searching for a political home.