Editor’s Note: This post was written by Kevin Callanan, McKenzie Franck, Cody Ingraham, and Stella Pabis.
Is the “Grand Old Party” so grand anymore? The 2016 nomination contests have torn the GOP in many directions; a wide field of candidates and unprecedented events made the race the most unpredictable in recent history. In turn, the GOP establishment refrained from backing one candidate for most of the cycle. The establishment opted to sit on the sidelines while some candidates rose and fell as expected front-runners to oppose Donald Trump. With all the uncertainty surrounding the Republican field, America has been left wondering, what will become of the GOP? Will this be its end? Or a new beginning?
If history books look at 2016 as the end of the Republican Party, they will likely look at 2008 as the “beginning of the end.” 2008 ushered in the end of the Bush dynasty, the Great Recession, and the election of Barack Obama, a strong liberal force. The defeat of John McCain, a clear establishment candidate out of 2008’s GOP candidate pool, marked the first steps towards disillusioning party leaders and the electorate alike. McCain’s staunch opposition to the George W. Bush administration, lack of strong stances on policy, and inability to excite Republican voters opened the door to failure. McCain’s nomination of Sarah Palin as his running mate also did little to restore faith in the Republican Party’s leadership. While Palin’s nomination was intended to empower and mobilize the women’s vote, she had the opposite effect. The weak Republican ticket led to an easy Obama victory and laid the foundation for another failed candidate and deep party divides in 2012 and beyond.
Mitt Romney should have had an easy path towards the Republican nomination in 2012. He came in second in the 2008 primaries; historically Republicans have nominated whoever is “next in line,” or the runner-up candidate in the previous primary. Romney ran against an extremely weak field: a former House Speaker who was almost kicked out in a coup and promised $2.50 gasoline prices with no specifics, a Governor of Texas who could not remember the third government agency he would like to eliminate, and a former Senator who had lost his latest re-election campaign by 17 points. Romney had a semi-moderate record as Massachusetts Governor, with “RomneyCare” acting as the inspiration for ObamaCare. Romney was the clear pick of the Republican establishment but still had a tough time securing the nomination. He faced distrust from the Tea Party and the Republican base, who saw him as another moderate who could not unify the base and win a general election.
The rise and fall of John Ellis Bush in 2016 also may be indicative of trouble for the GOP establishment. Many had high expectations for Bush’s campaign at the start; he was expected to be the establishment front-runner, but these prospects steadily declined over the course of the invisible primary, into the contests of early February. Bush was the darling of the invisible primary in early 2015 as he garnered support and endorsements from party elites alongside his hefty war chest. However, there was one thing the governor did not account for: Donald Trump’s candidacy, which would define the year of the outsider. As the nomination contests progressed, many questioned if Bush was viable in comparison to Trump. Neither Bush’s money nor his super PAC could save his campaign as he spent a whopping $1150 per vote in New Hampshire without desired results. This led to his overall failure after finishing 6th in Iowa, 4th in New Hampshire, and 4th in South Carolina. Bush’s lack of public support, numerous fumbles, unimaginative campaign, and non-confrontational demeanor contributed to a loss for the establishment.
Upon Bush’s exit from the race, Senator Marco Rubio was the most probable candidate for the party to unite behind. While he was considered an Evangelical candidate, he was still able to appeal to more centrist voters because of his acknowledgment of moderate politics and policies. Rubio, unfortunately, was unable to unite the party because of deep divides within it. While Rubio did receive the most delegates out of the establishment candidates, even passing Governor Bush, voters did not give the majority of their support to him, causing the delegates to continue to be split. Rubio also had slip-ups that contributed to his downfall. For example, he repeated himself multiple times in a New Hampshire debate. This led people to look at him as a faulty robot and just another establishment puppet. From the failures of Bush and Rubio, it is clear that voters were not interested in an establishment candidate this cycle, they wanted an anti-establishment contestant, due to their lack of respect and trust for the establishment. These divides in and perception of the GOP establishment helped clear a path for Trump to secure the nomination.
The rise of Donald Trump and his pledge to “Make America Great Again” is a movement that has long been brewing under the surface of the Republican Party. White, lesser educated men, a faction of the GOP, do not trust the establishment, do not feel as though they have a voice, and want a man like Trump to shield them from the harsh realities of a globalized world. They resent the so-called “establishment” for advocating free trade agreements in their platforms, an issue that they feel has taken low-skill jobs out of the country or allowed them to go to illegal immigrants. Rubio – the candidate that the establishment seemed to coalesce around after Bush unraveled – was attacked on the campaign trail for his support of the Gang of Eight Bill, a piece of legislation that would bring about comprehensive immigration reform. His support for the bill did not play well in the year of “the wall” and growing concerns about immigration. In short, a large chunk of the base is fed up with the establishment and Trump has become the mouthpiece for their frustration, leading to his victory over establishment candidates.
This election cycle demonstrates that the GOP establishment may be losing control of their party. While it is unclear whether this pattern will continue, party unity behind weak moderate candidates in previous cycles, in conjunction with the party’s inability to unite behind a candidate in 2016, has led to a loss of control. The results have manifested themselves in the form of Donald Trump, as he is now the presumptive nominee of the Republican Party. Can the establishment take back control after 2016 or will Trump be the straw that breaks the elephant’s back?