With this week’s announcement that Donald Trump has officially won the vote in Michigan, the 2016 presidential election has just about finally come to a close — last-minute recount petitions notwithstanding. With Republicans now set to control both houses of Congress, the White House, and numerous governor’s mansions and state houses, GOP optimism has skyrocketed as party leaders begin to plan the next year’s agenda.
In fact, in the wake of Trump’s surprise electoral victory, it has become distressingly easy to forget exactly how much America’s political outlook has changed over the course of just a few short years.
Back in early 2013, the future of the Republican Party looked bleak — or so we were told. “Demographics are destiny,” Washington pundits gleefully parroted ad nauseum. “Republicans may never win a presidential election again!” The sound defeat of Mitt Romney, whom the GOP establishment regarded as The Perfect Candidate™, could only mean the beginning of a permanent Democratic majority.
The Autopsy that Bombed
Amidst the doom and gloom, the Republican National Committee commissioned a report, widely dubbed an “autopsy,” which recommended several changes to facilitate a victory in 2016. According to the report authors, Republicans needed to “modernize the party,” become more “inclusive and welcoming,” and “do a better job connecting people to our policies.”
It encouraged party leaders to spend more effort on outreach to minorities, and endorsed support for comprehensive immigration reform to appeal to Hispanics, while arguing social issues ought to be de-emphasized, so as not to seem “intolerant” to young people. It also took no issue with the GOP’s bland economic messaging, despite Romney famously losing the “cares about people like me” question by a whopping 63 points.
Based off the advice given in the autopsy, one would have expected a candidate such as Trump to stand little chance of winning in 2016. Trump took a hard line on immigration, denounced “political correctness,” and made his opposition to abortion a key part of his campaign.
Indeed, one of the autopsy’s authors publicly left the Republican Party following Trump’s nomination, while media outlets declared the GOP was “on the brink of another potential presidential defeat” due to the direction Trump’s campaign had taken. Little did they know Trump was on the verge of a monumental upset, winning more electoral votes than any Republican presidential candidate since 1988.
So how could such a result have happened? For answers, one need only consult another report written in 2013 by the American Principles Project (APP), countering the RNC’s autopsy. According to APP, the RNC autopsy report had two serious flaws: 1) it failed to acknowledge the unpopularity of the standard GOP economic message as best exemplified in the Romney campaign, and 2) it falsely assumed that abandoning socially conservative positions would be advantageous for Republicans. Trump’s victory in 2016 — and his ability to build the winning Republican coalition that Romney could not — proved APP right on both counts.
GOP Economicspeak Is Too Rich-Focused
Let’s look first at point number one. Although the RNC autopsy did admit that the GOP often failed to “connect with voters’ concerns,” it did not tie this failure to anything specific, nor did it acknowledge that its own stale economic messaging might be the problem. The APP report, by contrast, identified a major reason why Romney and Republicans failed to connect with voters in 2012: their message was too focused on “job creators.”
In 2012, the GOP positioned itself as the party in favor of ‘job creators.’ It was a clever neologism, intended to suggest that policies benefiting business, especially small business, would help the middle class. But it may have been too clever by half. One of the reasons the Romney economic message failed is that positioning oneself as an experienced ‘job creator’ working for other ‘job creators,’ albeit to increase jobs, can backfire. Republicans say ‘job creators,” but voters correctly hear “my boss.’ And voters increasingly hate their bosses.
Although Romney’s “job creator” messaging flopped, Trump succeeded by appealing more directly to voters’ concerns. While he, too, portrayed himself as a savvy businessman, he focused his rhetoric on stagnant wages and the difficulties facing workers, particularly those who have seen their jobs shipped overseas. (For a good example of the overall thrust of Trump’s economic message, see this ad.) While Romney was the candidate in 2012 most likely to be seen as out-of-touch with the average American, Trump flipped the script, effectively branding Hillary Clinton in the same way.
Social Issues Aren’t a Third Rail
As for the second point, while Trump certainly did not campaign as a culture warrior, he did not run away from social issues either, as the RNC report would have had him do. On the issue of abortion, for example, the contrast between Romney and Trump could not have been clearer. While Romney’s strategy on the issue was generally to emphasize his own moderateness—even going so far as to run a late-cycle ad touting his support for abortion in certain cases—Trump went on offense, most memorably using Clinton’s extreme views on late-term abortion against her in the final presidential debate.
That Trump’s approach was more successful than Romney’s should not be a surprise. As the APP report pointed out, attempting to call a “truce” on social issues rarely ends well for conservatives, since it leaves the door wide open for left-wing attacks:
The truce strategy fails, politically, for three reasons: 1) it allows the opponents of the GOP to define the GOP brand, 2) it fails to make the Democrats pay a price politically for their social issues extremism, and 3) it persuades voters who might be attracted by the GOP values positions on life, marriage, or religious liberty that Republicans are fundamentally unserious in their values commitment, and therefore untrustworthy across the board.
To put it another way, the Left has read the GOP elites’ truce playbook and correctly understand the national GOP’s unwillingness to speak on social issues as an opportunity to use their mainstream media power to brand Republicans as extremists. They can do so because the truce strategy ensures that national Republicans will never fight back and make Democrats pay for their abortion and other social issues extremism. Democrats know that instead the GOP will retreat and change the subject to less “divisive” topics.
The truce strategy is a way to guarantee you lose a political argument, and the Democrats know it.
Smartly recognizing this, Trump realized the only way to respond was to fight back, and he did so very effectively. In fact, information Google News Lab released after the election revealed abortion was one of the two most searched topics in connection with Clinton and Trump, as well as being the top-searched policy issue in every Midwestern state—states that voted Republican for the first time in decades. Far from hurting him, Trump’s pro-life advocacy was likely critical to his victory.
Trump was not afraid to attack Hillary for her extremism on social issues, and it paid off. In addition to winning working-class whites in record numbers and outperforming Romney with Hispanics and African-Americans, Trump performed exceptionally well with evangelicals and even Catholics, many of whom likely felt Clinton’s support for LGBT supremacy at the expense of religious freedom put their very livelihood at risk. Sean Trende at RealClearPolitics explained this eloquently:
[Y]ou may wonder why [Christians] voted in historic numbers for a man like Trump. Perhaps, as some have suggested, they are hypocrites. Perhaps they are merely partisans. But I will make a further suggestion: They are scared.
Consider that over the course of the past few years, Democrats and liberals have: booed the inclusion of God in their platform at the 2012 convention (this is disputed, but it is the perception); endorsed a regulation that would allow transgendered students to use the bathroom and locker room corresponding to their identity; attempted to force small businesses to cover drugs they believe induce abortions; attempted to force nuns to provide contraceptive coverage; forced Brendan Eich to step down as chief executive officer of Mozilla due to his opposition to marriage equality; fined a small Christian bakery over $140,000 for refusing to bake a cake for a same-sex wedding; vigorously opposed a law in Indiana that would provide protections against similar regulations – despite having overwhelmingly supported similar laws when they protected Native American religious rights – and then scoured the Indiana countryside trying to find a business that would be affected by the law before settling upon a small pizza place in the middle of nowhere and harassing the owners. In 2015, the United States solicitor general suggested that churches might lose their tax exempt status if they refused to perform same-sex marriages. In 2016, the Democratic nominee endorsed repealing the Hyde Amendment, thereby endorsing federal funding for elective abortions…
As Trende goes on to explain, Christian voters felt pushed into a “defensive crouch” by progressive extremists and voted accordingly. According to a poll conducted by WPA Research, 59 percent of Trump voters said social issues like abortion, marriage, and religious freedom “impacted their vote,” with 41 percent saying these issues “strongly impacted their vote.”
Unlike Romney, Trump sought to appeal to working-class voters in a way no Republican had ever done since Reagan. He rebuilt the Republican coalition from the ground up, pairing a worker-centered economic message with social conservatism to win millions of new voters, many of whom previously voted Democrat. While his coalition was short on elites—heck, he repudiated them at every turn—he more than made up for that with previously unreachable voters in critical “Rust Belt” states like Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio, and Pennsylvania, which helped put his historic campaign over the top.
So has the GOP establishment learned its lesson? Early indications are not encouraging. Then again, it may not matter. Trump won. It’s his Republican Party now. Strategists and insiders would be wise to adapt—or die.