Skip to main content

Is Trump Sabotaging the GOP's Future?

A new analysis suggests the president is shrinking the Republican Party.
Donald Trump looks on during a rally at the DeltaPlex Arena in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

In the long-run—and perhaps even in the medium-run—Donald Trump may be a godsend for the Democratic Party.

That's the takeaway from a new analysis by prominent political scientist Gary Jacobson of the University of California–San Diego. In the journal Presidential Studies Quarterly, he argues the unpopular president is magnifying differences between ordinary Democrats and Republicans "in a way that threatens the long-term vitality" of the GOP.

"Trump now is his party's unrivaled public face," he writes, "and his ascendancy threatens to reshape its image in ways that make it unmarketable to a rising generation of Americans."

In his analysis of poll data over Trump's first 15 months in office, Jacobson points to three overlapping trends.

First, political polarization has reached new levels. He notes that ticket-splitting—the previously common practice of voting for one party's presidential candidate, and another's candidate for Congress—nearly evaporated in the 2016 election.

"For the first time in history," he writes, "the party that won the electoral votes also won the Senate contest in every state."

Amplifying that point, Jacobson adds that, in one survey, "89 percent of partisans voting in House elections, and 90 percent of those voting in Senate elections, voted loyally for both the presidential and congressional candidates of their party." This surpasses the previous high of 85 percent in 2012.

Not surprisingly, given this intense partisanship, the public has increasingly come to view the Republican Party as the party of Trump. This means the president's disliked demeanor and problematic policies have lowered not only his approval ratings, but also those of other party leaders. "Opinions of the Republican Party in Congress reflect approval ratings of Trump," Jacobson writes.

And that means the party may be sacrificing some traditional strengths. Jacobson notes that, in a January of 2018 poll, 66 percent of respondents said Trump has damaged the nation's reputation around the world. "Trump has at least temporarily cost the Republican Party its usual reputational advantage in the domain of foreign affairs," he writes.

Finally, Trump—thanks to both his policies and his personality—is extremely unpopular among young voters, who will make up an increasing share of the electorate. That's very bad news for the Republican Party, especially since people usually hold onto the partisan identities they establish in early adulthood.

To sum up: Republicanism is now indistinguishable from Trumpism. But few beyond the president's base—and very few among the more-diverse emerging generation—find that fusion, or the policies that accompany it, attractive.

The immediate effects of this confluence of forces will be felt at the mid-term elections in November.

"Republicans would be predicted to lose their House majority no matter how well the economy performs in 2018 if Trump's approval ratings are no higher than the mid 40s come election day," Jacobson writes. (He sits at 42 percent in the latest Gallup poll.)

"But even if Republicans dodge a wave in 2018, they face the longer-term threat," he adds. "By projecting a sharp, highly divisive image of who and what the Republican Party stands for and, equally important, who and what it stands against, the Trump presidency is poised to have a durable impact on party images and identities, especially among younger citizens entering the electorate for the first time."

If Trump remains committed to policies such as "economic nationalism, anti-Muslim xenophobia, and dismantling the national regulatory and welfare regimes ... it seems a sure recipe for shrinking the Republican Party," Jacobson writes. Those positions, he notes, are "almost uniformly unpopular outside the Republican core of older white voters."

"Insofar as Trump promotes this vision of the Republican Party," he concludes, "(he will effectively) be handing the future to the Democrats, if only by default."

Don't despair, Dems. Brighter days lie ahead.