Republicans: Even More Divided Than Usual

John J. Pitney, Jr.
Professor of government at Claremont McKenna College and coauthor of American Government and Politics: Deliberation

Even as Donald Trump was racking up big wins on Super Tuesday,exit polls showed a deeply divided party.  Most Cruz and Rubio voters said that they would be dissatisfied if Trump were the nominee, and most Trump voters said the same of Cruz and Rubio.

The current state of Republican politics has surprised many observers. A common myth among pundits and academics is that the GOP is the party of unity and hierarchy.  Of course, people with firsthand experience in Republican politics find this belief to be laugh-out-loud funny.   In both houses of Congress, Republicans have often lagged behind Democrats in party-unity scores.  The bickering that led to John Boehner’s departure from the speakership was just the latest in a decades-long series of internal battles, including an abortive coupagainst New Gingrich in 1997 and his ouster the following year.  Bitter nomination fights have included Eisenhower-Taft in 1952, Goldwater-Rockefeller in 1964, Reagan-Ford in 1976, and Romney-Santorum-Gingrich in 2012.

In 1966, California state GOP chair Gaylord Parkinson coined the Eleventh Commandment: “Thou shalt not speak ill of any fellow Republican.”  Of course, he had to coin it because California Republicans dissed one another a lot, and they have never really stopped.  Indeed, state Republicans virtually invented the circular firing squad. Schwarzenegger briefly united the party but gradually became a pariah after his 2006 election, and in the 2010 gubernatorial primary, Meg Whitman and Steve Poizner attacked each other for being Schwarzenegger clones.

And yet for all this unhappy history, the battle for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination is unique in its intensity and its potential for lasting damage to the party.   To put it mildly, Trump’s supporters are not exactly magnanimous toward conservatives and Republicans who have doubts about their man.  Trumpistas use social media to heap personal abuse on his critics, often with overtones of racism and anti-Semitism. National Review editor Rich Lowry toldThe New York Times: “I’ve never encountered an American politician at this level that people are literally afraid of — donors are afraid of him.”

For their part, many Trump critics on the right have taken the unusual step of saying that they would not vote for him even if he were the nominee. Perhaps most significantly, Senator Ben Sasse (R-Nebraska) says: “If Trump becomes the Republican nominee my expectation is that I’ll look for some 3rd candidate – a conservative option, a Constitutionalist.”

A third-party movement may or may not get off the ground, but in the meantime, expect the hits to keep on coming.  Our Principles PAC has aired ads attacking the Donald for building Trump Tower on the backs of illegal immigrants.  Tim Miller, a strategist for the group, tweeted a recent report that a great deal of damaging material on Trump has not yet become public and added: “This will not be the case come March 15th.”  He ended with a hashtag that has become common even has its target has gained strength:  #NeverTrump.

Whatever happens in the rest of the primary season and the general election campaign, the ill will within the GOP will not go away for a very long time.

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