Will the GOP Come Apart?

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

Donald Trump scored major victories on Tuesday night, but failed to sweep all the five primaries.  In exit polls of the five states, about one-fourth of GOP primary voters said that they would not vote for him in the general election.

Many pundits are saying that the GOP is on the brink of coming apart. Will it happen?  As Bill Clinton might say, it depends on what the meaning of the phrase “coming apart” is.

If the term means tough factional fighting, the danger is real and present.  Whatever happens in this election, hard feelings will linger, and Republican leaders will long remember who was on which side.  (Nobody will forget that Chris Christie endorsed Trump, or that Trump then subjected Christie to multiple public humiliations.) More significantly, intraparty battles may shift in a way that favors trade protectionism and even harsher measures against illegal immigration.

Another meaning of “coming apart” is that the losing side in the nomination contest refuses to accept the outcome and instead backs an independent candidate for president.  Senator Ben Sasse (R-NE) spoke for many conservatives when he mused: “If Donald Trump becomes the Republican nominee, my expectation is that I will look for some third candidate – a conservative option, a Constitutionalist.”  Conversely, if the GOP nominates somebody else, Trump might call foul and run on his own. (Yes, he pledged not to, but as his ex-wives and creditors can attest, he has a way of getting out of promises.)

Don’t bet the mortgage on either possibility, if only because an independent campaign would cost a lot of money.  At the moment, no wealthy people seem eager to bankroll an independent anti-Trump campaign.  And for all his bluster about his billions, Trump probably does not have enough cash on hand to self-finance an independent run in November.

Even if an independent candidacy got off the ground, it would not necessarily mean a permanent breakup. On several occasions during American history, major-party factions have rallied behinda splinter candidate only to return to the fold after Election Day.  In 1948, segregationistssupported Strom Thurmond (then a Democrat) because of Harry Truman’s embrace of civil rights.  Hard leftists supported Henry Wallace because of Truman’s strong stand against communism. Both the segregationists and the leftists stayed in the Democratic Party after Truman’s victory.

The ultimate “coming apart” would involve the division of the GOP into permanent separate parties, each running its own candidates for Congress and state office. Polls show that most Americans favor the abstract idea of having a third party. Nevertheless, any effort to establish a serious new party would run into big obstacles.  The two major parties are entrenched in the structure of American government, from Congress to the statehouses.  On the rare occasions when third-party or independent candidates have won seats, they have ended up caucusing with one of the major parties.

Just to get on the ballot, a new party would have to wage aggressive battles in all 50 states to gather petition signatures and fight off the inevitable legal challenges. Here in California, organizers would not only have to deal with ballot access requirements, but a top-two primary system that tends to keep smaller, startup parties off the general election ballot.  And once more there is the matter of organization and finance.  Party-building involves expensive political infrastructure:  lots of luck getting PACs to pay for a new party that wants to disrupt business as usual.

It is hard to say what politics will look like a year from now.  It probably will not involve more than two parties.  It certainly won’t be pretty.

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