Why you should care
Because Trumpism won’t end with Donald J. Trump’s candidacy.
Let’s say, hypothetically, Donald Trump loses in November, as recent polls are predicting. What stops another Trumpian candidate — big on money and chutzpah, short on party credentials or conservative ideals — from hijacking the Republican primary again in 2020? Yes, the free-the-delegates movement, and other insurgencies, seems to have failed this time around, barring an October (or maybe September) surprise. But here are some ways establishment-minded Republicans are already working to prevent history from repeating itself.
Become the Anti-White House Party
Parties tend to overreach when they’ve held the Oval Office for three terms, says political analyst Stuart Rothenberg. Thanks to Bernie Sanders, Hillary Clinton will face more pressure from the progressive wing of her party to deliver leftist politics that could alienate large swaths of America. Meanwhile, Republicans are looking to vocal leaders beyond Trump — perhaps Paul Ryan or Ted Cruz — to start presenting a stronger alternative voice. Ryan, in particular, has been fundraising on behalf of the Republican Party with anti-Hillary emails that conspicuously fail to mention the current Republican nominee. And the very real threat of another recession and continued terrorism could make voters eager to toss an incumbent out in just four years.
The worst losses in presidential election history have often been followed by triumphs for the defeated party. The 1964 GOP disaster of Barry Goldwater was followed by the ’68 swearing in of Richard Nixon. In ’72, Democrats performed terribly, but they won the presidency in ’76. And the ’88 debacle of Michael Dukakis preceded the ’92 victory of Bill Clinton. Rothenberg says, “I look at this now as an aberration — a time when short-term factors have left the majority of the party out on a limb that’s about to get sawed off.”
Longtime Republicans say party leaders are already discussing how to limit open primaries and enact more proportional primaries than the winner-takes-all sort.
Change Key Rules —Without Rigging the Deck!
There are plenty of ways the Republican Party could ensure another Trump-like candidate doesn’t seize the GOP in 2020, experts say. Like, for example, require past political experience, a certain number of years in the party or a minimum favorability rating with the general public. But such arbitrary rule changes carry a risk. “It will infuriate the grassroots even more,” warns Ned Ryun, founder of American Majority, which trains local candidates and activists.
Longtime Republicans say party leaders are already discussing how to limit open primaries — nominating contests in states that don’t require party registration to vote — and enact more proportional primaries than the winner-takes-all sort. Both tactics helped the Democrats end up with their establishment-friendly pick this election. Many conservatives grouse that the crowded field of more traditional Republicans dragged their campaigns well into February and March, allowing Trump to build a wedge of support that ultimately finished with him winning the nomination. “If they had fewer candidates at the outset, we might be in a very different place,” says Howard Schweitzer, a Republican strategist at Cozen O’Connor Public Strategies.
Wrangle Back the Debate Season
What would have happened if Trump had been held out of every debate, under, say, a rule barring inveterate party flip-floppers from participating? “If you aren’t allowed in the debates, you’re a nobody,” says Steffen Schmidt, a political scientist at Iowa State University. Debate organizers already evict candidates based on other criteria. “Networks are making up these debate rules as they go along,” Carly Fiorina wrote in a letter to the Republican Party when she was held out of a debate for not meeting the minimum poll threshold. Fiorina, who called for the Republican National Committee to act in “the best interest of the party that it represents” is rumored to be interested in becoming the party’s next chairman; if she does, she’s expected to push for more network control. “It’s like a golf or country club,” Schmidt says. “They decide who can become a member.”
Craft a New Base
How do you stop the Trump contingent from dominating 2020 elections? Water down their influence by adding new voters, some say. Applying free-market principles to legalized marijuana, while focusing less on interventionism, would help liberty-minded GOPers like Cruz and Mike Lee bring in younger conservative leaners, says Matt Welch, editor at large at Reason, a libertarian magazine.
The American Unity Fund most recently hosted a roundtable event at the Republican National Convention to make a conservative argument for LGBT-friendly policies. By nodding to the “don’t tread on me” roots of conservatism, Republicans could argue that more thorough investigations into police brutality cases are good for everybody, as Rachel Lu, a senior contributor to the Federalist and a Robert Novak fellow focusing on criminal justice, did in a July editorial. The appeal won’t win Black voters over immediately, but long-term, it could soften perceptions of a minority-averse party.