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Donald Trump’s selection by the Republican Party as its presidential candidate is one of the most controversial nominations in American electoral history. In living memory only the National Convention’s choice of Barry Goldwater in 1964 might conceivably rival it at the presidential level. Trump’s style, involving personal attacks on fellow candidates, not only alienated most of the Republican political elite but also exposed fissures in American society that all candidates are usually keen to ignore or attempt to discuss in banal terms. How could someone like Trump have ever become the nominee of a major party? The answer lies partly in the peculiarities of the Presidential candidate selection process and partly in fundamental developments affecting the Republican Party and the voting public at large. At the beginning of this century pre-primary televised debates between the candidates were introduced. They start months before the primaries, and they can de-stabilize the nomination process when there is not a clear front-runner. With many candidates seeking the nomination, and relatively few policy differences between them, a candidate has to achieve between only 20–25% of support in post-debate opinion polls to become the front runner when the primaries themselves begin. Trump achieved “momentum” in this way by making himself as distinct as possible – being outspoken and outrageous in his views and overtly rude to the others. This was a political style derived from behaviour on reality TV shows. From an initial narrow base of support Trump could build a winning campaign because he could portray himself “as the candidate to beat”.
All his rivals for the nomination believed for far too long that Trump could never be selected and therefore the last remaining alternative to Trump would inevitably become the nominee. For them the key to being selected was to remain in the race as long as their candidacy remained credible. This misjudgement meant that during the early stages of the primary campaign Trump benefitted from the persistence of a multi-candidate field. He could remain the leading candidate even though his supporters were then still only a minority of Republican voters. The longer that all but one other candidate remained in the race, the easier it was for Trump eventually to convert that minority base into a majority of Convention delegates.
Peculiarities of the candidate selection process helped Trump, but they probably would not have been enough by themselves. He was also able to exploit the fragility of the Republican Party’s electoral coalition. Until the 1970s its coalition was not as diverse as the Democrats’, and hence was usually more cohesive. It was the Democratic Party that tended to have major splits which periodically undermined its prospects in presidential elections. The re-introduction of moral issues and values into partisan politics – the Equal Rights amendment, abortion, and so on – transformed this. It was now the Republicans that had greater difficulty in keeping their broad coalition together. This becomes evident when looking at differences in the party’s success in presidential elections compared and in congressional elections. During the last 24 years the Party has controlled the White House for only one third of that period, whilst controlling both Houses of Congress for about two thirds of it. Winning the Presidency calls for unity in the national party, whereas seats in Congress can be won with idiosyncratic local strategies.
The context in which American politics is conducted has also changed massively, and this has made managing their electorates more difficult for both parties. The Democrats had to contend with vocal minority support for Bernie Sanders. Trump is just the current face of the Republican problem. Since the Republic’s birth, politics has been conducted against a background of long-term increases in the well-being of a majority of Americans. The “American Dream” remained plausible because most people could expect to be better off over their lifetimes than their parents. Economic depression – especially in the early 1890s and in the 1930s – destabilized politics, but normal politics could then resume within about a decade. Since the 1970s the real incomes of many Americans have not increased at all, even though there have been no depressions on the scale of those earlier. The benefits deriving from economic growth during the last four decades have been enjoyed primarily by the well-off. This chronic undermining of the “American Dream” is one of the factors contributing to anger among many sections of the voting population, anger that they direct towards political elites – among others. Unless there is a major redistribution of income and wealth in the future, and there is no evidence that this is occurring, then the political instability associated with the Trump candidacy might not be an isolated incident for the Republicans.
Trump’s astonishing success in becoming the Republicans’ presidential candidate was partly caused by the dynamics of the contemporary nominating process which, under certain conditions, enable candidates with relatively low levels of initial support to triumph. But long term political and social changes also helped him. Over the past 40 years the Republican party has become a more diverse electoral coalition, and, when trying to capture the presidency, is now more difficult to manage than the Democrats’ coalition. In addition, during the same period anger among many people about the failing American economic dream has made politics more unstable for both Democrats and Republicans. In 2015–16 it was the Republican Party that was less able to control these emerging political forces.