Anger at Elites is No Reason to Write Off Their Support

By | 2017-11-16T09:14:11+00:00 November 14th, 2017|
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Former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld once remarked that you “go to war with the army you have, not the army you might want or wish to have.” That’s good advice if war is thrust upon you, but it’s poor advice if the combat is elective and you’ve gone in with an army not large or well-equipped enough to win. Yet that increasingly is what self-proclaimed conservatives and Trump backers want to do, as events in the last week have painfully demonstrated.

The recent votes in Virginia, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania were not the Republican debacles the mainstream media makes them out to be. Republican gubernatorial candidates lost in Virginia and New Jersey because those states are now largely Democratic, not because of some massive movement since the 2016 election.

But in those states and in some local races in Pennsylvania, one sees the same worrisome trend that emerged last year: highly educated, upper-middle-class voters are shifting towards voting Democratic up and down the ballot. If this trend continues, it will wipe out most if not all of the political gains President Trump’s shift towards blue-collar populism made, leaving conservatives even worse off than they were before.

Scrutinizing the Numbers
The data are incontrovertible on this point. In Virginia, Republican nominee Ed Gillespie was slammed by Breitbart and television host Laura Ingraham for not fully embracing Trump’s agenda. Of course, that is an odd thing to say a GOP candidate should do in a state that Trump lost by five points. But one would be hard-pressed to see how they could say that given Gillespie’s focus on cutting taxes and attacking illegal immigration. Gillespie did just about as well as Trump among non-white voters and whites without a college degree, losing the former by 61 points compared with Trump’s 62 point deficit, while winning the latter by 46 points compared with Trump’s 47. The difference between the two was among whites with a college degree: Trump won those voters by a 49-45 margin while Gillespie lost them 51-48.

Larger Democratic voter turnout surely didn’t help Gillespie. Enraged by Trump, Democrats have been turning out at higher than normal numbers all year. But that doesn’t tell the full story, as many of those “Democrats” were Romney voters just five years ago. The larger story is that these former Republicans voted Democratic for all offices, whereas just a year ago most of them voted Republican for Congress and other races. That is why Democrats won 14 Republican-held Virginia State House seats last Tuesday, all but one of these seats in districts carried by Clinton and six of which had been carried by Romney.

Republicans control the House by 24 votes—and Hillary Clinton won in 23 districts where the GOP holds seats last year. If voting patterns don’t reverse by next year, most of those representatives will lose, putting control of the House in play. Republican chances to pick up Senate seats in the most favorable map for them in recent times will also be threatened as many GOP-held or GOP-target seats contain lots of these sorts of voters.

More Voters Choose the “Devil They Don’t Know”
The ongoing Roy Moore saga in Alabama further deepens this problem. Perceptions of racism and sexism are two reasons college-educated, well-off but not rich, voters are souring on Republicans post-Trump. Gillespie, for example, ran well behind Trump among college-educated women, one of the few demographic groups that was true for. These voters simply do not cotton to aggressively religious, conservative, or populist candidates and are increasingly open to voting for a Democrat if they don’t like the Republican.

The polls show these trends were at work even before the breathtaking charges leveled in the past week. Moore’s primary opponent, appointed Senator Luther Strange, ran best in educated, well-to-do areas. In Moore’s previous statewide race for Supreme Court Justice, he ran well behind Romney and other Republicans in areas dominated by these voters. The polls pre-charges showed him doing poorly among these voters, and those taken post-charges show even more erosion. For these voters, the devil they don’t know—the Democrat—is preferable to the GOP devil they do.

These facts make the ongoing primary campaigns to purge elected members preferred by these voters highly suspect. Conservatives and populists have legitimate grievances against a business-dominated Republican establishment that has ignored their priorities for years. But it’s folly to think a conservative-populist alliance doesn’t need college graduates’ votes. The truth is all three sets of voters need each other to create a stable, working majority. They need to build a team rather argue about who coaches it.

Toward an American United Conservative Party?
Conservatives who don’t think this is necessary should look north to Canada. Canadian conservatives have split along these lines twice in the past quarter-century. In 1993, the ruling Progressive Conservative Party split in two as more populist, Western conservatives flocked to the Reform Party. This split allowed Canada’s Liberal Party to rule for over a decade until the two conservative factions reunited as the Conservative Party of Canada. More recently, conservatives and populists split from the ruling Progressive Conservatives in Alberta to form the Wildrose Party. Even though they won 52 percent of the vote between them in the 2015 election, they split the vote so badly that the social democratic New Democratic Party swept to victory, the first left-leaning party to win the conservative province since the Great Depression. The two feuding parties have since created the United Conservative Party, which is easily thrashing the New Democrats in the polls.

An American United Conservative Party would also easily win most national elections, and state elections virtually everywhere but the bluest of states. Such a party would include social, liberty, and populist conservatives in union with less conservative, business-focused voters and suburban moderates who just want competent, effective government. Keeping the union together would be hard work, but keeping any marriage of equals requires hard work and open communication.

Conservatives and populists who want to go to war against all their potential adversaries with the army they currently have will soon find their forces routed on the field of battle, and the consequences of such a rout too painful to bear.

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About the Author:

Henry Olsen
Henry Olsen is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, a think tank in Washington D.C. He is also an editor at where he writes about populism and politics around the world. He is the co-author, with Dante Scala, of The Four Faces of the Republican Party (Palgrave, 2015) and is the author of The Working Class Republican: Ronald Reagan and the Return of Blue-Collar Conservatism (HarperCollins, 2017).