As most are now aware, the Republican Party is taking a beating at the polls. GOP favorability is now at historic lows and they are taking the brunt of the blame for the government shutdown.
These numbers are bad enough for Republicans. But the situation may be far worse. The GOP is not only being defeated, but it is in some serious danger of falling apart. Republican infighting could cost Republicans enough votes among its white base to take out of serious competition in national politics.
The contours of the coming GOP crackup were ably identified by John Judis in a recent New Republic article. Judis sees a the beginning of an insurrection by a newly empowered base against the traditional GOP power structure:
The battle over the shutdown has highlighted the cracks and fissures within the party. The party’s leadership has begun to lose control of its members in Congress. The party’s base has become increasingly shrill and is almost as dissatisfied with the Republican leadership in Washington as it is with President Obama. New conservative groups have echoed, and taken advantage of, this sentiment by targeting Republicans identified with the leadership for defeat. And a growing group of Republican politicians, who owe their election to these groups, has carried the battle into the halls of Congress. That is spelling doom for the Republican coalition that has kept the party afloat for the last two decades.
All parties of course are coalitions of interest groups, factions and more. It is when the differences between these groups become irreconcilable that serious trouble arises. We may be at that point right now.
Republican moderates, still a quarter of the GOP rank-and-file according to recent Greenberg Quinlan Rosner analysis, are completely disenchanted with what’s going on. “Establishment” Republicans in and around Washington feel they have lost control of the party and are being made to walk the plank by crazed populists from the Tea Party.
An increasing proportion of the GOP’s business support feels the same way. The Tea Party populists are ever more insistent on fiscal purity, even at the expense of exclusion of anyone else’s agenda (including evangelical and social conservative priorities).
This is a recipe for big-time conflict. We are already starting to see calls from business/establishment Republicans to stand up to the Tea Party and challenge Tea Party candidates. We’ll likely see more of this and, if it crystallizes into a genuine counter-movement, the civil war among Republicans will be joined.
A civil war among Republicans is also a civil war among white people, since there is little else in the party these days. This clarifies just how close to the brink the GOP may be. A civil war among white people will surely hurt the party right where it cannot afford any slippage: among white voters.
It is only the very large majorities the GOP has been running lately among white voters that are keeping the party competitive. Indeed, majorities that not only remain large but increase are at the heart of what passes for GOP electoral strategy these days. Start cutting those majorities and the strategy goes up in smoke, replaced by immediate and serious electoral danger.
Consider that Congressional Republicans got 60 percent of the white vote in the 2010 election, compared to just 37 percent for the Democrats. What if, as we move into 2014, the war among white people breaks out in earnest, with the Tea Party on one side, business and establishment Republicans on the other and white working class voters already suspicious about the party’s Paul Ryan-inspired drive to cut Medicare and Social Security watching from the sidelines?
All this would make it prohibitively hard for the party to replicate its 60 percent showing among white voters in 2014. Say white support subsides to, say, 55 percent, with Democrats edging up to 42 percent. Assuming that the minority share of voters rises by a couple of points relative to 2010 and support for Democrats clocks in close to 80 percent, we are then in take-back-House territory, a popular vote margin of 6 points or so.
Impossible you say? Hark back to 2006 where Democrats only lost the white vote by 4 points, 47-51. Democrats don’t need to do that well in 2014. In fact, they don’t have to come particularly close. All they have to do is compress the GOP’s 2010 margin so it is still strong but not overwhelming.
Loss of white support would certainly put the GOP’s hold on the House in danger. But it would make them positively uncompetitive in Presidential elections. A “mere” 13 point margin among white voters would translate into a crushing 10 point defeat in the 2016 Presidential popular vote.
The coming war among white people could transform our politics even faster than demographic change already is. A rational party would pull itself back from this brink. But sometimes parties do not act rationally.