This article originally appeared on realclearpolitics.com
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Republicans expect to be battered and fractured by the time they finally find a presidential nominee. But party operatives hoping for unity see a sliver of silver lining: Nothing brings the GOP together quite like the Clintons.
“If you were going to choose one person who unites the Republican Party, it would be Hillary Clinton,” says Peter Wehner, a veteran of the past three GOP administrations.
Republicans have been preparing to run against Clinton in 2016 for the past three years, at least, with well-funded political groups, political action committees, and opposition research teams dedicated to taking her on. In its nascent stages, the GOP presidential primary was essentially an audition for the best candidate to run against Clinton.
But as much as the Republican establishment was ready for such matchup, it did not anticipate nominating a person it disliked almost as much as the presumptive Democratic nominee. And thus, Donald Trump has become a possible spoiler to the Clintons’ power to rally Republicans against them.
“If Trump is the nominee, Clinton isn’t going to be as unifying a force as you might expect because there are a number of Republicans who won’t vote for Trump under any circumstances--and that’s not out of any support for Clinton, I can assure you,” says Wehner, who does not support the current GOP front-runner.
Among party operatives, there is a palpable sense of frustration about the course the Republican primary has taken because they believe Clinton to be beatable. Instead, unfavorable candidates and the possibility of a contested convention have become distractions. "It is essential to victory in November that we all support our candidate," Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus told members at the spring meeting in Florida. "Politics is a team sport, and we can't win unless we rally around whoever becomes our nominee."
The Trump campaign has tried over the past few days to mend fences with the GOP, arguing that the controversial mogul will be more “presidential” and capable of uniting warring factions. Adviser Paul Manafort pitched a reformed Trump to RNC members last week. Trump has tried to do some of his own persuading by going after the leading Democrat at his rallies, calling her “crooked Clinton.”
Trump has proven to be a master at branding, as evidenced by “Low Energy” Jeb, “Little Marco,” "Lyin' Ted" and other memes. Some hope that when Trump, or whoever emerges as the GOP nominee, goes full force against Clinton instead of his own party rivals, Republicans will be galvanized.
“It’s a divided party--split along ideological, personal, and loyalty lines--and [the post-convention pivot] frames it into one single thing: Stop Hillary Clinton,” says Rick Davis, a Republican strategist who managed John McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign.
Trump’s negative numbers across the board, especially among groups with which the party needs to improve, has Republicans concerned about his candidacy not only losing the presidency yet again, but also contests down the ballot. If this weren’t the case, Clinton’s low favorability ratings would be a major cause of concern for Democrats and a source of glee for Republicans. What’s more, Trump has won only roughly 40 percent of the popular vote in the Republican primary, meaning 60 percent of voters preferred a candidate other than Trump.
Meanwhile, the emerging alternative to Trump doesn’t fare much better. Ted Cruz’s negatives are also high, and after making a political career of ticking off party colleagues, he is notoriously disliked by Republicans.
But even if many in the party are horrified by the choices they are left with after a raucous primary, some strategists argue that feeling will subside when they're given the option between the GOP nominee or Clinton.
“It's actually even more important to Republicans than if she were any other name, because Republicans have a historical hatred for the Clintons,” says Davis. “Now the symbol of antipathy for Republicans is going to be the Democratic nominee.”
It’s a history, indeed. The GOP tried and failed twice to defeat Bill Clinton. Party lawmakers even impeached him. Still, Republicans view Hillary Clinton with even more disdain. The former president was a southern Democrat with a more moderate coalition of support.
As recently as 2012, Republicans aiming to hit Obama as too liberal hailed Bill Clinton’s ability to work with the opposition to balance the budget in the 1990s. Hillary Clinton teamed up with their archrival Obama and became the face of the administration’s foreign policy record, which Republicans view negatively. Over the course of the Democratic primary with Bernie Sanders, she has moved farther to the left, even opposing trade deals her husband championed.
“The Democratic Party is undergoing a rapid lurch to the left that's giving Clinton problems. I don’t think JFK or even Bill Clinton would recognize the positions of the Democratic Party in 2016,” says Colin Reed of America Rising, a Republican opposition research group focused on Clinton and congressional candidates. The group is targeting Clinton in three ways: on ethical issues, including how the Clintons have made money over the years; on trustworthiness, an issue bolstered by the email server controversy and changes in policy positions; and her record as secretary of state, which hasn’t yet been vetted in an election.
“She's a known candidate, a known quantity, but there’s lots to educate voters about,” says Reed. “Even the stuff in the past is ripe for new discussion with a new set of voters.”
Most Republicans would like to focus their objections to the Clintons on the vulnerabilities that America Rising has identified. But Trump has already gone further, making issue of President Clinton’s personal transgressions.
While the visceral reaction among Republicans to Hillary Clinton is extraordinary, it’s part of a concept known among political scientists as “negative partisanship.” And it’s pervading American politics, in the opinion of many.
“There’s an increasing percentage of voters in both parties who have very strong negative feelings about the opposing party,” says Emory University professor Alan Abramowitz. “And it occurs even while their feelings toward their own party aren’t positive, as is the case especially on the Republican side, which is fueling the campaigns of Trump and Cruz.”
The main effect, Abramowitz says, is the highest level of party loyalty and straight ticket voting since tracking began over 60 years ago.
“There’s a growing tendency to see those in the other party as people you don’t want to associate with--it goes beyond disagreement, where those in the other party are seen as bad people” he says. “The implication is you wouldn’t vote for them under any circumstances.”
The test case for this theory, of course, could be Trump.
Democrats argue that Trump’s candidacy will galvanize their party in support of Clinton, assuming she becomes the nominee. While the Democratic primary became longer and more contentious with the rise and popularity of Bernie Sanders, some analysts say the divide can be bridged by opposition to Republicans, whom Democrats will paint with a broad brush in the colors of Trump and Cruz.
“There is such negative energy around both those candidates that whatever positive energy exists inside the GOP to stop Hillary Clinton will be diminished,” says Democratic strategist Doug Thornell. “The general election is not going to be a cake walk for a Democrat, but if the only hope Republicans have is they are going to rally against Clinton’s candidacy, that speaks to the larger problems they have.”
Both Democrats and Republicans agree that in an era of such negative partisanship, crossover appeal is less and less likely. While Trump may be attracting disaffected Democrats, most of them working-class whites, there may be enough Republicans who won’t vote for him to cancel out the new voters. And Republicans who won’t support Trump or who are averse to Cruz aren’t likely to support Clinton, given their intense opposition to her. Instead, they would likely write in a candidate or stay home.
Lindsey Graham underscored the unlikelihood of cross-party voting when he backed his Senate enemy, Cruz. Davis, the Republican strategist, noted that McCain had a roughly 30 percent favorability rating among Democrats and still didn't pull them over in the general election.
John Kasich has built his entire campaign on the idea that he could beat Clinton in the fall, and hypothetical matchups show he is the only current candidate who stands a chance. Clinton leads Cruz and Trump in polls.
Cruz, who is hoping to challenge Trump at a contested convention, is working to appeal to Republicans with this in mind.
“The party is uniting because we don’t want to hand the general election gift-wrapped for Hillary Clinton,” he said.