The distance between these two camps has elevated the stakes in the primary, for the party and the country. Trump and those echoing him have framed the race as an apocalyptic showdown to protect the nation’s “traditional values,” restore the political primacy of (the implicitly white) “silent majority,” and to “make America great again.”
The candidates and party leaders urging adaptation are warning that the GOP risks exiling itself from the White House by fighting irresistible demographic and social change.
“If you play footsie with this, or if you embrace this view, it is going to be politically suicidal,” says Peter Wehner, a former top White House adviser to George W. Bush. “We are sending in bright neon lights a signal that ‘we don’t like you, we don’t want you…and we consider you the enemy.’ We cannot be in a position of being seen to hate people of different ethnic backgrounds and races and be a winning party.”
After Mitt Romney in 2012 won a larger share of the white vote than Ronald Reagan did in 1980 and still lost to President Obama, those arguing for adaptation initially seized the GOP’s upper hand. That was reflected in the Republican National Committee’s post-election Growth and Opportunity Project, which argued the party could not regain the White House without winning more people of color and Millennial voters.
That impulse crested when Senate Republicans helped to pass a bipartisan immigration reform bill in 2013, but a conservative backlash has steadily suppressed it since.
In this campaign, candidates led by Trump have moved far beyond Romney’s embrace of “self-deportation” of undocumented immigrants with an agenda that includes mass deportation, “a pause” (in Trump’s term) on legal immigration, and ending birthright citizenship. In parallel, other contenders (led by Huckabee, Santorum and Cruz) have insisted that those who object to gay marriage on religious grounds should be exempt from following the Supreme Court decision legalizing it. Now, Carson and Trump have loudly questioned the loyalties of Muslim-Americans. Bush, Kasich and Rubio have sought a middle ground, mostly urging acceptance of a diversifying America—though with more caveats and qualifications (like Bush’s criticism this week of “multiculturalism” and Rubio's renunciation of comprehensive immigration reform) than Democrats typically offer.
The challenge for the Republicans urging adaptation is that, as Trump’s rise has demonstrated, this insular and defensive nationalism strikes a powerful chord in a GOP coalition now centered on older, rural and blue-collar whites. In recent polls a majority of Republicans without a college degree have supported mass deportation and declared that the growing number of immigrants “threatens traditional American values and customs.”
Most Republicans still oppose gay marriage. In a 2013 survey by the nonpartisan Public Religion Research Institute nearly two-thirds of both college and non-college Republicans said they believed “the values of Islam are at odds with American values.” If the choice in the primary is framed as embracing or holding back the emerging Next America, the camp of GOP voters who prefer “resistance to the change is probably larger,” says Daniel Cox, the institute’s research director. And these views are interlocked: PRRI research has found that suspicion of Muslims and hostility to immigrants are closely correlated.