Donald Trump’s surge has been anything but subtle. He climbed the polls throughout the primary season while his rivals exited the race one by one. His controversial rhetoric rarely made a dent on a campaign built on ardent, loyal supporters. And now, Trump’s candidacy is complicating the relationship between party identification and party allegiance within the GOP.
Historically, party identification is weaker among Republicans than Democrats. A Pew Research analysis released in 2015 found 23 percent of Americans identify as Republicans compared with 32 percent who identify as Democrats. The findings align with a pattern in the United States. As Pew put it: “For more than 70 years, with few exceptions, more Americans have identified as Democrats than Republicans.” But that may also be contingent on who’s running that election year—and in 2016, Trump poses a conundrum for the Republican Party. “Party ID is very strong, but that depends on the candidate actually being clearly a Republican,” said Tammy Frisby, a fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. The nominee is expected to be the party’s standard-bearer, embodying its conservative values—even as they evolve.
“What ‘conservative’ meant in 1954 is not what ‘conservative’ means in 2016,” said Leah Wright Rigueur, an assistant professor of public policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, pointing to when the religious right came into the party in the 1980s. Even so, various strains of conservatism have found a home in the Republican Party, Rigueur said. Trump is showcasing a type of conservatism that mainstream Republicans believed to be held at the fringes of the party and at odds with true conservatism, she added. And for some registered Republican voters, that has challenged how they identify with the party.