A government shutdown that most Americans oppose, on behalf of a border wall that most Americans oppose, might be the logical end point for a president and a political party that appears more and more unconcerned about attracting support from a majority of the public.
Donald Trump’s decision to precipitate a government shutdown over his demands for money to build a border wall, and the virtual absence of congressional GOP resistance to his approach, shows how comfortable the president and the broader Republican Party around him have grown in pursuing goals that face majority opposition in polls—so long as they retain the backing of their core supporters.
Attracting and sustaining majority support has traditionally represented a North Star for American presidents. The showdown over the shutdown, perhaps more than any earlier decision, makes clear that Trump is setting his course by a very different compass. Trump has abandoned any pretense of seeking to represent majority opinion and is defining himself almost entirely as the leader of a minority faction.
That carries big long-term risks for the GOP, as the Democratic gains in the House last November demonstrated. But because the structure of the Senate and the Electoral College disproportionately favors the older, non-college-educated, evangelical, and rural white voters who comprise his faction, Trump’s approach could sustain itself for years. And that promises a steady escalation in political conflict and polarization as Republicans tilt their strategy toward the demands of an ardent minority—and lose the moderating influence of attempts to hold support from a majority of Americans.
Over the past 20 years, energizing the base has grown more important in both parties. In retrospect, the turning point might have been 1998, when Republicans in the House of Representatives voted to impeach then-President Bill Clinton at a time when most Republican partisans supported the move but a preponderance of all Americans opposed it. George W. Bush consistently pursued goals, such as his second tax cut, that attracted virtually no Democratic support. Barack Obama passed the Affordable Care Act without a single Republican vote at a time when polls generally showed that, at best, only a narrow plurality of Americans supported the law.
But Trump has taken this concentration on his base supporters to unprecedented heights. Elected with only 46 percent of the popular vote, he is now the first president in the history of Gallup polling to never reach majority approval of his job performance during his first two years. In November’s midterm election, Trump’s approval rating among voters stood at 45 percent, with 54 percent disapproving. Attitudes about Trump almost completely correlated with the vote in House races: Republicans carried 44.8 percent of the total House popular vote, while Democrats carried 53.4 percent. The Democratic votes helped the party capture 40 seats, their biggest gain since the Watergate-era election of 1974.
Trump’s decision to shut down the government over the wall, and the widespread Republican acquiescence that followed, is especially revealing because it came in response to those losses. The GOP was decimated in white-collar suburban districts largely because swing voters who broke narrowly for Trump in 2016—particularly independents and college-educated whites—stampeded toward the Democrats.
That historic rout, centered in economically thriving places Democrats have rarely if ever won before, has understandably set off alarms among Republican strategists and consultants. “I can assure you there is a huge focus on what happened in suburbia: What happened between I-5 [on the West Coast] and I-95 [on the East Coast],” the Republican pollster Gene Ulm told me. “Nobody has missed that fact. That’s not lost on anybody.”
The small exception to that consensus might be Trump and the GOP leadership in the House and the Senate. Because in precipitating a shutdown over the wall, they have embraced a cause deeply unpopular with all of the groups that drove the Democratic gains in suburbia last fall.
In the latest round of national polls, at least 55 percent, and sometimes as high as 59 percent, of independents have said they oppose the wall. Opposition to the wall among college-educated whites has ranged from just over half, in the latest Quinnipiac University and ABC/Washington Post surveys, to 63 percent, in recent polls from the Pew Research Center and CNN. Resistance to the wall consistently runs above 60 percent among the Millennial and minority voters who also broke decisively toward Democrats in November.
In all, no recent survey has found that more than 43 percent of Americans support the wall. That suggests that, as with his overall job performance, Trump has made virtually no progress in broadening his audience since his election: In the exit poll on Election Day 2016, 41 percent of voters said they supported a border wall.
The shutdown is even less popular: In a PBS/Marist poll released Wednesday, 70 percent rejected closing the government to advance a particular policy goal, as Trump has. And by a consistent margin of about 25 percentage points, more Americans blame Trump than congressional Democrats for the impasse, according to roughly a half-dozen recent surveys. Trump’s overall approval rating has fallen to 37 percent in the latest surveys from CNN, Gallup, and Pew, and registered slightly above that in Quinnipiac’s poll.
The Democratic pollster Mark Mellman told me that throughout American history, it hasn’t been unusual for the political system to bottle up policies that most Americans support. One modern example is universal background checks for gun sales. Less typical, he said, is for political leaders to insist on driving through an idea, such as the border wall, that most Americans have clearly indicated they reject. “It’s mind-boggling to me that the whole Republican Party, with a couple of exceptions, has gone along with closing the government to spend money on something most people oppose,” he said.
The most striking aspect of the shutdown might not be Trump’s indifference to majority opinion: He’s demonstrated over and over that he is comfortable playing on the short side of the field so long as his core supporters are energized. Instead, this confrontation might be remembered as the moment that crystallized how much of the Republican Party shares his disregard about appealing to a national majority. As Mellman noted, only a handful of Republicans in either chamber have broken from Trump’s shutdown strategy so far, and even they have dissented only gently.
That hesitance might reflect several factors, including Republicans’ fear of generating a primary challenge by challenging Trump. But even more important might be the extent to which the GOP is now sheltered from the implications of majority opinion. Especially under Trump, the Republican Party is folding in on itself. It is growing more and more dependent on its core supporters and more reliant in both the House and Senate on strongly Republican areas where those voters predominate.
Just three House Republicans (Brian Fitzpatrick in Pennsylvania, John Katko in New York, and Will Hurd in Texas) represent districts that voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016. Even more strikingly, just two House Republicans (Mario Diaz-Balart in Florida and Don Bacon in Nebraska) are left in districts that Trump carried by fewer than 5 percentage points, according to figures provided by TargetSmart, a Democratic voter-targeting firm. After the party’s suburban wipeout in November, more than 85 percent of House Republicans now represent districts that are whiter than the national average, and more than 75 percent hold seats with fewer college graduates than average, according to census figures.
In the Senate, just two Republicans are left in the 20 states that voted for Clinton over Trump in 2016: Susan Collins of Maine and Cory Gardner of Colorado, both of whom face reelection in 2020. Just five other Republicans hold Senate seats in states that backed Trump in 2016 but have voted Democratic in most presidential elections since 1992.
The remaining GOP senators represent states that have voted Republican in most of the past seven elections. And fully 44 of the 53 total Republican senators were sent to Washington by states that have voted for the GOP at least five times in the past seven elections. That orients the bulk of GOP senators toward the opinion of partisan Republicans—most of whom support the wall and using a shutdown to pursue it—rather than the nation overall.
This narrow focus is self-reinforcing, because it virtually ensures that Republicans will continue to retreat from places where the Trump coalition can’t win. Not long ago, Colorado was a swing state. But in November, fueled by a powerful backlash against Trump among independent voters and high turnout among Millennials, Democrats won every statewide office for the first time since 1936 and captured both chambers of the state legislature. “The only thing comparable was the Watergate election of 1974, but even that wasn’t as bad, because we retained one statewide office and a one-vote majority in the state Senate,” says Dick Wadhams, the former state GOP chair. “So this was even more sweeping than Watergate.”
Wadhams says he can imagine a scenario where Republicans recover in Colorado for 2020 if Democrats pick a presidential nominee too liberal for the state’s swing voters. But he sees no signs that Trump will expand the coalition supporting him or the GOP in the state. Trump’s focus on satisfying a distinct minority, Wadhams says, “is problematic with a state like Colorado, with the kind of electorate we have, the dynamic electorate we have, the huge numbers of people who are moving here.”
John Thomas, a Republican consultant who works in Orange County, California—where the GOP was swept in last year’s House races—takes a similar view. He sees several dynamics that could allow Republicans to recover in the longtime conservative bastion in 2020, including overreach by House Democrats, especially on spending, and less intense fundraising from donors for House races during a presidential year. But he concedes that none of those factors might matter much if Trump continues to alienate the region’s diverse and well-educated voters. It “really comes down to, What do you think about Trump?” Thomas says.
Winning without majority support is becoming a way of life for the GOP. Republican presidential candidates (Bush in 2000 and Trump in 2016) have won the Electoral College despite losing the popular vote in two of the past five presidential elections, after the country had experienced such a split only three times in the previous 200-odd years. Everything Trump has done in office—and especially with the shutdown—suggests that he’s comfortable trying to squeeze out another Electoral College victory without winning the popular vote. And given the GOP’s continued erosion in blue California, and the Democrats’ growing competitiveness in red-leaning Texas, the odds of Trump winning the popular vote in 2020, even if he is reelected, seem very small, according to many experts in both parties.
In the Senate, the GOP’s reliance on small states less touched by demographic and cultural change has allowed it to hold most seats even if it doesn’t win most votes nationwide. (One comprehensive recent study found that 2017 was the first time in the chamber’s history that the senators who approved passed legislation and nominations represented less than half of the country’s population.) Even in the House, gerrymandering and the concentration of Democratic voters in large urban areas has muffled the GOP’s exposure to national opinion, though the party’s collapse in suburbia overwhelmed those defenses last fall.
The extended stalemate over the shutdown, despite the clear signals from polls, offers a powerful gauge of how much more turbulent politics might become if the GOP concern about majority opinion continues to dwindle. And the more Republicans sublimate that opinion to efforts to mobilize their base, the more pressure will grow from Democrats who want their party to follow the same model the next time it holds the White House. Trump is demonstrating how quickly extremism can flourish once a president abandons even the aspiration of representing a majority of Americans. The shutdown is unlikely to provide the last, or even the most damaging, example of where that can lead.
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