Throughout the 2012 Republican Presidential Primaries, journalists derided Mitt Romney as an unpopular and unlikable candidate. With Romney’s poll numbers hovering around 25 percent, New York Magazine contributor Frank Rich predicted the formation of a “Molotov Party.” This group would, metaphorically, blow up the Republican Party in order to get someone other than the establishment-endorsed Mitt Romney. Republicans were fed up with the “status quo,” he believed, and would choose anyone over the bland insider.
Rich was four years too early.
In their much discussed 2008 work, Marty Cohen, David Karol, Hans Noel, and John Zaller taught us that the party decides the nominee. This convention held true in 2012. Romney was endorsed by the Republican Party elite. Even if he was not their first choice ideologically, party elites believed Romney was the most electable candidate. Through endorsements, donations, and discouragement of other strong candidates during the so-called invisible primary, the party was able to ensure that Romney won the nomination.
This year the Republican Party’s control has loosened.
Jeb Bush was the party’s choice. He was a known, if uninspiring, candidate—just like Romney. He had an easy time raising money and endorsements at the beginning of the race. As he faltered, other candidates took his place as establishment favorites. But Marco Rubio, whom Noel pointed to as a happy compromise for the party, also failed to win the nomination.
Why did this happen? John Sides and Lynn Vavreck, the authors of a tome on the 2012 presidential election, would say that the media plays a role in making or breaking a candidate. As media coverage ebbs and flows during the primary season, new candidates will emerge and decline. In contrast, Romney and Trump both had high name recognition and consistent coverage, which helped them carry through the primary season. For Romney, this steady coverage resulted from his status as a major political figure; for Trump it was, presumably, because he garnered high ratings. (I know I was more eager to watch Trump’s latest outrageous comments than Ben Carson’s soporific speeches or Rubio’s puppy-dog-eyed eagerness.)
Rich would tell us that the majority of Republicans are still tired of the status quo; perhaps the party has not done enough to accommodate the disgruntled, blue-collar workers who make up a sizable portion of its base. Additionally, the increased polarization inside the Republican Party on multiple issue dimensions, as discussed by Geoffrey Layman and his colleagues in “Activists and Conflict Extension,” has been exacerbated by the incorporation of new groups—such as the Tea Party—into the Republican Party.
Trump’s candidacy has thrown a proverbial molotov cocktail into the Republican Party.
If Trump wins the presidency, the party will rally around him. By doing so, it will reshape itself to his and his followers’ ideals, as Kathleen Bawn, Seth Masket, and the Party Decides team might predict. This restructuring could convince moderate Republicans to form a new party to contest Trump’s Republicans, causing a permanent split between the diverse interest groups that make up the Republican Party. If Trump loses, the party will still face the chaos that it has created for itself and be forced to decide which of Trump’s populist ideals to incorporate and which to discard. Whatever the outcome in November, the Republican Party post-election will look different than it did pre-Trump.