The purpose of this blog is to look at the Republican Party’s traditionally fragmented party, which Nick Silver has described as “tribal.” I think this is an accurate description. Below I detail the more tense elections, and by doing so, perhaps we can consider together if the 2016 Republican Party is any worse off than it has been before.
The Republican Party of 1872-1884
These four elections saw a long-drawn out battle between two Republican factions: Stalwarts and Half-Breeds. The Stalwarts, for the most part, were opposed to civil service reform, favoring political machines and the spoils system (party loyalty over merit). The Half-Breeds aimed for civil service reform and favored appointments based on merit. Both parties also disagreed over government intervention in the recently defeated South, especially in enforcing civil rights and voting rights for African-Americans. The Stalwarts, while turning a blind eye to corruption, were generally more inclined to use government muscle to ensure African-American equality, while the Half-Breeds were aiming to win over white Southern supporters.
In 1872, dissatisfied Republicans were numerable enough that they created the Liberal Republicans to oppose Grant’s reelection. Even with Democratic support, Grant was able to win fairly easily. In 1876 and 1880, neither wing of the party was able to secure the nomination, so they had to settle for compromise choices that favored reform, but were also acceptable to the Stalwarts. In every case, civil service reform was slow coming. In 1884, the leader of the Half-Breeds, James G. Blaine, was nominated, but the party had failed with true reform in so many election, that numerous leading Republicans supported and endorsed Democratic candidate Grover Cleveland, who seemed more likely to bring reform. Cleveland was the first elected Democrat in nearly three decades.
This election proved the necessity of the primaries in every state. Incumbent president William Howard Taft, who had originally run on a Roosevelt progressive platform, turned more and more conservative throughout his presidency. As such, Theodore Roosevelt and Robert La Follette, two leading progressive Republicans, attempted to block Taft’s nomination.
Both Progressives, Roosevelt and La Follette were of two differing varieties. Roosevelt aimed for a nationalistic, strong government progressivism, while La Follette believed that progressive policies must be conducted at the state level, since he believed each state would be better able to adopt progressive policies that best fit their individual states.
Roosevelt won nine of the primaries, while La Follette and Taft each won two states. Roosevelt captured over 51% of the total primary vote. However, most of the states still didn’t have primaries, and Taft had the support of the more conservative establishment. When the convention came, Taft swept the remaining delegates, soundly defeating the popular Roosevelt. As such, Roosevelt ran as a 3rd party, but without fellow progressive Republican La Follette’s support, since he felt Roosevelt stole his progressive voters. The split party handed the election to Democrat Woodrow Wilson.
In 1916, Roosevelt was expected to run for president again, possibly as a 3rd party, but he found moderate progressive Charles Evans Hughes acceptable.
While fragmented, the establishment Republicans were so popular that the party won without a portion of its usual support. The Republicans had elected a conservative Republican in 1920 under Warren G. Harding. In 1924, his successor, Calvin Coolidge, ran for reelection. He was arguably the most conservative president since Grover Cleveland, and he would be the most conservative president until arguably Ronald Reagan.
With Coolidge’s nomination assured, and the Democrats also nominating a conservative under John W. Davis, progressive hadn’t a candidate of their own. This allowed perennial candidate Robert La Follette to run as an independent progressive 3rd party.
Since the economy was booming, voters weren’t will to risk prosperity for a new kind of candidate. La Follette managed only 16% of the vote, winning only his home state of Wisconsin. This election is generally called the “High Tide of Conservatism,” since nearly 83% of Americans voted for a conservative candidate.
The fragmentation in this election had more to do with the impossible task of facing an unstoppable incumbent president, even if the candidate was breaking tradition by aiming for a 3rd term.
None of the major candidates were willing to run for president, since a landslide defeat could be potentially ruinous to a political career. During the primaries, only one candidate moved beyond a “Favorite Son” candidate. 38-year-old attorney Thomas Dewey, won five primaries, mainly uncontested.
The divisive issues in this election can be narrowed down to two: intervention into World War II and FDR’s New Deal programs. The party conservatives, lead by relatively new Senator Robert Taft, son of William Howard Taft, were isolationists and opposed to the New Deal. Moderate and liberal Republicans generally supported some level of intervention, as well as at least portions of the New Deal. Thomas Dewey was one of this moderates.
However, with World War II blazing across Europe, Dewey’s total lack of foreign policy irked delegates at the Republican convention. Conservatives threw their support behind Taft, and moderates and liberals shifted over to businessman Wendell Wilkie, who favored sending aid to the Allies. Wilkie, like Dewey, didn’t have political experience, but he was older than Dewey, was a good businessman, and had a foreign policy plan. As a former Democrat who had supported FDR’s New Deal, he also seemed more likely than a conservative to win over lukewarm FDR supporters.
Meanwhile, Taft conservatives, who had worked ferociously to block a Wilkie nomination, ultimately gave in to the Wilkie nomination. Had the Republicans a shot at winning in 1940, it seems possible that the conservative Republicans could have turned self-destructive.
Heading into the election, moderate Republican Nelson Rockefeller was the front runner. Barry Goldwater, who was something of an heir to the Taft conservatives, was the primary challenger. Former president Eisenhower tried to push Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr. to run as a compromise choice.
Rockefeller, for the most part would seem comparable to a Democrat today. Goldwater is somewhat similar to Ted Cruz. His limited government philosophy was such that he was one of the few Republicans that opposed the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Goldwater was able to achieve victory through the primaries, partially because Rockefeller was labeled as a “wife stealer” when it was revealed that Rockefeller’s new wife had recently divorced her previous husband before marrying Rockefeller.
The convention in 1964 is considered one of the most bitter on record. Rockefeller was booed and yelled at throughout his speech. Goldwater’s speech continued the insult against the moderate Republicans with, “I would remind you that extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice. And let me remind you also that moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.”
It appears many Republicans sat this election out, or voted for LBJ, considered Goldwater’s landslide defeat.
On his third attempt at the presidency, Ronald Reagan, the heir to the Taft-Goldwater conservative wing, was the front runner early on. The establishment of the party, while still composed primarily of moderates, was quickly losing ground to the conservatives, many of them former Southern Democrats.
Unhappy moderates who were unwilling to support Reagan, or jump over to the Democrats, rallied around the candidacy of independent Republican John Anderson. Unfortunately, like La Follette’s 1924 3rd party campaign, Anderson was unable to dent Reagan’s popularity, as some Democrats even supported Reagan.
The 2016 election looked as if it could have turned into a repeat of a 1912-type scenario. However, Trump hasn’t the favorability that Roosevelt has. In fact, Trump has won the nomination with extremely low favorability ratings. In this election the party was significantly split. The 2016 party is yet to promise such a split. It should be noted that while the party did split in 1912, it reunified rather quickly, with Roosevelt’s endorsement of the 1916 nominee.
This leaves two election as close comparisons: 1884 and 1964.
In 1884, the Republican Party lost many supporters to the Democrats, but Blaine wasn’t terribly divisive. The party was the problem, and not the candidate. The people waited for reform, and reform never came. So, the people moved to the Democrats. Thus, while some Republicans are vowing to vote for Clinton or Sanders, they are doing so because of the specific candidate, and not the party. Trump doesn’t reflect the party. He reflects a person. Therefore, the party may have been in a worse situation in 1884, than it is in 2016, since the establishment of today can disavow Trump, let him lose to Clinton in a landslide, and then go back to establishment candidates in 2020.
1964, may be closer to the 2016 election. A freak conservative candidate steamrolls over better-able establishment candidates in an effort to be the candidate to face a successful incumbent party. Moderate Republicans went with LBJ or stayed out, but they did not destroy the party, they waited for Nixon in 1968. I can see a similar situation in 2020.
We still have six months of election. I would say the 2016 is, therefore, at least the third most divisive election for the Republican Party. In my opinion 1912 and 1884 were potentially worse, and 1964 is tied with 2016. However, there is still time for Trump to kill the party of Lincoln.
I would like to know your opinion on all of this.