How did Trump become the GOP nominee? Edsall cites Citizens United and media changes

In his weekly New York Times column, Thomas Edsall returns to the question of how we got Donald Trump as president. He ignores Hillary Clinton completely (her name is not mentioned) and he doesn’t focus much on the general election at all. Rather, he returns to the prior question: How did we get Donald Trump as the nominee of one of our two major parties?

Using his usual method of emailing scholars and other experts and insiders, Edsall’s starting point is that:

For four decades, from 1968 to 2008, what was loosely described as the Republican establishment — the party’s congressional leaders, campaign operatives, donors, lobbyists and special interests — reigned supreme.

At least the Republican establishment had veto power. And the establishment did not want Donald Trump to be its nominee. But the sources of its power over the nomination had declined dramatically. The establishment used to control most of the campaign money, for example, through campaign arms that were actually part of the Republican Party. But the Supreme Court’s “Citizens United” ruling broke that grip. Writes Edsall:

This becomes glaringly apparent in a comparison of the pattern of fund-raising in 2008, the last election before the Citizens United decision, to the pattern in 2016. In the 2008 election, the three major Republican campaign committees raised a total of $657.6 million, six times the $111.9 million spent by nonparty conservative organizations.

By 2016, however, the amount raised by the three Republican committees stagnated at $652.4 million, while the cash raised by conservative groups grew sevenfold to $810.4 million.

In practical terms, the creation of a new and massive source of campaign support freed candidates to defy the establishment. This is just what the Tea Party did in 2010 and 2014.

The importance of campaign spending also changed, because of changes in the ways Americans get information in the internet age.

Changes in the media environment during that same four-decade span were huge. Edsall quotes Michael Tanner of the Cato Institute, who wrote to him:

“The establishment, such as it is, still exists, but its influence has been permanently weakened by changes in the media,” not just by conservative media, but by social media that “enables candidates to reach their respective bases in an inexpensive way. Endorsements and money mean less and less.”

Ideological media outlets on both the left and right, Tanner argues, “carry more weight than ever before,” displacing establishment influence over candidate selection, because both sides are now more dependent on mobilizing base voters than in persuading the ever-smaller faction of uncommitted voters.

The GOP establishment, even when it had been in control, naturally wanted to expand its electorate so it could win more elections. The white working class had been in its sights for several cycles. And their wish came true.

Scott Keeter of Pew Research tells Edsall that “non-college white voters cast a solid majority — 62.7 percent — of all the votes Trump received in the 2016 election. “

That was unprecedented. Trump as the nominee was, in some sense, the price the GOP paid for turning those working class whites into Republican voters.

Is this going to be the new normal? I don’t claim to know, and Edsall doesn’t exactly say. But for some reasons mentioned above, and plenty more that Edsall explores, there are things about the old normal that will never come back.

Edsall ends with a quote from a Republican strategist who wasn’t willing to be named:

The post-Trump world is a Humpty Dumpty story. No one is going to be able to put things back together again.

Read the full Edsall column here.

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Comments (6)

  1. Submitted by Paul Brandon on 04/26/2018 - 02:39 pm.

    We will know in November

    whether there has been a sea change in the body politic, or a flippy blippy outlier.
    Right now, all we have is speculation.

  2. Submitted by Neal Rovick on 04/26/2018 - 05:59 pm.

    The whole mainstream political sphere has drifted rightward over the decades in response to a continuous pressure campaign by the wealthy and powerful to dimish the effectiveness of a government that could limit their freedom to maximize their power and money. After all, what has democracy ever done for the wealthy and powerful ? They don’t need its protections. In the service of ginning up the votes for their agenda, a whole range of hot-button potporri of social agenda items were brought into the mix by the GOP. These issues brought in the votes that could be used to overturn effective government. The Democratic party also drifted rightward in rsponse to successful GOP campigns. The further the Democratic party moved to the right, the further right the GOP needed to go to maintain the distinction. The rightward movement ultimately pushed the Republican base in the land of make-believe where they presently exist.

    And Trump is the guy who is as untethered to reality as the majoity of his party. He is the natural result of the increasing disconnect from reality.

  3. Submitted by Connie Sullivan on 04/27/2018 - 02:44 pm.

    The first problem with Edsall’s column is that he is looking at the Trump phenomenon only from a Republican point of view, and thus he gets lots of things wrong.

    Glaringly, there is the HUGE internal contradiction of complaining about outside-the-party big money in campaigns, which he says has increased eleven-fold, but then saying that it is social media–not TV ads or other big-money expenditures–that meant the election of Trump. If social media costs almost nothing, what does big money have to do with anything anymore?

    There is also a from-the-right-only electoral statistic that’s just wrong: Edsall says that 63% of Trump’s voters were white working class voters. But he doesn’t want to tell the whole truth, which would involve a statistic about what percentage of working-class white voters voted for Clinton or for Trump: they went hugely for Hillary! Yeah I was surprised to read that, too! Admitting that fact would emphasize that the larger public is still interested in Democratic principles and goals, rather than the conservative inner struggles.

    Right-wing media like Fox and Breitbart, etc., have coarsened our political discourse and demolished the concept of media truthfulness, but we can’t let the mainstream media off the hook: I remember 2016 when Trump got hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of free campaign “ads” with the TV coverage–and subsequent newspaper and magazine coverage–of his every move .It was Trump rallies and Trup free interviews all over the television, all the time. It drove me mad to see how Trump played the media that way, and even Trump bragged about his campaign not costing him much, because of that free TV. The TV huckter did his con job and they let hm, for ratings.

    Etc. Let’s not take our eye off the electoral ball as much as Edsall would like us to, by focusing just on the poor Republican party losing its strength as influencer of the electorate. Republicans are today a minority of Americans, and what Democratic candidates need to do is BE Democrats, telling the voters confidently about programs that will help people, and get out that Democratic vote.

  4. Submitted by Dennis Wagner on 04/28/2018 - 09:34 am.

    Citizens United

    Legalized political bribery, isn’t that exactly what Mick Mulvaney crowed about this last week? The Robert’s court will best be remembered for putting as much money and corruption back into our government as possible, and using unfounded convoluted logic just like “T”. Today “T” is saying a Senator should resign for his remarks about the recent VA candidate, Ironic, those remarks are not dissimilar to the daily tweets, as well as his entire campaign. The new media, as others have noted, allows multi unchecked 1/2 truths to flow through the ether as though they are cut form whole cloth, and as Brennan would say, we now have a immoral president, willing to play on folks fears and ignorance which appears to support the voting demographics, un willing to ask the 2nd and 3rd questions. Irrational conclusions ginned up to twist the very fabric of America to ones own personal self aggrandizement, From this perspective the Republican establishment has tried to maintain a cloak of decency, but “T” tore that off and exposed the true ugliness the party has become, a more or less mirror image of the Russian Oligarch machine. We find ourselves in a very ugly situation, not possible to have rationale discussions with irrational people, and a immoral “T” preaching irrational doctrine as rationale, sorry folks, seems the “world at least for now really is flat! As a by line: The MN State Senate just voted along party lines to make it illegal to teach critical thinking in school, ie. chose your side of a topic and defend it. Up with ignorance, down with intellectual discussion.

    • Submitted by Frank Phelan on 04/30/2018 - 07:31 am.

      Balls & Strikes

      At his confirmation hearing, Roberts said he doesn’t make law, just calls balls & strikes, a sop to the idea that only those nasty activis tliberal judges “make legislate from the bench”.

      Just a few years later came the Citizens United ruling, when the extremist, activist conservative judges legislated from the bench by overturning a part of the law that neither party to the suit even mentioned, and opening the flood gates for the likes of the De Vos family and Shelly Adelson.

      Oh, but it’s only those liberal judges that cause all of the problems.

      Balls & strikes my… uh… my eye.

  5. Submitted by Tom Christensen on 04/29/2018 - 03:30 pm.

    Elections have consequences

    When we have an electorate that doesn’t pay attention, Trump is what we get. Hillary had many qualifications beyond what Trump has but she can be grating and is a poor campaigner. Some are suggesting that Trump should be impeached. I’m riding the fence on this one. I would love to see Trump out of there ASAP, but then I think the public needs to pay the price for the error they made electing Trump. Trump has done a lot, wait for it, to damage America and nothing to move us forward. The consummate liar has made it so we don’t know what the truth is. It is brain numbing to try and keep up with what is the truth, and his demeaning of anything that doesn’t serve him has weakened America. World wide he has made himself a spectacle not becoming of an American. When Trump leaves as President, is impeached, or leaves as a criminal it will take time for America to undo the damage he has done. Congress needs a bill that requires every presidential candidate to pass a rigorous mental health evaluation before they can run, so another Trump can’t ever happen again. Trump and GWB are two of the Republican Party’s best who have proved elections have consequences.

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