It’s been a particularly dramatic and contentious election year thus far, and the road to November still has many miles to go. With the turmoil of the national political campaigns pounded into our consciousness by a constant media assault featuring businessman, television personality and author Donald Trump, it should come as no surprise that at NAIOP’s annual National Forums Symposium, held the first week of May, the top government affairs topics on our members’ minds were the U.S. presidential race, the civil war in the Republican Party, and the predicted outcome of the election in November.
Adding to the intensity of this interest were the events occurring that very week: Trump won the Indiana primary, followed by Ted Cruz and John Kasich suspending their campaigns, making Donald Trump the presumptive GOP nominee. And before most NAIOP members had even left the meeting, Paul Ryan, the Republican Speaker of the House of Representatives, said he was not yet ready to support Trump as his party’s nominee for president.
In short, while the Democrats were having what many consider a more traditional party contest between the progressive and centrist wings of the party, expected eventually to unite, the Republicans seemed to be all over the political map with no clear unifying theme, other than opposition to Hillary Clinton, the presumptive Democratic nominee.
A general rule of thumb in presidential politics is that the party which is more unified at the time of its convention usually wins in November. So when trying to handicap the presidential race six months out, it helps to understand some of the reasons Republican party leaders, particularly Paul Ryan, may have to keep their distance from Trump.
The more cynical – Sarah Palin among them – assert that Ryan‘s motivation lies in his desire to run for President in 2020. But if that were the only reason, Ryan arguably would do better with Republican primary voters if he had immediately played the good soldier and immediately endorsed Trump after his Indiana primary win, assuming he would end up losing the general election anyway.
Actually, apart from any personal ambition, there are several good reasons Ryan would have to hold back his support for Trump. These include the survival of the House Republican majority, the viability of a conservative post-election legislative agenda, and the future direction of the GOP. Why is this the case? Specifically:
- Fear of a blowout election: Trump argues his brash style brings out more voters and will change the electorate to favor Republicans. However, there remains much skepticism as to whether that will be enough, in a general election, to overcome the advantage enjoyed by Democrats in the Electoral College. Because Trump is not running on a traditional Republican agenda identified with House conservatives, his appeal is personal, not policy-based. Some of his positions are contrary to some long-advocated by Republicans. There is fear that a Trump debacle would bring down Republicans who, while not with him on policy, have nevertheless been identified with him as their party’s nominee. Republicans hold 26 seats in districts won by President Obama in 2012, and 28 more which Mitt Romney barely won in 2012. Democrats are feverishly trying to tie all Republicans to Trump’s positions with the aim of regaining the majority in the House of Representatives.
- Survival of a Republican agenda post-election: Ryan has been leading an effort among House Republicans to develop a substantive policy agenda that could be released prior to the Republican convention, and that would serve to differentiate House Republicans from Trump. In a presidential election, where a political party is invariably identified with the party’s nominee, it is exceedingly difficult for down-ballot candidates to separate themselves from the top of the ticket. One purpose of a specific House Republican agenda would be to help those vulnerable Republican congressman who want to keep their distance from Trump to do so. But another important reason is to have a policy platform that Ryan could claim some measure of voter support in case the White House and the Senate are won by the Democratic Party. In other words, if Trump loses the presidency but House Republicans maintain their majority, then Speaker Ryan can say the election may have been a referendum on Trump, but not on Republican policies advocated by the House majority.
- Future direction of the GOP: Paul Ryan is a protégé of Jack Kemp, Republican congressman and 1996 vice presidential candidate who became known for advocating an optimistic, inclusive Republican party. Trump’s rhetoric is severely at odds with what Jack Kemp promoted in the GOP, and where Paul Ryan believes the Republican Party should go in terms of appealing to the electorate. Maintaining separation from Trump, if only temporarily, allows Ryan to highlight some of these difference in philosophy within the party.
- Practical Unification: At a press conference prior to his meeting with Trump, Ryan stated that “we shouldn’t just pretend our party is unified when we know it is not. We can’t fake it, we can’t pretend. We have to actually unify.” Arguably, immediately throwing his support behind Trump, when the historical record shows deep policy divisions among the Republican leadership as well as GOP voters, would have been ridiculed as insincere. From a tactical perspective, forcing Trump to acknowledge the differences among Republican factions by meeting with Ryan would give both an opening to move toward a more effective Republican message for the general election.
Aquiles Suarez is Vice President for Government Affairs at NAIOP.