In the final tense days before Americans go to the polls to pick the nation’s next president, it’s natural to assume that a loss for Donald Trump would deliver a nasty blow to the party that picked him as its nominee. The Republican Party is already in crisis, with infighting over Trump and the party’s future; losing the presidency again, it stands to reason, would continue their downward spiral and could even lead to the party’s destruction.
But nothing could be further from the truth. Win or lose the presidency, there’s almost no chance of the party actually dissolving, as the video above shows. Even a landslide loss for the party in the Nov. 8 elections would not seriously hurt the GOP—and might even be good for it.
That’s because, contrary to what seems obvious, national elections aren’t actually a good reflection of a political party’s trajectory. “We have a tendency to see elections as being this pretty clear translation of popular sentiment,” Jacob Hacker, a political scientist at Yale, said, but that understanding “flies in the face of the way our system works.”
In other words, if Republicans lose big in this election, it doesn’t mean the country hates the GOP and what it stands for. That was how some incorrectly interpreted the 2008 election, when then-Senator Barack Obama led the Democrats to the presidency and a supermajority in the US Senate. Rather than respond to the new president’s “mandate,” Republicans simply dug in and opposed Obama at every turn. They were rewarded two years later with historical gains in Congress.
This could happen again, even if Trump loses by a large margin. This year’s Republican nominee has often been compared to Barry Goldwater, the GOP’s pick in 1964, who was nationally unpopular but beloved by the right wing of the party. He lost in a landslide. But reports of the GOP’s demise in 1964 were way overstated. In fact, Goldwater’s conservative ideas, which led to his demonization as an “extremist” in that election, went on to form the basis of a Republican party that dominated US politics for the next 40 years. Sixteen years after Goldwater’s election, Ronald Reagan became our first conservative president.
Jonathan Darman, author of Landslide: LBJ and Ronald Reagan at the Dawn of a New America, says that Reagan’s role in that election is key to understanding where the party’s future may lie. In 1964, Reagan wasn’t yet an established politician in the GOP, but as an ascendant conservative figure, he spoke memorably on Goldwater’s behalf, and learned from Goldwater’s mistakes to launch his own political career the next year. “The silver lining for Republicans,” Darman says, “is that there’s someone watching in this moment of party crackup and thinking, ‘what are all the pieces that are at work here and how can I stitch them together into something workable?’”
A Trump defeat could actually offer the Republican Party a long-needed opportunity to change. In winning the GOP nomination, Trump beat a stage full of candidates, even though (or more likely because) he was the sole candidate to depart from party orthodoxy on taxes, abortion, and gay rights in ways that previously got Republicans the “RINO” (Republican in Name Only) label. That he succeeded with GOP voters despite this suggests a weariness in the party with conservative dogma. If Trump’s candidacy leads to a loosening of orthodoxy in the party, it’ll make it easier, not harder, for Republican candidates to win future races.
This video was updated.