KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:
If the biggest political story this year is the rise of Donald Trump, then the second-biggest is probably what's happening inside the Republican Party. We're going to dig into that with NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson. Hi, Mara.
MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Hi.
MCEVERS: So you have of course been covering this all year. You've been talking to a lot of Republicans. What is happening in this party?
LIASSON: The party is being ripped apart. It's been in an existential crisis all year. No Republican I have talked to says the party will be the same after this election regardless of whether Donald Trump wins or not. And Republicans are trying to figure out what kind of party they are. Are they an anti-immigrant, anti-free trade, white nationalist party like you see in Europe? Or are they something else? They have to decide what the Republican Party stands for.
You know, the old bedrock principles of Republicanism and conservatism, free trade, small government, a strong American presence abroad - all of those things are things that Donald Trump really threw out the window this year.
MCEVERS: Yeah, in what specifically has Trump and his candidacy already remade this party?
LIASSON: I think win or lose, he's accelerated changes that were already happening inside the GOP. The party was already becoming relatively more white, working-class, non-college educated. The most striking thing I think is that Trump showed how poorly the Republican establishment understood their own base voters. They thought their base voters were ideological conservatives - wrong.
They were voters who thought the system was rigged against them and they were getting a raw deal from immigrants or Wall Street or from the elites. And Trump spoke for them in a way that nobody else did, they thought. And of all the villains that Trump has railed against this year, the GOP establishment may be number one.
MCEVERS: As you say, Trump's base has largely been white men, especially the working class and people without a college degree. Have we been ignoring this demographic?
LIASSON: I think there's a case to be made that the media has been ignoring it. The GOP establishment has been taking them for granted. Even though they are a shrinking demographic, Donald Trump is winning this group by about 2 to 1, a much bigger margin than Mitt Romney did. They are the key to his victory tonight. If he can get one, he needs them to turn out in historic numbers.
But the problem for Trump is as he adds in one demographic column - white, working-class voters - he subtracts in others. He's been repelling suburban women and minorities and college-educated voters, white voters, and that's made his path so difficult.
MCEVERS: Between the Never Trump Republicans and Trump's biggest supporters, this debate about the future of the party has already started. How's that going to play out after tonight?
LIASSON: It's going to be ugly I think. Republicans I talk to describe it with the following words - scapegoating, soul searching, circular firing squad, civil war. I mean it's really going to be intense. I think if Donald Trump wins, he remakes the party in his own image. If he loses, the first step is Republicans have to figure out, what are the lessons of 2016?
They can't even - they will have to agree on whose fault it is. There's already a raging debate about that. Never Trumpers will say this was a winnable election; anybody but Trump could have beaten Hillary Clinton. And if he loses, Trump supporters will say they were betrayed by Republicans who wouldn't support their own nominee. And one - the only thing right now that I think unites Republicans is their intense animus to Hillary Clinton.
MCEVERS: Right. And what will Trump do personally in either scenario, and how could that affect things for the party?
LIASSON: That's a big question, and it's a really important factor. Will he do what other failed presidential nominees have done and kind of fade away, go back to selling luxury condos and golf clubs or - golf club memberships? Or will he use his big megaphone, his millions of followers to become the leader of the resistance, the resistance to Hillary Clinton, to the mainstream media, to the establishment in every form?
I think if he does want to remain a player, he can, and he will complicate the post-election identity crisis of the Republican Party if he does.
MCEVERS: That's NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson. Thanks as always.
LIASSON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.