The GOP Establishment Really, Really Would Have Preferred Ryan Over Trump

May 13, 2016
Originally published on May 13, 2016 1:16 pm

Almost no one saw Donald Trump coming a year ago, it seems. And there's all sorts of finger-pointing as to why: Journalists blew it. Or maybe it was political scientists' fault.

But there's one big reason why so many smart people overlooked him: He's the opposite of what many of the loudest voices in the Republican Party said they wanted.

Last year, GOP pollster Whit Ayres famously laid out what the party would need to win the White House in 2016 and Beyond. In particular, Ayres' data-heavy book focused on the nation's demographics, insisting that the party had to win over nonwhites, and particularly Hispanics. Perhaps unsurprisingly, his conclusions in several ways mirrored what the GOP laid out in its 2013 "autopsy": The party needed to change with a changing America, reaching out in particular to minorities, young people and women. (It's one reason Ayres eventually backed Marco Rubio — for his potential for broader appeal.)

The candidate the GOP is nominating doesn't meet those criteria. In fact, he underperforms among all of those groups. But while Beltway insiders crafted their recommendations, more than 10 million primary voters doused those recommendations in lighter fluid, threw a match and walked away in slow motion, with Carmina Burana playing in the background.

So we decided to see how far off the voters were from the GOP insiders. Fortunately, Ayres created the easiest way to count this up — an eight-point checklist. Here's what he thought a successful presidential candidate would need in 2016, based on what he saw as the party's weaknesses after 2012 and the nation's changing demographics:

  1. Is the candidate positive, hopeful and optimistic?
  2. Does the candidate hold, or has he or she recently held, major political office?
  3. Does the candidate offer a specific and persuasive agenda to appeal to the economic anxieties of the middle class?
  4. Does the candidate appeal to Hispanics and other minority voters?
  5. Does the candidate appeal to blue-collar white voters?
  6. Does the candidate appeal to young people?
  7. Can the candidate win critical swing states, especially those where Republicans hold major statewide office?
  8. Can the candidate unite the various factions of the Republican coalition?

NPR scored the final three (Ted Cruz, John Kasich, Trump), plus a couple of this cycle's former strong contenders (Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio), as well as two dark horses whose names popped up during the nominating fight (Paul Ryan, Mitt Romney).

(We also attempted to score two other dark horses who occasionally were mentioned as candidates — Condoleezza Rice and Nikki Haley — but given their lack of national-level polling data and stated policy positions in some areas, we ended up with too many blanks.)

Using a simple scoring system involving polls and expert opinions, we tried to answer each of these questions for each selected candidate, except No. 7 (gaming out which of these people could hypothetically win swing states is just too hard to do reliably). On each one, the candidates received a score between -1 and 1.

Here are their scores:

(For an explanation of how we did this, scroll down to the "Methodology" section.)

It's a rough calculation, but there are a few important takeaways here:

1) The candidates who scored the worst also did best in the primaries.

Trump and, to a lesser extent, Cruz failed to meet the criteria Ayres (and, in many cases, the GOP) thought a successful general-election candidate would need in 2016.

Meanwhile, Ryan, who didn't even run, does by far the best, scoring a total of 3 points. He's followed closely by John Kasich, at 1.75 points, who won only his home state.

(One caveat here is that Ryan hasn't sustained the negative attacks that this year's GOP contenders have — which could bring down his poll numbers. But at the very least, even had Ryan somehow performed poorly among all three groups in this analysis, he still would have beat Cruz and Trump here.)

To be clear, none of this is to say that the GOP primary voters were wrong. They picked who they wanted.

But their ideas of what they wanted were very different from the party's, for better or worse, from the party's point of view (more on that later).

2) These criteria were just a baseline.

Rubio did relatively well here. And he also flamed out after Chris Christie embarrassed him at a February debate, calling out Rubio's constant repetition of one particular talking point. After that, Rubio drew still more criticism for joking about the size of Donald Trump's, er, hands.

The point is that someone could have performed well here and still have had big problems as a candidate. Despite barrels of superPAC money, Bush excited very few voters. Despite being a well-liked, swing-state governor, Kasich never really caught fire.

The point is that the ability to connect with voters is a necessary — maybe the most necessary (and unspoken) — item on any general-election checklist. And this year, that may have meant this checklist was incomplete, as voters also seemed to demand a candidate who openly, actively despised the Washington establishment.

3) There's a difference between the primaries and the general election.

To reiterate, this is a general election checklist, as Ayres framed it. This is what he thought the party would need to appeal to a wider swath of voters than GOP primary voters. Unfortunately for the GOP, the two are at odds. Winning more women, Hispanics and young voters, everyone seemed to agree, was necessary to beating whomever the Democrats might nominate.

But those aren't exactly the keys to winning the GOP nomination fight. The primary electorate, for example, is almost entirely white. Any presidential candidate has to win first the one group, then the other. The GOP's problem right now is that while winning the nomination, its de facto candidate staked out positions (deporting 11 million immigrants, punishing women for getting abortions) that could scare off those constituencies the party thinks it needs.

4) Establishment, meet actual voters. Voters, meet establishment.

Maybe the clearest, punch-you-in-the-face message here: The GOP establishment and primary electorate were fantastically disconnected from one another.

The party took a cold, clear-eyed look at its failings after 2008 and 2012, then looked over the nation's demographics, and put two and two together: Something needed to change. Strategists decided they needed to rethink their outreach and, to an extent, change their very policies in order to appeal to a fast-changing (and, they feared, steadily slipping away) electorate.

The problem is that many Republican voters, distrustful of all things Beltway and increasingly hostile toward Democrats, didn't want (or believe) cold and clear-eyed. Their final two candidates, Trump and Cruz, also scored the worst on these criteria.

It's not that Republicans' recommendations were grounded in fantasy. Demographics are changing. The party would do well to move further beyond older, white voters. And given all that, there is another intriguing possibility here:

4.5) The GOP establishment may have been right on emphasis, wrong on execution.

The establishment seemed to think the party needed a softer, more approachable face in 2016. Consider the GOP's giant subhead in its autopsy: "Some people say, 'Republicans Don't Care,' " or Ayres' call for a "positive" candidate whose attitude offered "more grace, less condemnation."

Trump doesn't project a warm, fuzzy, caring persona. But there is more than one way to show voters you care.

One — the one that the GOP and Ayres appear to have been talking about — is perhaps best exemplified in Kasich's Ohio victory speech: "We are leaving no one behind, not the mentally ill, the drug addicted, the working poor."

Trump picked a different way to show that he cared: He got pissed off. So for all his bluster, voters just might see empathy in Donald Trump: "I am very angry because our country is being run horribly, and I will gladly accept the mantle of anger," he said. It's a tactic that didn't pop up in many post-2012 analyses, but it sure has worked.

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METHODOLOGY

All categories are scored on a scale of -1 to 1.

1: "Positive, hopeful, and optimistic"; 7: Can unite the GOP

Four top conservative strategists and pollsters scored the candidates with a 1, 2 or 3 (which we later converted to -1, 0, or 1) on whether the candidates are "positive, hopeful, and optimistic" (question 1), as well as whether the candidates could "unite the various factions of the Republican coalition" (question 8). Our loose definitions we set up: -1 means awful, 0 means so-so, and 1 means excellent. We then averaged the scores together.

2: Has held office

We simply gave candidates a -1 or a 1 on this one: 1 for having held office, -1 for not.

3: Offers a "specific and persuasive agenda" for the middle class

Four top economists and economic experts from right-leaning organizations weighed in on whether the real and hypothetical candidates had a "specific and persuasive agenda to appeal to the economic anxieties of the middle class." Again, the scores were 1 to 3, which we later made -1, 0 or 1. We then averaged the scores together.

4. Appeals to Hispanics and other minority voters

For any candidate who ran for president in 2016, we looked at their recent net favorability ratings among nonwhites before they dropped out (or, in Trump's case, recent ratings, period). For Cruz, Kasich, Ryan and Trump, we used data from a recent national poll (an NBC-WSJ poll of registered voters from April). We also used a February NBC-WSJ poll to get numbers on Rubio and Bush. For Romney, we looked at his favorability rating among nonwhites according to a registered-voter Quinnipiac poll from April 2012 — not a perfect comparison, but we were only looking for direction of favorability among registered voters from a similar time period in the last cycle.

Substantially negative (double-digit negative) favorability gave a candidate a score of -1. Substantially (double-digit) positive gave a candidate a score of 1. Anything around 0 was a score of 0.

5. Appeals to blue-collar white voters

In these cases, we used the same polls as above for everyone, looking at the favorability figures for white people without a college degree.

Substantially negative (double-digit negative) favorability gave a candidate a score of -1. Substantially (double-digit) positive gave a candidate a score of 1. Anything around 0 was a score of 0.

6. Appeals to young people

As with No. 4, we looked at the aforementioned polls for candidates' favorability ratings among young voters (18- to 34-year-olds).

Substantially negative ratings gave a candidate a score of -1. Substantially positive gave a candidate a score of 1. Anything around 0 was a score of 0.

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