A Party Divided Is a Party Defeated—Usually

Stuart Rothenberg March 30, 2016 · 9:00 AM EDT

The question is no longer whether the GOP will be torn apart by the 2016 nominating process but how badly hurt its presidential nominee will be and whether defeat in November will be inevitable.

The answer depends on the nominee and on the ultimate extent of the divide. But there is little reason for Republican optimism at this point, in spite of the fact that history has produced some very different outcomes.

Sometimes, a deep split in one party has produced a landslide for the other. In 1964, when the GOP was bitterly divided over ideology, nominee Barry Goldwater won only 38 percent of the vote and 52 electoral votes (compared to President Lyndon Johnson’s 486 electoral votes).

In 1912, the Republican Party actually fractured. Former President Teddy Roosevelt ran as a Progressive and carried six states with 88 electoral votes, while the GOP nominee, President William Howard Taft, carried just two states with eight electoral votes.

Other times, a party split looked disastrous but the election turned out to be competitive. In 1896, for example, the Democratic Party split between populists and conservatives (or silver Democrats and gold Democrats, if you prefer), ultimately nominating firebrand populist William Jennings Bryan. But he lost the election to William McKinley by only four points in what turned out to be a realigning election.

In 1968, Democrats were bitterly divided over the Vietnam War and civil rights, and the party’s Chicago convention looked more like a war zone than a political gathering. And yet, Democratic nominee Hubert Humphrey lost the presidential race to Republican Richard Nixon by less than a single percentage point, with George Wallace carrying five states.

Finally, in 1948, Democrats were divided and depressed. Strom Thurmond and Henry Wallace both ran as third party nominees, and each received more than 1 million votes. Thurmond carried four states. And yet, Democrat Harry Truman won in a remarkable upset by running against the Republican Congress and the Washington establishment.

Of course, each of these elections took place in a different context.

In 1948, the New Deal coalition that had been put together by Franklin Roosevelt remained resilient. Democrats had become the dominant party, winning the previous four presidential elections in landslides. Because of the party’s sheer size, Truman could afford defections as long as he got most Democrats to the polls. That is exactly what he did when he changed the focus of the election from himself to congressional Republicans. Truman drew 1.5 million fewer votes in 1948 than Roosevelt did four years earlier but still won 303 electoral votes for a surprisingly comfortable victory.

The 1912 Republican fracture was the most extreme, with a former Republican president and the sitting Republican president both running in the general election. Together, Taft and Roosevelt drew 7.6 million votes, a little more than 50 percent of all the votes cast. Yet Democrat Woodrow Wilson carried 40 of 48 states, rolling up a massive electoral majority even though he drew just 41 percent of the general election vote.

The 1968 election was defined by the decision of the sitting president, Lyndon Johnson, not to seek re-election. The Vietnam War had torn the country, and the Democratic Party, apart, but Humphrey closed the initially huge deficit by attacking George Wallace’s third-party effort, distancing himself from Johnson’s Vietnam policies and mobilizing traditional Democratic voter groups.

What about this year? The current situation is not a perfect fit for any of the previous cases.

Democrats have held the White House for eight years, which usually gives the opposition an opportunity to play on voters’ fatigue with the incumbent’s party. The outgoing president has been a polarizing figure, but his poll numbers suggest a rough equality in the number of Americans who approve and who disapprove of his performance – certainly not a terrible position for the nominee of his party who hopes to succeed him.

Democrats clearly are divided over former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who has her own primary problems. She has very high negatives, with a large chunk of Americans doubting her honesty, and her extensive political experience is both an asset and a liability. But at the end of the day, most Democrats will find Clinton acceptable and will rally around her nomination

Finally, November’s electorate will continue the trend of the past 30 years, growing less white and more Hispanic – all of which will favor the Democratic nominee, as does the Electoral College, though narrowly.

This cycle’s Republican divide looks wider and deeper than any divide since at least 1964.

Over the past four elections, according to exit polls, between 6 percent and 9 percent of self-identified Republican voters have voted for the Democratic nominee for president. That “normal” defection rate could at least double if Donald Trump is the Republican nominee, and just as important, Republican turnout could plummet, drowning down-ballot Republicans along with the top of the ticket.

At least one Republican senator, Ben Sasse of Nebraska, has already said he will not vote for Donald Trump if he is the nominee, and plenty of other Republican loyalists have said the same thing, on TV, in print or on Twitter. And the numbers of defectors and non-voters will continue to grow, in spite of Clinton’s negatives.

Because of that – and barring a dramatic shift in public opinion or a GOP convention deadlock that produces a unifying nominee with broad appeal – the November election is more likely than not to hand the Democratic nominee the White House. And if the split in the Republican Party continues to grow, which is likely, November’s outcome could be a foregone conclusion even before the end of Major League Baseball’s 2016 regular season.