The GOP’s 2017 Challenge: The Party’s Fragmented State

Since Congress failed to “repeal and replace” the Affordable Care Act, the finger pointing within the Republican Party has been intense. But the biggest reason for the collapse of the effort may be the party itself.

The GOP in 2017 is less a political entity than a collection of groups and interests from different places and social strata that desire different things. And as President Trump has focused on simply passing legislation, without identifying specific policy goals, no one has stepped forward to lead those disparate factions in a unified direction.

The media spend a lot of time focusing on President Trump’s base, which it often describes as struggling or populist. But a look at the GOP using the county types of the American Communities Project reveals four distinct segments within the party – along with a fifth one activated by Donald Trump in 2016.

The Exurban Establishment.

The Rural Strong Holds.

The Evangelical Core.

The National Security Base.

and

The Blue Collar Suburbs.

Getting these elements of the GOP on the same page for healthcare or, frankly, for a long list of issues including tax reform is likely going to be difficult and may be all but impossible without strong leadership. They see the world through different lenses and some of them are not very enamored of the president.

Republicans like to take pride in the dominance of their brand after elections by pointing to county-level maps of the vote. The GOP’s rural strength means those maps usually look like vast seas of red, punctuated by small blue islands. The other impact of all that red, however, is a very diverse set of interests.

How much does Exurban Columbus, Ohio have in common with the evangelical south or the rural Wisconsin? Is suburban Macomb County Michigan interested in the same issues as the military region around Hampton Roads Virginia?

While the Democratic Party has long been criticized for dealing in fragmented “identity politics,” the splits outlined here show the GOP is deeply immersed in its own version of that game with no easy solutions on the horizon.

Below, a look at five big elements of the Republican Party in 2017 and how different they look from one another.

The Exurban Establishment (in yellow on the map). Primarily based around metro areas, but lacking the density and racial diversity of urban places, these 222 counties hold 32 million people and have high higher incomes and more college degrees than the nation as a whole.

These counties are reliably Republican and have voted for the GOP candidate for president in every election since 2000 by double digits. But in 2016, they were less certain about Trump, giving him 56% of the vote compared to the 58% Mitt Romney got from them in 2012. And in June, only 43% of the people in these counties approved of Trump’s performance as president. That’s a very low number for a Republican in these communities.

Think of these places as the home of tax-cutting chamber of commerce Republicans. Generally life is good here, 91% of the population has health insurance, according to data from Gallup, and nearly half of the population (48%) has insurance through their employer. On a long list of questions, from stress to worry to health problems, Gallup numbers show these counties are better off than most. They are less likely to be immediately impacted by changes in the health care law.

The Rural Strongholds (in royal blue, dark blue and gray on the map). This massive collection counties (more than 1,200) spans the country. They feature low population density as a group (46 million people), have lower-than-average incomes and low college education rates, about 20% have a 4-year degree.

These are the “left behind” counties that make up Trump’s rural base. They gave Trump more than 60% of their vote in 2016 and Trump did better in them than Mitt Romney did in 2012. Trump’s June approval rating in this collection of counties was still hovering around 50%.

These counties are older and tend to rely more heavily of government programs. More than a third of the people living in these communities get insurance through Medicare or Medicaid and they have more people than average saying they are not in the workforce, according to Gallup data. These are some of the places that could be strongly affected by big changes to the health care system.

The Evangelical Core (in light purple on the map). Based largely in the south, these 372 counties hold about 13 million people and have a higher percentage of evangelical adherents than the nation at large. They also have lower incomes than the nation on average and far fewer college degrees, only about 18% of the population compared to a national rate of roughly 31%.

No Democratic presidential candidate has come close to winning this group of counties since 2000 and this group was strongly behind President Trump in 2016, he captured 73% of the vote coming out of here. That was four points more than Romney 69% in 2012. They are still strongly with Trump. In June Gallup data the president’s job approval number was 57% here.

These places are more strongly identified by their stances on social issues. People here are the most likely of any of the county types in the ACP to label their ideology as conservative – more than 50% do compared to the national average of about 35%, according to Gallup data. And as Barack Obama left the White House, only 35% approve of his job performance in Gallup data compared to a national figure of 51%. President Trump gave them Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch and they are thankful.

The National Security Base (in dark brown on the map). These 89 counties are scattered around the country, generally near military bases and they stand apart for their ties to national defense. Nationally, 25% of American households say they have a member that has served in the military, in these counties that hold about 10 million people that figure is 46%.

Trump captured 55% of the vote than came from these counties in 2016, roughly the same amount Mitt Romney pulled from them in 2012. But in Gallup’s June numbers, Trump’s approval rating had dipped to 45% in these communities – 49% disapproved.

Voters here will tune into the policy debates and when you add in military and veterans benefits, 46% of the population gets health insurance through the federal government. But they tend to be more concerned about national defense issues. Tax cuts may matter less here than defense spending. These are counties where the president’s role as commander in chief of the military dominates discussion and they are places where Trump’s lack of decorum has hurt him. People here do not approve of Trump’s tweeting and his disparaging comments about the national security apparatus.

The Blue Collar Suburbs (light orange on the map). These 77 counties hold about 16 million people and were arguably the key to Trump’s 2016 win. They make up large parts of midwestern battleground states including Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin, three states Trump won by a total of 78,000 votes. About 26% of the adults have a college degree and the median household income is under the national average.

This is Trump country; he won these counties by more than 13 points in 2016. Four years earlier Mitt Romney won them by only 2 points. But their support for Trump has slipped in recent months and only 45% approved of his job performance in Gallup’s June data.

Think of people in these places as the Reagan Democrats redux. Conditions are not awful here, but they are not as good as they used to be. People still have health insurance, 93% of the population, but incomes in these counties have not kept pace with inflation over the past few decades. Voters here tend to support America first economic policies. These are not traditional free-trade, rising-tide-raises-all-boats conservatives. They may be leery about tax cuts for businesses or wealthy “job creators.”

 

That’s a lot of different communities and a lot of different concerns. Absent someone at the top trying to channel all their disparate interests into a common flow, Republicans may find accomplishments hard to come by in 2017. And, in a larger sense, the fragmented party on display here suggests more substantial changes may be coming to the GOP in the years ahead.

Even with strong leadership it’s hard to see what holds the elements of the party together in the long term.

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