Patrick Ruffini: Trump and the Future of the Republican Party

Patrick Ruffini: Trump and the Future of the Republican Party

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Tuesday, September 27, 2016, 12:00-1:00 p.m.
Allison Dining Room, Taubman Building, 5th Floor

September 27, 2016 — Patrick Ruffini, co-founder and partner of Echelon Insights, a political research and analytics firm, discussed the September 26 presidential debate and the challenges facing the Republican Party in a conversation with Shorenstein Center director Nicco Mele.

Ruffini, who was a digital strategist for George W. Bush’s 2004 campaign and the RNC in 2006, also discussed polling, the resiliency of the Republican Party in other races, voter expectations of Donald Trump, the effect of grassroots movements on political parties, and many other topics. Following are some selected highlights from the conversation. Listen to the audio below, or on iTunes.

The September 26 presidential debate

What mystified me is he didn’t try to bring it back to his core themes…

The more Trump talked about himself, “the worse it was for him,” said Ruffini. Although in the first 15 minutes of the debate, Trump was able to deliver one of his key messages—reforming trade in a way that would resonate with working class voters—his performance afterward was unfocused, said Ruffini. “What mystified me is he didn’t try to bring it back to his core themes…immigration, [he] did not talk about emails enough, Benghazi…I don’t think he did a good job of pivoting away from what were some challenging moments for him.”

Clinton, meanwhile, was able to avoid responses that could be seen as too policy-wonkish, while effectively taking aim at Trump’s flaws, such as his unreleased tax returns. “That is a sign of good preparation, when you’re able to bring new material to the debate, which Donald Trump was not able to do,” said Ruffini.

Will Trump’s debate performance have an impact on the race?

“It’s actually very rare that a debate will change the trajectory of the race. Heading into this, most people probably didn’t expect him to win,” said Ruffini. “It’s unclear to me whether or not he significantly fell short of expectations, or merely met expectations. I do think Clinton cleared the bar to at least stop some of the bleeding she has seen in her polling over the last couple of weeks.”

The effect of changing demographics on the election

An increasingly less white electorate is contrasted against Trump’s activation of white working class voters.

“An increasingly less white electorate is contrasted against Trump’s activation of white working class voters,” said Ruffini. “He is up 4 to 1, a historically unprecedented margin, among white men without a college degree…that is 21 percent of the electorate, which is about the same percentage as Latinos and African Americans, maybe a little bit less than that, that are expected to turn out. He is activating this group of voters in a way that other Republicans really haven’t touched before, and at the same time, causing a whole bunch of other folks to question their allegiance to the Republican Party in this cycle, particularly at the presidential level.”

The #NeverTrump movement

“It’s a response to the fact that what has happened in the Republican Party to some extent is unforgiveable. I personally believe this election was the Republican Party’s to lose. It’s historically unusual for the Democrats or Republicans to be reelected to a third term,” said Ruffini. “I think that just that factor alone, and Hillary Clinton’s relative unpopularity…should have rendered this, for any plausible candidate other than Trump… a Republican year….Any other candidate would probably be three or four points ahead of Clinton in the polls right now.”

Where does the Republican Party go next?

“Can we recreate the upsides of the Trump coalition, such as they are, and avoid the downside, and is that possible? What candidate do we ideally need?” asked Ruffini. “A lot of people had this notion that maybe a Marco Rubio would have been this ideal candidate to bridge a generational divide…I do wonder what shape the attempt to bring white working class voters into the fold over the long term will take, without some of the negative consequences, without the negative rhetorical situations that Trump has had to get himself into.”

The role of media—new and old

“Donald Trump, unlike any other politician in history almost, has a command of and understanding of free media, earned media, that no other candidate has ever had…as a result, his ability to actually get his message across and be heard… far exceeds that of any normal politician,” said Ruffini.

“The key factor was not necessarily the surplus of coverage that Trump got,” added Ruffini, “it was the lack of relative coverage obtained by the other candidates, that I think redoubles the sense that ‘they’re not winning, they’re not relevant.’”

In previous elections, campaigns had to worry about preventing “the crazy things that our supporters are saying online from negatively affecting us,” said Ruffini. But now, “Essentially we have Breitbart itself running the Trump campaign—or a human version of the Breitbart website as the candidate. It’s this odd paradox of the candidate being…so far outside the boundaries of message discipline.” 

The intended trajectory was that conservative media, if you were doing this analysis in 2014, would lift up a candidate like Ted Cruz.

How conservative media has shaped the race

“The intended trajectory was that conservative media, if you were doing this analysis in 2014, would lift up a candidate like Ted Cruz,” said Ruffini. “He lined up all of the conservative interest groups at the table. How somebody whose pure value proposition was ratings and entertainment value was able to supplant ideological considerations…I think the key word in conservative media is not ‘conservative,’ it is ‘media.’ And frankly, all the media has been extremely ratings driven.”

The resiliency of Republican candidates

“We have an interesting case study in Florida of both Rubio and Trump being on the same ballot. Donald Trump is losing the Hispanic vote in Florida by over 40 points. The Senate race with Marco Rubio in it is a single digit race among Hispanics. He is running 35 points better than Trump’s net margin among Hispanics….he’s also running double digits stronger than Trump among African Americans, but no difference among white voters. These polls have him six, seven points up.”

Improving polling

“Advances in data analytics, the ability to do survey work at larger scales tied to voter files and tied to demographics will ultimately present us with a much more stable race, as is hinted at in the polling, without all of the swings,” said Ruffini. “But in some ways there’s an incentive for that not to happen, from a media standpoint, because without wild swings, what would we write about?”

There are lots and lots of people who are going to vote not because they’re enthused, but because they’re frankly scared and terrified.

“This question of voter enthusiasm is kind of misleading sometimes,” he continued. “This idea that Republican voters are more enthusiastic and therefore they’re going to turn out, they’re going to make up a higher share of the electorate…yeah, but, there’s just not enough of them…there are lots and lots of people who are going to vote not because they’re enthused, but because they’re frankly scared and terrified.”

Article by Nilagia McCoy of the Shorenstein Center.