A decade ago, Kristen Daddow-Rodriguez was a loyal Republican. Raised in Michigan, she voted automatically for the GOP in each election, even though she wasn’t wild about every candidate offered up by her party. She considered herself a fiscal conservative and social liberal who happily backed John McCain and Mitt Romney. Now, she is a dedicated Democratic activist in suburban Atlanta.
Daddow-Rodriguez is not exactly an outlier in American politics, although it may sometimes seem that way in this hyperpolarized era. After the 2016 election, there was a vogue in the media to understand how Donald Trump had possibly managed to win the presidency despite scandal after scandal. He received almost three million fewer votes than Hillary Clinton—an early sign of the limits of his electoral might—but because most pollsters and experts had predicted a Clinton win, there was a desperate scramble across the Rust Belt to find the once Democratic voters who had cast a ballot for the Republican. Blue-collar diners from Allentown to Youngstown were swarmed with reporters determined to discern the secret of Donald Trump’s appeal.
In hindsight, that phenomenon may be eclipsed by another one: Republicans deserting their party precisely because of Trump, forming a demographic now familiarly known as “Never Trump Republicans.” Whether it was his xenophobic remarks about immigrants, his crude personal behavior, or his general disdain for the norms of American politics, many white, college-educated voters—long a bedrock of the GOP—cast their ballot either for Hillary Clinton or for a third-party candidate to avoid supporting Trump. The shock of his election kept this initially from being a broad focus in popular culture, but in special election after special election in the coming year, culminating in the 2018 midterms, it was clear there was a lasting revulsion from these Republicans toward the Trump-era GOP. This was reinforced in 2020, when these voters appear to have turned even more heavily against Trump, helping Joe Biden run the table in the most competitive swing states.
This tranche of voters is not huge, but they may be decisive—in 2020, 16 percent of self-identified moderate or liberal Republicans voted for Biden, according to an analysis by Pew, twice the share that did so in 2016. This even as Biden won a narrow electoral college victory by a combined margin of just under 43,000 votes in Arizona, Georgia, and Wisconsin. Bryon Allen, a longtime Republican pollster and partner at WPA Intelligence, noted that, before Trump, Republicans in many suburban counties would get narrow majorities. “Now, without a [GOP Georgia Governor Brian] Kemp or a [GOP Virginia Governor Glenn] Youngkin or somebody who has particular appeal and the right issues … we might get 47 percent or 48 percent” in the same areas.
In 2022, some of these voters swung back toward the GOP, but not all, as Republican hopes of a red wave fizzled out in most of the country. In 2024, the most likely scenario is that Donald Trump will be on the ballot yet again as the first person since Franklin Delano Roosevelt to serve as a major party nominee in three consecutive presidential elections. Even if Trump falls short, the top two candidates beneath him in national polls as of this summer, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis and businessman Vivek Ramaswamy, have actively tried to claim his mantle within the party.
“I think Donald Trump was the gateway drug that has drawn a lot of otherwise pretty standard Republicans to the Democratic Party over the last eight or nine years,” Zac McCrary, a veteran Democratic pollster, told The New Republic. “And a Never Trump Republican in 2016, two or three cycles later, turns into a pretty conventional Democrat up and down the ballot.”
That may be somewhat wishful thinking; ancestral loyalties can be hard to shake. The American South is dotted with jurisdictions that stopped voting for Democrats at the federal level a half-century ago yet continued to elect Democratic legislators and local officials into the past decade. Further, the Republican Party is still deeply at war within itself. And while Donald Trump and his ideological allies may be ascendant, there is no final verdict about the role of Trump and Trumpism within the GOP.
While that civil war rages, a faction of erstwhile Republicans has opted out of the fight and simply decided to back Democrats. With many of these well-educated suburbanites poised to vote for Joe Biden again in 2024, the question isn’t just whether they will swing what is likely to be yet another tight election next year, but whether they are part of the Democratic coalition moving forward. Conversations with pollsters and operatives from both parties suggest that, after a third straight election in which Trump is the leader of the GOP, Republicans may find that they have alienated these voters forever, while creating plenty of new Democrats along the way.
With a Hispanic husband, Daddow-Rodriguez felt uncomfortable about Trump’s rise in light of his rhetoric on immigration. She didn’t vote for him in 2016, but didn’t vote for Clinton either, instead casting a ballot for Libertarian Gary Johnson before completely moving into the Democratic fold starting around 2017. And, if anything, she has become more steadfastly Democratic since Trump left office, because of the GOP’s opposition to abortion—and the Supreme Court decision by conservative justices that overturned the right to obtain one.
“The day that the abortion ban went into effect in Georgia, I became six weeks pregnant with a high-risk pregnancy,” Daddow-Rodriguez recalled. “I never, ever thought my medical choices were going to be restricted…. But when your own doctor asks you, if things go south, do you have the resources to go somewhere where you can get medical care? Yeah, that was enough for me. I will never vote for a Republican ever again.”
Trump’s ability to alienate Republicans has long been palpable at the elite level. There is a seemingly endless roster of former professional GOPers who have become staples on cable news since 2016. For much of the 2020 campaign, the turncoat Republican consultants of the anti-Trump group the Lincoln Project were inescapable, as they flogged viral campaign ads (which often seemed to serve mostly to titillate loyal Democrats). Meanwhile, before and after the January 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol, laundry lists of former Republican elected officials who found Trump antithetical to their values provided a steady diet of fodder for Democratic press releases.
A number of these figures are now essentially Democrats. In 2021, longtime Republican and erstwhile Clinton nemesis Bill Kristol endorsed and actively campaigned for Terry McAuliffe, the über Clinton loyalist, during his unsuccessful Virginia gubernatorial bid. In 2022, Evan McMullin, who ran a quixotic third-party presidential campaign in 2016 to provide an alternative for Never Trumpers, was the de facto Democratic nominee for U.S. Senate in Utah. Those who haven’t entirely renounced the GOP, like former Illinois Representative Adam Kinzinger and former Pennsylvania Representative Charlie Dent, have nonetheless become cable news fixtures who speak progressives’ language.
The far less explored phenomenon is the movement of the rank-and-file Never Trumpers. Operatives and analysts on both sides of the aisle agree that the key factor driving the suburban trend toward Democrats in the last decade is education polarization. College-educated white voters have become much more likely to vote Democrat, and noncollege white voters have become much more inclined to vote Republican. This had been percolating long before Trump emerged onto the scene, but it sped up dramatically once he came down that golden escalator in 2015. At the same time, the composition of the larger electorate is constantly changing as well: An increasingly large portion of voters are college-educated—41 percent in 2020, compared to only 5 percent in 1952. This surge has continued as what was once a reliable GOP constituency has been shifting more heavily toward Democrats: 54 percent of white college graduates voted for Mitt Romney in 2012, but, by 2020, only 46 percent voted for Trump, according to numbers from Democratic data firm Catalist. Jonathan Robinson, the firm’s director of research, used an analogy from geology. Continents are always drifting in different directions, but sometimes a volcano explodes and accelerates what would otherwise be a slow, inexorable process.
The shifts seen in the Trump era in individual states and counties have long been in motion. Only a few decades ago, West Virginia was a safe Democratic bastion, as blue-collar whites consistently voted for the party up and down the ballot, while the prosperous suburbs of Philadelphia were steadfastly Republican. Both flipped well before 2016. However, the past decade has seen this once gradual process accelerate at warp speed, as highly educated jurisdictions like Montgomery County in suburban Philadelphia have gone from places Democrats win to places where they win by landslides.
Perhaps the terrain where this transition has been most stark is in the northern suburbs of Atlanta. Ringing the upper half of the Perimeter, the beltway that encircles the city, the region sits like an eyebrow growing steadily thicker every year as sprawl turns farmland into exurbs and exurbs into suburbs. It spans what was once the heartland of the Georgia Republican Party and now serves as the center of a booming regional economy. The prosperity is almost as thick as the humid summer heat. For every Waffle House, there is a shiny new Starbucks, and the highways are choked with fresh construction. In front of a bright suburban library, a yard sign reads COMMUNITY IS MORE IMPORTANT THAN POLITICS, only feet from a rusty historical marker detailing Civil War troop movements at the site.
Metro Atlanta is packed with transplants from all over the country and the world. At a Dunkin Donuts in a strip mall in the prosperous suburb of Alpharetta that also features an Indian vegetarian restaurant and a Korean barbecue joint, the state’s former Republican lieutenant governor, Geoff Duncan, told TNR that the Atlanta-area eyebrow is the region that “determines every election” in the Peach State. It was the first place where the Republican backlash to Trump fully hit the national consciousness. GOP Representative Tom Price had won his district six times with more than 60 percent of the vote. But in 2017, he was appointed to Trump’s Cabinet, and a special election held to fill his seat resulted in only a slim Republican victory. The race—which ended in a narrow loss by Democrat Jon Ossoff, a previously unknown 30-year-old—featured a deluge of media coverage and tens of millions in outside spending.
Since then, this area has emerged as a bona fide political battleground. In 2018, Democrats won the seat Ossoff lost and only narrowly lost an adjacent House seat by 419 votes. In 2020, they picked up that seat, too, and the region was crucial not just to Joe Biden’s presidential victory but to the balance of power in the U.S. Senate, when wins by Ossoff and Raphael Warnock determined control of the chamber.
Then, in 2022, something changed. Incumbent Governor Brian Kemp managed to win over some of these voters, as every Republican running for state office went on to victory in what was a disappointing midterm election nationally for the GOP. Even so, at the federal level, Warnock further improved on past Democratic performance and beat Herschel Walker, the scandal-ridden and gaffe-prone Republican nominee, to secure a full term in the Senate.
For Duncan, there is a clear lesson here, and it’s not purely one of demographic change. “As far as Republicans and moderates are concerned, I think it’s that Republicans don’t like crazy,” he said. In Duncan’s view, running Trump and candidates like Trump gave voters “an excuse to leave the Republican Party. It’s just really easy to explain to the watercooler. ‘Hey, I can’t’—I mean, I hear this all day, every day—‘Hey, I can’t vote Republican until this party purges itself of hateful people like Donald Trump.’” But, he noted, these voters are “paying attention, because that suburban mom in Cobb County [near Atlanta] voted for Brian Kemp. Right? They’re articulate enough to understand who they’re voting for.” Still, he warned, time is running out for the GOP to win back these voters. “If we let this nonsense and Donald Trump go on too long, we’ll probably lose that voter for a lifetime,” he said.
The trends are clear, driven by a mix of voters changing parties and in-migration by transplants to the area. In Cobb County, Romney won with 55.5 percent of the vote in 2012, but Biden won with 56.3 percent in 2020, with the Democratic presidential vote total jumping by nearly 90,000, while the Republican vote fell by more than 6,000. A similar phenomenon has played out in Gwinnett, another suburban Atlanta county, where Democrats made even more dramatic gains. Romney won with 54 percent in 2012, and Biden won with 58.4 percent in 2020; Trump received fewer than 7,000 more votes than Romney had, while some 110,000 more votes were cast for Biden than for Barack Obama in 2012. In contrast, Brian Kemp did better in both counties in 2022 than he did four years before in his rematch against Stacey Abrams.
The shift away from the GOP in this area “happened probably more quickly than I anticipated,” said a former officeholder who was granted anonymity to speak frankly about the region’s politics. “But for the time being, I think that the sentiment remains very strong—not that people are strongly supporting Biden, but they certainly are strongly un-supporting the former president.”
If the picture is a nuanced one, however, it’s clear that some former Republicans have quickly become ardent Democrats.
Angie Jones grew up in a Republican family in east Tennessee, just a couple of hours north of Atlanta, and it wasn’t a casual attachment. Her father, a lawyer, worked on Senator Howard Baker’s campaigns, and as a result she spent part of her adolescence as a Senate page in the Capitol. Her youthful experience with the legislative process left her somewhat cynical about politics. Still, she voted Republican reliably, a habit she kept up after moving to Atlanta for college, getting married, having two daughters, and settling down in the prosperous suburb of Johns Creek. But the lifelong churchgoer eventually started questioning her worldview. The son of a family friend who also attended their church came out as gay, and it sparked an awful backlash from other church members. “That became a kind of watershed moment in my life,” she said.
“In the beginning, I blamed politics that infected the church for causing these otherwise good, decent people—and they are otherwise good, decent people. They’re not monsters. But they behaved like monsters towards the family,” she said. “And it’s easier for me to blame the politics that infected the church than to blame the religious belief that had infected the politics at that time. By the time Donald Trump came along, I’m not sure if the tail is wagging the dog or the dog is wagging the tail,” she added.
Jones was speaking to TNR at a Whole Foods in Sandy Springs, a suburb that was only incorporated as a city in 2005, when the wealthy, majority-white area effectively separated itself from Fulton County, the jurisdiction that includes Atlanta. Since then, it has grown far more diverse and far more progressive. A Romney voter in 2012, Jones cast her ballot for independent McMullin in 2016. She felt he was a decent man, and she was skeptical of Hillary Clinton’s chances to win Georgia. Her full-scale immersion in progressive politics didn’t begin until the next year, during the special election for Congress. “I went into one of [Ossoff’s] field offices and said, ‘I’m here to volunteer. I’ve never done anything on a political campaign. I have no idea what to do. But I felt like I needed to do something. And this is something I can do.’” (Daddow-Rodriguez lives in Sandy Springs herself, and likewise voted for Ossoff in 2017.)
Jones has never stopped campaigning for Democrats at every level since then. She has tended to think she’s basically a centrist, but noted that the Republicans with whom she still talks politics find her “pretty liberal.” When pressed about her views, she said, “I don’t think it’s overly progressive to say that children shouldn’t get shot in math class, but apparently that’s a progressive ideology. I don’t think it’s progressive to say that forced pregnancy is a human rights violation, but that seems to be pretty progressive, pretty liberal.” When prodded, she only took issue with one left-wing idea: She thought it was a bit much for a couple of her friends to favor confiscating all civilian-owned firearms. That, in her opinion, is “wacky.”
In a home where Fox News was once on frequently, she now watches MSNBC much more often, as it features many voices who she feels reflect her political journey, like Nicolle Wallace, a former Republican strategist, and Joe Scarborough, the former Republican congressman. Looking back at her past politics, she noted, “One of my biggest regrets to this day is I never voted for Barack Obama. That will go down in my own personal history as one of my biggest regrets.”
Not all political journeys are as clear-cut as Daddow-Rodriguez’s or Jones’s, and most voters who once cast their ballots for Mitt Romney have not been fully transformed into MSNBC-watching progressive activists. In fact, Carolyn Bourdeaux, who served one term in Congress as a Democrat in the Atlanta suburbs from 2021 to 2023 before losing a primary after redistricting, told TNR many Never Trump Republicans are still up for grabs.
According to Bourdeaux, voters in the region tend to be “pro-opportunity, very pro-business. And not super, super socially liberal…. But they are not Trumpist and nativist either. And that is a really hard break point for them.”
From her perspective, these voters “were waiting for the Republican Party to become normal again, and they shifted hard back to Kemp and [Georgia Secretary of State Brad] Raffensperger in the 2022 cycle…. Not all of them were a faithful constituency that the Democrats can rely on. They have not rolled into the Democratic Party base, yet. They were there to be wooed.”
The former member of Congress argued, “Democrats would be well-advised to think very carefully about where they are standing on issues and whether they are able to appeal to that constituency…. I think they should be leaning hard on [the fact] that we are pro-business, and a sane alternative to the Republicans, because these folks are really pocketbook voters in a way that is very acute.”
Lisa Winton and Emory Morsberger are, in their own ways, two such voters. Both are former constituents of Bourdeaux who voted for Trump in 2016, Biden in 2020, and Warnock and Kemp in 2022. Morsberger, a real estate developer who served in the Georgia state House as a Republican in the 1990s, moved down to Atlanta for college from his native Baltimore, deciding Georgia was where he wanted to make his future. He spoke to TNR while driving back from an event to promote the state’s film industry. Although movie productions have flocked to the Peach State in recent years and helped supercharge metro Atlanta’s economy, some Republicans want to cut tax credits that have lured them. As Morsberger tells it, “There is a group in the state legislature of far-right Republicans who feel like we don’t need to attract any more Democrats to Georgia, because most film people are Democrats.” In his view, “that’s really cutting off your nose to spite your face, because it’s been a huge economic benefit to a lot of communities throughout Georgia.” When asked to describe his own politics, Morsberger said, “I wouldn’t say I’m a Democrat. But I would say I’m a Biden, Warnock Republican. OK. I’m not going to vote for people who are nuts or people who are ethically challenged.”
Morsberger offered his own larger analysis of why voters like him were backing away from the GOP. “Trump has basically caused a lot of Republicans to not [call] themselves Republicans. They’re still fiscal conservatives … with a moral compass. But they’re not going to go along with Trump.” He said he backed Democrats in the 2020 Senate race as well, for one simple reason: Incumbents David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler supported Trump. “Both of them were spouting the stolen election stuff,” he said. “That really stopped me. To me, that’s treasonous.”
Before Trump, Morsberger had almost exclusively voted Republican, and even during the 2022 primaries, he actively boosted one of Herschel Walker’s opponents in hopes of the GOP nominating an acceptable candidate. Morsberger said the candidate warned then, “If Herschel is [the nominee], we’re gonna have Raphael Warnock as the senator. And sure enough, Herschel was nominated, and we got Raphael Warnock.” Looking back at how Trump’s anointment of Walker virtually guaranteed that the former Georgia running back would be the Republican nominee, Mosberger marveled: “That was mind-boggling that that all evolved the way it did. It just was a travesty.”
Faced with the choice between Trump and Biden again, he’d choose Biden. But given other options, he’d enthusiastically campaign for Democratic West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin (if he ran as an independent) or South Carolina Senator Tim Scott (if he became the GOP nominee).
In contrast, Lisa Winton is still a traditional swing voter. The owner of a manufacturing company that makes the machines used to fabricate copper tubes and semirigid coax cable—which are used in products ranging from light fixtures to the Iron Dome defense system in Israel—Winton describes herself as fiscally conservative and socially liberal. She praised Trump’s policies for American manufacturers like herself, but said she eventually got tired of everything else happening in politics while he was in office. “The news cycle, it just wears you out,” she said.
She didn’t just swing back and forth for president, but up and down the ticket. Although she happily voted for Brian Kemp for reelection in 2022, she had actually voted for Stacey Abrams four years before. She doesn’t know who she would vote for if faced yet again with the choice between Trump and Biden next year, even as she mourned that supporting a third-party candidate would be a wasted vote. “If I had to vote tomorrow, I have no idea which way I would go. No idea.”
The challenge for both parties is to determine what percentage of all the Republicans who voted for Biden in 2020 resemble Daddow-Rodriguez and Jones, which are more like Morsberger, and which might behave like Winton. For all the debate over broad demographic trends and shifts in the electorate, sometimes a swing voter is just a swing voter.
Robinson noted that Catalist’s data showed that, while 46 percent of white, college-educated voters supported Barack Obama in 2012, 54 percent cast their ballot for Joe Biden in 2020. However, that dropped back in 2022, when 50 percent of white, college-educated voters supported Democratic candidates for the House in the midterms. But that data comes with a caveat. Robinson found that candidates who were election deniers received “a MAGA penalty” in top-of-the-ticket races of up to 4 percent. Thus the divide in Georgia, where Kemp, a party-line conservative save for his objections to Trump’s efforts to overturn the 2020 election, ran ahead of Herschel Walker. This was echoed by Allen, the Republican pollster, who said a clear lesson of the 2022 midterms was that the Republicans “who were the most emulative of Trump … definitely had a significant challenge.” He thought Republican losses among these voters would not be “a permanent problem for a different nominee with a message that would work.” As Sarah Longwell, a longtime Republican operative who has since become a vocal Never Trumper herself, pointed out, these voters “wanted to vote for Republicans; they just didn’t want to vote for the Republicans that were on offer” in states like Pennsylvania, Arizona, and, in Herschel Walker’s case, Georgia.
One confounding variable with these voters in 2022 was the Supreme Court’s landmark decision in Dobbs to overturn Roe v. Wade. The ruling was projected in the immediate aftermath to drive a huge number of pro-choice female voters to the polls and accelerate the exodus of white, college-educated women from the GOP. However, Robinson said that its impact was most felt for Democrats among noncollege-educated white women, and that it had less of an effect among the voters who had already shifted in 2020. Longwell, for her part, emphasized that it mattered more for some candidates than others: “It was actually a much more holistic problem where, between abortion and election denialism, it painted a picture of a candidate that the voters just thought [was] too extreme.”
It’s unlikely that Republican candidates will moderate their views on these issues any time soon. In 2023, 76 percent of Republicans identify as pro-life, according to a Gallup poll, a record number. Polling shows that self-identified Republicans have become increasingly comfortable with the January 6 attack on the Capitol, and a steady majority have long believed, incorrectly, that Joe Biden only won because of voter fraud, even as Trump faces federal criminal charges over efforts to overturn the 2020 election. The party is also increasingly isolationist: A clear majority of Republican voters willing to vote for Trump oppose aid to Ukraine, according to a July New York Times/Siena poll, while nearly 70 percent of those Republicans who are unwilling to back the former president support aid. There is a similar divide on other long-standing fissures within the GOP, as Trump voters oppose same-sex marriage and comprehensive immigration reform, while those opposed to the former president support both.
As existential as the divide may be between erstwhile Republicans and the party’s new MAGA base, Bourdeaux fears Democrats are complacent about 2024. “I’m worried a lot of the Democrats really need to dig deep to understand why the economy is pretty good and yet why Biden is still so unpopular, and really take an honest, cold, hard look at what is driving that,” she said.
Of course, that becomes less of an issue if Trump is the nominee and voters simply face the same stark choice they did four years before.
The endurance of Never Trump Republicans means that a not insignificant number of George W. Bush and Mitt Romney voters, from pundits on down to suburban parents, are now part of the Democratic base and participating in party primaries. One can even read Never Trump websites like The Bulwark and see articles urging the Democrats to restrain the most left-wing segment of their base, lest they alienate swing voters and empower the GOP. When asked where he was politically, Bill Kristol told TNR, “I’m pretty comfortable with the current Democratic Party. [Fellow Never Trumpers] are not comfortable with the current Republican Party. We don’t think the hopes for its immediate reformation are very realistic. We are OK with Biden. We think, in fact, one thing we could do is strengthen the moderate Democratic Party.”
Moderate is a relative term. To the extent they have been assimilated, Republicans who have flipped to the Democrats in the Trump era are not glaring outliers within their new party, like Joe Manchin or Krysten Sinema. Matt Bennett, the executive vice president of the moderate Democratic think tank Third Way, argued this influx had not “fundamentally changed the Democratic Party,” noting, instead, that when Republicans “have decided to vote for Democrats, they prefer moderates.” In Bennett’s view, most of the Democratic electorate has shared those preferences, as shown by Joe Biden’s victory in the 2020 presidential primary. “I am not convinced that they’re gonna be yanking the party to the right, because I think that they are fairly comfortable with that kind of Biden-level ideology,” he said. “And that’s where the center of the party is.”
Perhaps the most prominent defector from the GOP in the past few years to run for office was Barbara Bollier, a moderate Republican state legislator from Kansas who switched parties in 2018 and became the Democratic nominee for U.S. Senate in the Jayhawk State in 2020. She had been contemplating the move for a while before Kansas elected Democrat Laura Kelly, whom she endorsed, as governor in 2018. In fact, Bollier said, she’d held off on formally making the change to maximize the political impact of her backing Kelly, finally taking the plunge “because it was untenable both at the national level and at the state level” for her stay within the GOP.
As a pro-choice woman, Bollier feels that being a Republican had never been a perfect fit. As she put it, “I lived with the Republican Party’s … anti-abortion politics my whole life. And I was able just to move beyond, because to me, that should not be the only focus of government. In fact, government shouldn’t be involved, other than to safely regulate all health care. So that wasn’t enough of a driving factor. It was the other things, and particularly the whole movement towards fascism.” In other words, she’s not a right-winger, and has largely been at home in her new party.
Still, large-scale shifts from one major party to another tend to produce conflict, particularly among those who are older. Kristol, who has endured some criticism on the left in the course of his party change, recalled the neoconservatives of his parents’ generation facing friction as they left the Democratic fold. “I think people forget, but it was still awkward. There was resentment against ... older versions of me,” he said. Kristol cited as an example the efforts by some Republicans in the early 1980s to block neoconservative Bill Bennett’s appointment to the National Endowment for the Humanities.
But this conflict dies away in time, as people age and identities harden. There aren’t many new Never Trumpers registering to vote as Republicans in 2023. If Trump becomes the nominee in 2024, the youngest voter who would have had the opportunity to cast a ballot for any other Republican presidential nominee will be 30. Many of the prominent Republicans who are symbolic of a different GOP—and refused to vote for Trump in 2016, like George H.W. Bush and John McCain—will have been long dead, and almost all who have remained active in Republican politics will have bent the knee in some form.
As Bollier reminisced about knocking on doors in the district she represented in suburban Kansas City, she emphasized that generational changing of the guard. “What was fascinating to me were households where the parents were Republicans many times and would claim they were moderates, and none of their children remained Republicans,” she said. “It was so overwhelmingly obvious that the demise was coming. Northeast Johnson County, which used to always be a moderate Republican bastion, is now all Democratic.”
In fact, if there has been any major impact on internal party dynamics because of Never Trumpers switching, it is almost certainly within the GOP, where it has culled some comparatively moderate and more establishment-oriented voters. The number is not huge: According to Vanderbilt University political scientist John Sides’s survey data from the Voter Study Group, a long-term research project of political trends, only around 5 percent of self-reported Romney voters said they voted for Clinton in 2016. Allen was skeptical that it would have a tremendous effect, but the conservative pollster suggested “the average Republican nominee in the average race will be slightly more populist than it would have been in 2012.” The result would be “slightly more J.D. Vance–like nominees than Youngkin/Romney nominees,” but it wouldn’t be a drastic shift, he said. Still, Trump has radicalized those Republicans who have stuck it out in the party; Longwell noted that focus groups she’s conducted indicate those who have remained within the GOP have identified as increasingly conservative and look askance at the Republican Party of the past. These voters “don’t want to go back to the Bush years. They want the Make America Great Again iteration of the Republican Party, even if they have been Republicans for a long time,” she said.
Political realignments are fragile, circumstantial things. They don’t happen in sudden lightning bolts that strike every 30 years, but instead involve both the mixture of broad demographic and economic forces and very specific circumstances that produce presidential nominees in American politics. Although there is a school of political science that highlights a handful of presidential elections as marking sharp, long-term changes in party coalitions—including 1800, 1860, and 1932—Daniel Schlozman, a professor of political science at Johns Hopkins University, argues realignment is a constant process as the points of conflict between the two parties change. The movement of white voters in the South toward the Republican Party might have been accelerated if Jimmy Carter wasn’t the Democratic nominee in 1976. Then again, without Carter as the nominee, the neoconservatives who broke away from the Democrats might have stayed in the fold.
Just like those realignments in the past, the emergence of Never Trumpers is the product of both long-term trends and candidate-specific quirks; the trend of educational polarization slowed or accelerated depending on which candidates were on the ballot. In 2012, the GOP nominated a candidate in Mitt Romney who overperformed among the college-educated white voters in the suburbs who have turned on Trump. Some of these voters would have likely started shifting toward Democrats earlier if, instead, the Republican nominee was Rick Santorum, whose 2014 book was titled Blue Collar Conservatives. With Trump, the long-term trends and the candidate-specific quirks collided.
But the difference with Trump is that his massive influence on American political coalitions is largely based on whether voters thrill to his transgressions or are appalled by his grotesqueries. Even now, it’s sometimes difficult to discern whether it is his personality itself or the worldview that Trump embodies that has driven some Republicans out of the party. As Schlozman put it, if you “take a dozen people in Atlanta who voted for Mitt Romney, what they think of Donald Trump determines how they’re voting now in a very important way,” but “what explains their views about Donald Trump?”
What’s clearer is that relatively few voters were swayed by his policy accomplishments, like a generic GOP tax cut bill or his administration’s oversight of Operation Warp Speed (which Trump alternately celebrated or shied away from). Instead, it’s the loaded rhetoric that he has brought to American politics on topics ranging from building a physical wall on the border with Mexico to his repeated false claims of election fraud. In contrast, past realignments have rested on far more robust legislative feats. The Democratic majorities of the Roosevelt era were founded on support for or opposition to the programs of the New Deal. The shift in the South starting in the 1960s was based on reaction to the landmark civil rights laws of the Johnson administration. With Trump, it’s often simply been the man himself and the forces he has unleashed. The result has smoothed the transition of these former Republicans into the Democratic fold.
It’s impossible to predict the next lasting fault line in American politics. As Schlozman noted, modern political parties rest on a layer of intersecting cleavages going back to the Civil War, and each new alignment leads to new coalitions and new points of contention. But if Trump remains the dominant figure on the GOP scene for yet another election cycle, the voters who fled the Republican Party aren’t likely to return. And even if he does somehow fade into the background, those same voters may find the party they once called their own virtually unrecognizable.