The circus comes to town

Published May 20, 2021

By Rick Henderson

I could be wrong, but I can’t recall Jimmy Carter or Michael Dukakis being big draws for state Democratic Parties in 1981 and 1989, respectively.

The N.C. Republican Party, however, will embrace the 2020 loser at its state convention June 5. The 45th president is set to speak at the dinner that evening at 6, after a VIP reception. In a statement, NCGOP Chairman Michael Whatley said,

"President Trump won North Carolina in 2016 by promising to put America First, and he won North Carolina in 2020 by keeping that promise. President Trump delivered real results for North Carolina by rebuilding the military, standing strong against China, and unleashing the American Economy.

We are honored to welcome President Trump to our convention as the Republican Party launches our campaign to retake Congress and the Senate in the 2022 midterms."

Inviting Trump will cheer much of the party faithful, I suppose. In a CBS News/You Gov poll of self-identified Republicans or Republican-leaners released Sunday, only a third said they think Joe Biden won the election. Perhaps it’s no surprise that two-thirds said remaining loyal to Trump was important for the party.

The 951 people polled had answered an earlier survey by the same firm earlier this year, so these results shouldn’t be considered outliers.

But inviting Trump also will invite continual questions to Republican elected officials and party insiders about the January 6 insurrection, the former president’s escalating paranoia over nonexistent election fraud … and his eagerness to throw overboard GOP types who are insufficiently loyal.

If Vegas sets an over/under on the number of times Trump says “fake news,” “fraud,” “steal,” or “big lie,” during his NCGOP remarks, I’ll take the over. Whatever it is.

GOP officials are gambling. They think they have to appease the base of the party and the donors who either believe the Big Lie (that Trump, not Biden, won) or who are convinced the former president’s continued prominence drives liberals crazy and is worth whatever damage it may do long-term to the GOP’s credibility.

Let’s get past 2022, they say, and see what happens.

The damage, however, may be under way. A draft research paper published last week by Stanford Ph.D student Katherine Clayton suggests divisions within the Republican Party over the legitimacy of the election may push swing voters who lean Republican toward voting Democrat.

Clayton acknowledges most academic research about political polarization has focused on ideological differences between parties. Not much work has discussed the role of polarization inside parties, and how differences on fundamental questions may turn off voters who aren’t strongly attached to the party they normally support. 

She posed several situations dealing with disputes over the legitimacy of an election. The scenarios involved battles between Democratic versus Republican lawmakers, Republicans arguing among themselves, and arguments among lawmakers with affiliations not highlighted.

"In sum, these results suggest that at least with respect to the issue of voter fraud in the 2020 election, Republican intra-party conflict decreases affect toward the Republican Party, decreases perceived threats posed by the Democratic Party, and increases affect toward the Democratic Party among weak Republicans. …

 These findings suggest that conflict within a party could push some less committed partisans to defect."

North Carolina may appear to have large blocs of voters eager to swing between one party and the other. The most recent State Board of Elections data show 2.5 million registered Democrats, 2.4 million registered unaffiliated, and 2.2 million registered Republicans. 

But most statewide elections are decided by a few percentage points. 

Two incumbent Republicans, Agriculture Commissioner Steve Troxler and Treasurer Dale Folwell won the highest share of votes statewide in 2020, 53.86% and 52.58%, respectively. No other statewide candidate got 52% or more. Trump and U.S. Sen. Thom Tillis both won with less than a majority. 

North Carolina has few true undecided voters, even as more of them drift away from formal party affiliations. For now.

Clayton acknowledges that her research isn’t complete. Democrats should face simulations about intraparty scuffles, too. Lord knows, divisions exist. Just ask Joe Manchin about “The Squad” (or, say, Elizabeth Warren).

If Republicans united to endorse or reject the “Big Lie,” then maybe the issue would recede from view, and the GOP could target Biden administration policies. Some Republicans (cough, Mitch McConnell, cough) are trying to do just that, shrugging off questions about the election.

The main problem with that plan: Donald Trump won’t let it go. His North Carolina trip will be part of a series of rallies and appearances this summer. A potential prelude to another presidential run in 2024. He’s endorsing candidates in GOP primaries during the 2022 midterms. His PAC also has scheduled a fundraiser in Mar-A-Lago this weekend.

The theme of these rallies is, of course, reviving lies about the election and ignoring the January 6 assault on the Capitol. 

Our first-past-the-post election system makes it hard to create viable third parties. In a hyper-polarized environment, the health of our democratic republic relies on healthy, dynamic major parties. 

The GOP had a chance to push Trump aside. Instead, it’s giving him a bear hug. Republicans have decided to hang together. Instead, they may hang separately.

That's a bad sign for North Carolina, and the nation.