The history of the Republican Party over the past seventy years includes battles between the moderates within the party against the extremists to the right. During most of the second half of the 20th Century and some of the 21st Century, the moderates were able to seize the presidential nomination. But the far-right Donald Trump steamroller movement seems to have almost crushed the remaining elements of the moderates.
In 1952, the Republican Party was divided between the moderates favoring General Dwight Eisenhower and the deeply conservative (though barely extremist) element favoring Senator Robert Taft of Ohio. Eisenhower won the nomination in 1952 as well as the presidential election. The same thing happened four years later in 1956.
The GOP nomination in 1960 went to Eisenhower’s vice-president, Richard Nixon. At that time in his life, he was actually quite moderate, in part because he was constantly currying the favor of Eisenhower. It was not a certainty that Eisenhower would endorse Nixon until a day before the convention. Nixon was opposed by progressive New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller, but the former vice-president won the nomination, carrying all eleven states with primaries as well as every other state that did not have a “favorite son” running. Nixon’s ease with winning the nomination did not carry over to the election as he was edged by Democrat John F. Kennedy.
1964 was the first year in which a true right-wing extremist won the Republican nomination. The nominee was Senator Barry Goldwater of Arizona, as he defeated Rockefeller on the strength of his appeal to many voters who were angry about the progressive turns in the Kennedy-Johnson years. Goldwater became famous for uttering in his acceptance speech at the Republican convention, “Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice. And moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.”
Goldwater wanted to undo much of Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society as well as Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal. But he carried very few moderate Republicans and was soundly defeated in November. That election, 1964, was the last time that Democrats won in a landslide.
1968 was one of the strangest and most disconcerting years in American history. Lyndon Johnson announced on March 31 that he would not seek renomination. Two other individual seemed to be likely candidates, Senator Eugene McCarthy of Minnesota and Senator Robert F. Kennedy of New York. Kennedy was assassinated right after the California primary in early June. Johnson’s vice-president Hubert Humphrey ran as the “proxy Johnson” candidate. He did not enter any primaries, but with the help of Johnson in garnering support from the “party regulars,” Humphrey was able to win the nomination at the disjointed convention in Chicago where on-going violence was taking place in downtown.
On the Republican side, Richard Nixon was able to make a comeback, in large part because of the support that he had given Republican candidates across the country over the previous six years. He was opposed by newly elected governor of California Ronald Reagan and New York’s long-time governor Nelson Rockefeller. Nixon won ten of the twelve primaries and 61 % of the delegate votes. His politics fell somewhere between the progressive Rockefeller and the conservative Reagan. He won the election against Humphrey and third-party candidate Governor George Wallace of Alabama. Nixon governed moderately for his first several years, but as his anger rose, he became more and more conservative.
Even though the Watergate break-in occurred in 1972, it did not impact Richard Nixon’s reelection that year. He carried every state other than Massachusetts and the District of Columbia. He had no opposition in the Republican primary that year, and his election race against Senator George McGovern of South Dakota was a breeze for him. But he was initially worried that he would have to run against popular Maine Senator Edmund Muskie. The fact that McGovern bested Muskie for the Democratic nomination was due in part to the Nixon “plumbers” who created false and misleading information about Muskie, and they eventually trapped him into appearing very unpresidential in a press conference.
Once Nixon won reelection, his primary focus was on the Watergate cover-up. This brought out a great deal of anger and meanness on his part. It also was consistent with his notion of an “enemies list” and crafting domestic policies to undermine Johnson’s Great Society. By the time that Nixon resigned in August of 1974, his governance was quite conservative.
In 1973, after disgraced Vice-President Spiro Agnew resigned, Rep. Gerald Ford of Michigan became vice-president. He assumed the presidency upon Nixon’s resignation. He was faced with problems of inflation, recession, and an extended energy crisis. He was considered a moderate, in large part because he did not fervently support the right-wing Republican social agenda on abortion, gay rights, etc. Leading to the 1976 election, Ford was seen as vulnerable. He was challenged by the aforementioned former Governor Ronald Reagan of California. The contest was extremely tight as Ford carried 26 states and Reagan 24. Ford won 1,121 delegates and Reagan 1,078. Ford won the nomination, as a moderate, but Reagan had established himself as a national leader and was poised for 1980.
In the 1976 general election, Ford carried a great deal of Nixon’s baggage, including the fact that Ford pardoned Nixon for “all crimes committed or might have been committed.” Ford lost to energetic Democrat, former Georgia Governor Jimmy Carter.
Carter had a somewhat sluggish presidency as he faced many of the economic and energy problems that Ford did and he was further burdened by the fact that 51 Americans had been taken hostage by Iran during a califate revolution. The 1980 Republican nomination was going to be a prime plumb and Reagan was poised to secure in on behalf of the conservative wing of the party. He carried 44 states to the six carried by moderate George H.W. Bush, who Reagan accepted as his vice-president. Reagan defeated Carter in a landslide. Four years later, Reagan faced nominal opposition for the nomination and then prevailed in another landslide election, this time against former vice-president Walter Mondale of Minnesota.
The race for the 1988 Republican nomination was largely between two party regulars who fell somewhere between moderation and extremism. Vice-President George H.W. Bush battled Kansas Senator Bob Dole. Extremists to the right were represented by Rev. Pat Robertson of Virginia, but he carried only four states. Dole became quite upset with some of the accusations by Bush, whose campaign was managed by one of the greatest masters of dirty tricks, Lee Atwater. The Bush campaign dispensed of Dole rather early in the primary sweepstakes and went on to carry 42 states.
The Democrats continued a habit of choosing weak presidential nominees, this time former Governor Michael Dukakis of Massachusetts. Atwater was incredibly skilled in embarrassing Dukakis, portraying Dukakis as being both soft on crime and weak as a military leader. Bush won in the third straight Republican landslide.
When Bush ran for reelection in 1992, he a tougher race. First, Atwater had died the year before from a virulent form of brain cancer, and his Democratic opponent was a strong one, former Arkansas governor Bill Clinton. Bush was also challenged from the right within his own party by former journalist and Nixon speech-writer Pat Buchanan. Bush carried all 50 states and the District of Columbia and easily dispensed of Buchanan to win the Republican nomination.
In 1988, Bush had campaigned on a very conservative plank, “read my lips, no new taxes.” He had been able to fulfill that promise until 1992, reelection year. The federal government was running short on money and new taxes were in order. He walked back his pledge, albeit with sound reasoning. But it hurt him politically. Clinton was a breath of fresh air, particularly in the debates where he came across as much more human and compassionate than Bush. Clinton won the election in a three-way race in which eccentric businessman Ross Perot ran as an independent.
While Clinton had a difficult time getting legislation through Congress, he was still popular among voters. Two veterans of previous presidential races were the top contenders for the GOP nomination in 1996, Kansas Senator Bob Dole and Virginia journalist Pat Buchanan. In this case, the moderate, Dole, achieved an overwhelming victory, carrying delegates from 46 states, this, despite losing New Hampshire to Buchanan early in the cycle. Dole was a legitimate moderate who knew as well as anyone how Congress operated, something that was tough for Clinton to do. But Clinton started his campaign well before Dole won the Republican nomination and he carried 31 states plus DC for a 379 – 159 electoral victory. Clinton won the popular vote by a margin of over eight million votes.
The fight for the 2000 Republican nomination featured moderate Senator John McCain against conservative former Texas Governor George W. Bush. While Bush seemed to many to be too naïve and inexperienced for the job, he had an extremely skilled campaign staff, and he was able to capitalize on the growing conservative movement in the country. In the primaries, he won nearly twice as many votes as McCain and carried 45 states.
In the November general election, Democrat Al Gore of Tennessee, the sitting vice-president won the popular vote by over 500,000 votes. The electoral victor depended on the vote from Florida where there was considerable confusion and malfeasance, particularly with the use of “butterfly ballots” in Palm Beach County. At first it appeared that Gore would carry Florida; then Bush, whereupon Gore conceded. But as the Florida vote tightened up again, Gore rescinded his concession. Virtually all components of the Florida race were thrown into the courts which resulted in numerous precinct recounts. Ultimately, the U.S. Supreme Court rendered a decision that resulted in Bush winning the election. It was a 5-4 decision, and Justice Sandra Day O’Connor later said that she thought that she made a mistake in her vote. But Bush won and what happened in the country was quite different from what would have happened with an Al Gore presidency.
Gore graciously accepted the Supreme Court’s decision, and Bush was inaugurated as president. It remains an open question as to what Bush and the Republicans would have done had the Court ruled in Gore’s favor.
It was on Bush’s watch that nine-eleven occurred. Many scholars believe that had Gore been president, he may well have paid more attention to the CIA’s warning about Al Qaeda during the first eight months of his administration and perhaps would have been able to prevent the attack from happening. Had nine eleven occurred on his watch, it is unlikely that he would have invaded Iraq for specious reasons as Bush did.
In 2004, Bush had the most nominal of opponents in the Republican primary. In the general election, he won the popular vote by over three million votes and the determinative electoral count, 285 – 251.
Most people remember the 2008 election because of Barack Obama’s nomination win over Hillary Clinton, and then his win of the presidency. But Republicans had a very competitive race for their nomination. Eventually Senator John McCain of Arizona won the contest, winning the races in thirty-seven states. But former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney won eleven contests and nearly five million popular votes to McClain’s ten million. Both McCain and Romney were seen as moderates.
Two other candidates in the race were former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee who was on the far-right of the evangelical wing of the Republican party, and Texas congressman Ron Paul who was more of a libertarian than a Republican. In 2008, the moderates in the GOP clearly carried the day.
2012 was another year in which the moderate wing of the Republican Party prevailed. Romney won going away with 42 states and over 52% of the popular vote. His nearest competitor was former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum who was an extreme right-wing religious candidate. Also on the race were Ron Paul again as well as former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, who in many ways was the father of the modern right-wing Republican Party.
Romney won the nomination but lost the general election to Obama. Even though Obama won reelection, he was being stymied with his legislative agenda, particularly with the obstinance of Republican leader in the Senate, Mitch McConnell.
Charles Darwin would have liked the 2016 Republican race, as it was clearly an exercise of survival of the fittest. The fittest won the nomination and eventually the election, but as was clear to many when he first announced his candidacy in June of 2015, Donald Trump was not the fittest to govern.
He won the nomination against fifteen other candidates who took the stage on at least one of the televised Republican debates in the 2016 cycle. Most Republicans thought that Trump’s candidacy was a “joke,” but as more and more of the other candidates dropped out of the race, Trump became more of a concern, and then a favorite. The other candidates learned rather quickly that it was not wise for them to cross swords with Trump. He had ways of humiliating others while responding to attacks on him with more vicious rebuttals on his opponents. He dispatched in quick order with some of the previously favored candidates such as Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, John Kasich, Carly Fiorina, Santorum, Paul and Huckabee. Even before the primaries began, well-known Republicans such as former New York governor George Pataki, South Carolina senator Lindsey Graham, former Texas governor Rick Perry, Wisconsin governor Scott Walker and Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal. Some of those who dropped out were moderate (Kasich and Bush) but most were extreme right-wingers. The last person standing before Trump clinched the nomination was extreme right-winger Senator Ted Cruz of Texas. Trump attacked Cruz by insinuating that his father had been part of a conspiracy to kill President John Kennedy, and that his wife was unattractive. When the Republican delegates assembled in Cleveland, Trump had nearly three times as many delegates as Cruz. Trump organized the convention to in many ways be a “hate-fest” as he and his supporters lambasted Republicans who did not agree with him as well as anyone with a ‘D’ (Democrat) after their name.
If the Trump – Clinton race has occurred in virtually any other democracy, Clinton would have won solidly, with nearly three million more popular votes than Trump. But this is the United States, and it has the anachronistic Electoral College. In that arena, Trump prevailed 306 – 225, and thus was declared the next president of the United States.
By 2020, Trump was so popular within the Republican Party that his only opposition was the not-well-known former governor of Massachusetts, William Weld, a genuine moderate. In the primaries. Weld won only 2.35 % of the vote while Trump essentially won the rest. Trump won the nomination and then went on to lose the general election to former vice-president and senator Joe Biden of Delaware by seven million popular votes, and in the Electoral College, 306-225, the same margin by which he had won four years previously. However, now, twenty months after the election, Trump still does not understand that he lost, nor do many of his supporters. That in itself exemplifies how far to the radical right the Republican Party currently sits.
The main difference in the 2022 Republican Party is that it’s virtually impossible to find a moderate Republican. Where are the Dwight Eisenhowers, Nelson Rockefellers, Gerald Fords, George H.W. Bushs, Bob Doles, John McCains and Mitt Romneys of the Republican Party? It seems that somewhere between the time that Donald Trump declared his candidacy for the 2016 Republican nomination in June of 2015 and the time that he won the nomination in July, 2016, it became virtually impossible to be a moderate in the GOP without getting verbally demolished by Trump.
Following the testimony of White House Chief-of-Staff aide Cassidy Hutchinson before the January 6 committee on June 28 of this year, it seems that Trump is not a shoo-in to win the 2024 GOP presidential nomination. But the mostly likely opponents are current “Trumpsters” such as Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida, Gov. Greg Abbott of Texas, former vice-president Mike Pence of Indiana, Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, Senator Marco Rubio of Florida and former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley. If there is a well-known moderate in the party, it would be Wyoming congresswoman Liz Cheney. In reality, her views on most issues are strongly conservative. Where she differs from the others is in her integrity, as show so vividly in her role as vice-chair of the Jan. 6 committee.
As we see from the chart above, Republicans have won eleven of the eighteen races since 1952. Had the winner been based on the popular vote, the split would be nine each. The Republicans have won the popular vote only once in the last eight elections (W. Bush in 2004). Theoretically the Democrats should be on a roll.
But Republican extremists seem to have captured the party, though it was only ten years ago when the party nominated a moderate (Romney in 2012). Under fair and equal rules, the Democrats may have a bright future. However, the conservative Supreme Court is actively undermining democracy, and at the present time, all bets are off.