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Wednesday, December 7, 2016

The Republican presidential field is like the broom that keeps endlessly splitting into more brooms in “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” section of Fantasia. By this time next week, there will likely be 10 officially declared candidates — and that doesn’t even include the sitting governors of Wisconsin, Ohio, Louisiana, and New Jersey, the former governor of Florida, or Donald Trump.

Many Democrats would give their eyeteeth for even a fraction of the credible contenders in this crowd. All joking about Hollywood Squares aside, how to handle debates when you’ve got a field nearly the size of two baseball teams is a good problem to have.

But does quantity equal quality and an advantage in a general election? Or does it mean endless coverage of positions that could hurt the eventual nominee?

Two recent developments point up the divergent trend lines between the country and the GOP, or at least the base that will be influencing its early nomination process.

One is a new Gallup poll that shows pronounced leftward shifts on moral issues since 2001. For instance, 63 percent consider gay and lesbian relations morally acceptable, up from 40 percent 14 years ago. There are also new majorities that find doctor-assisted suicide and having a baby outside marriage morally acceptable, and double-digit increases in existing majorities on sex between unmarried men and women, divorce and stem-cell research using human embryos.

“Moral acceptability of many of these issues is now at a record high level,” writes Gallup editor-in-chief Frank Newport. “Americans have become less likely to say that two issues are morally acceptable: the death penalty and medical testing on animals. But Americans’ decreased acceptance of these practices actually moves them in a more liberal direction.”

Newport adds that the attitude shifts could significantly affect politics, “with candidates whose positioning is based on holding firm views on certain issues having to grapple with a voting population that, as a whole, is significantly less likely to agree with conservative positions than it might have been in the past.”

Who's in the race?
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There are multiple Republican candidates with firm but out-of-step views, and it’s not out of the question that one or more will do well in early contests in Iowa and South Carolina. But such a nominee would hold limited appeal, particularly to young voters, in a general election.

A similar dynamic is playing out on immigration. So far, conservatives are winning the legal battle to block President Obama’s sweeping executive actions to protect millions of undocumented immigrants from deportation, most recently this week with the 2-1 decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit in New Orleans to keep in place a lower court’s injunction against the program.

But poll after poll has shown that on immigration policy itself, majorities agree with Obama that there should be a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants who meet certain conditions. And while a handful of Republican contenders are open to the idea, that’s not the takeaway from the 2016 field. They stress border security, denounce Obama as an overreaching tyrant, and, in at least one case, call for less legal immigration.

GOP candidates who weren’t inclined to attack the substance of Obama’s views seized on the executive actions as a way to set themselves apart from him. But their legal victories notwithstanding, there’s no mistaking which side Republicans are on. Nor is there any doubt where Hillary Clinton and other Democrats stand. They’re with Obama and in some cases inclined to take his policies even further toward protecting undocumented immigrants.

That’s no small thing for Hispanics. Six in 10 know someone who is undocumented and 36 percent know someone who has faced deportation proceedings, according to a Latino Decisions/Robert Wood Johnson Foundation poll in March. The anxiety and concern are community-wide — but the GOP doesn’t seem attuned to that.

And that’s no small thing for a Republican nominee. Hispanic voters could determine who wins Colorado, Florida, New Mexico, Nevada, Virginia, and North Carolina next year. In other words, who wins the presidency.

The issue splits go on and on. Majorities in polls say corporations and the wealthy don’t pay their fair share of taxes, while Republicans want to lower taxes for both. Majorities want a nuclear deal with Iran, even as Republicans attack Obama and the whole idea of a deal.

This is not to say a Republican won’t capture the White House next year. But win or lose, the party is on an unsustainable path. A field of 16 can’t change that, and it might even make it worse.

Follow Jill Lawrence on Twitter @JillDLawrence. To find out more about Jill Lawrence and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com. 

Image: DonkeyHotey via Flickr. Graphic showing who is officially running for president: Tribune News Service 2015