In recent days, leading members of the Republican Party establishment have thrown their weight behind Joe Biden's presidential campaign. Colin Powell endorsed Biden last month, while dozens of former senior officeholders in Republican administrations have started political action committees that directly support Biden. Even George Bush and Mitt Romney have reportedly said they will not vote for Trump. Although lost among the news of the COVID-19 pandemic, mass joblessness, street protests and reports about a Russian program that put bounties on the lives of American soldiers, the support of leading Republicans for a Democratic candidate nonetheless represents a political earthquake.
There are four possible explanations. The first explanation boils down to policy differences. While most Republican officeholders fear President Trump's influence over Republicans who vote in primaries, they and others in the Republican establishment disagree with the president's policies. They welcome, rather than fear, immigration; they support international trade and engagement; and they reject the president's coronavirus policy (or non-policy). In short, the Republican Party is cracking up—with its smaller, but wealthy, business wing drawing apart from its more numerous socially conservative, evangelical and nationalist foot soldiers.
The problem with this view is that, in fact, the business/evangelical coalition remains fairly strong. Republicans of all stripes delight in Trump's tax cuts, regulatory rollback and appointment of conservative judges. If the Republican Party were really splitting, we would see serious efforts to create a third national party. Back in the 1990s, Ross Perot founded the Reform Party for just this purpose—hoping to peel off anti-trade, anti-immigration conservatives from the Republican Party. (Donald Trump briefly joined the Reform Party, in 2000.)
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