The 2020 presidential election has found former Ohio Governor John Kasich at a crossroads. No, literally; on the first day of the Democratic National Convention, the lifelong Republican delivered a speech while standing at a physical fork in the road, urging Republicans and independents to cross the aisle and vote for former Vice President Joe Biden in November. “I know Joe as a good man, a man of faith, a unifier,” Kasich said about the vice president of an administration whose policies he lobbied against in his old role. “[Biden] knows that the path for a rejuvenated America lies in respect, and unity, and a common purpose for everyone… We can do better than what we’ve been seeing for sure,” Kasich went on, not so subtly registering his disapproval with the current administration of President Donald Trump, “And I know that Joe Biden, with his experience and his wisdom and his decency, can bring us together to help us find that better way.”
In the 2016 Republican presidential primaries, Kasich emerged as the “moderate” alternative to Tea Party favorites like Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio and the increasingly nationalistic and populist Trump, but a quick look at his record shows that he was anything but moderate during his time as both a governor and a congressman. During his first gubernatorial campaign in 2009, Kasich spoke of the need to “break the back of organized labor in the schools” in reference to Ohio’s teachers’ union, a threat he made good on once he was elected by signing a bill that severely restricted collective bargaining rights of Ohio state employees.1 This law would eventually be repealed via referendum. He took similarly harsh action against abortion rights, singing a ban on abortions after 20 weeks and calling for Planned Parenthood to be defunded, and while running for president said he would establish a Voice of America-style government agency that would promote “core, Judeo-Christian, Western values” in “the Middle East, China, Iran, and Russia.” 2 I added that last bit in quotes A) because I wanted to make it clear that these were Kasich’s exact words and B) I wanted to be clear that I, unlike him, am aware that Iran is in the Middle East and that at least 74% of Russians are in fact Christian. He framed the creation of this hypothetical agency as a departure for him, bragging, as only a true bureaucracy-hating Reaganite could, that “there’s nobody who’s spent more time shrinking government and cutting budgets than I have.”
I bring up Kasich’s record as a way of saying that, yes, even though he’s been a frequent critic of Trump, a dyed in the wool conservative such as himself going out of the way to endorse Joe Biden, one of the forces behind the Affordable Care Act and a proponent of raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour, is still kind of a big deal. And it’s worth noting, of course, that he wasn’t alone in his endorsement. Kasich was joined on the first night of the DNC by former New York congresswoman Susan Molinari, former New Jersey Governor and Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Christine Todd Whitman, and Quibi CEO3 I found it quite humorous that the DNC insisted on referring to Meg Whitman as the “former CEO of Hewlett-Packard” in an effort not to highlight the tumultuous Quibi, whose foibles you can read about in this excellent piece by Benjamin Wallace. and former California gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman in endorsing Biden; on the following night, these Republican dissenters were joined by former Secretary of State Colin Powell, who said that Joe Biden would be a president “we will all be proud to salute.”
This chorus of Republican endorsees marks a sharp contrast to 2016, when most high profile Republicans either fell in line with their party’s nominee or displayed their disapproval by merely abstaining from the Republican National Convention or opting to vote for third party candidates. If Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton did receive any support from the right, it was typically from commentators or lower level GOP operatives. Sure, Republican Presidents George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush were said to have had private misgivings about Trump and may have voted for Clinton, former GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney made a speech condemning Trump and wrote in his wife Ann, and Speaker of the House Paul Ryan gave the green light to Republicans to separate themselves from Trump after the release of the Access Hollywood tape, but none of these people made a public statement explicitly endorsing the Democratic candidate the way Kasich and company (a faction that grew after the convention to include a number of former senators and members of Congress such as former Arizona Senator Jeff Flake) di this year.4It’s worth noting, however, that Powell has voted for the Democratic candidate in every Presidential election since 2008 and that Meg Whitman endorsed Clinton in 2016. In a way, the Republican speeches at the DNC represented a culmination of sorts for the “Never Trump” Republicans, a small and once disparate faction of the GOP that has started to organize in groups like Republican Voters Against Trump and the Lincoln Project, the latter of which was founded by George Conway, husband to White House Counselor Kellyanne Conway.5George and Kellyanne’s daughter, Claudia, has also gotten involved in politics — she’s a leftist TikToker, who’s accused her parents of abuse and is pursuing emancipation. Both Conways are planning to step down from their respective roles, citing family reasons.
Despite the enthusiasm of the Kasichs and the Powells of the world, there is some debate within the Democratic Party over whether or not courting independents and Republicans in such a heavy-handed way is an effective electoral strategy. Those concerns are valid — some analyses suggest that those moderate, suburban Republicans most likely to vote Democrat have already switched parties, while pockets of the progressive movement have argued that giving more airtime to the likes of Kasich and Powell than left-wing champions like New York congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez will alienate voters in the party’s growing progressive wing. The presidential primary seemed to have vindicated the moderate establishment and made this debate moot — when given the choice between democratic socialist Bernie Sanders and mainstream liberal Joe Biden, the voters chose Biden. But a string of recent primary victories from progressive challengers against entrenched Democratic members of Congress has shown that there is an appetite within the party’s base for more radical policies, and the debate about whose votes exactly the Democratic party should be pursuing — ideologically squishy, middle-of-the-road voters or committed progressives — has begun anew.
The question, in my mind, is one of risk. Do the Democrats, who strive to be a big tent party, think there is more to be gained by giving anti-union, anti-abortion conservatives like Kasich a platform even if it leaves progressives feeling as if they’ve been left in the lurch? In other words, will the gains that Democrats make among registered Republicans and independents (and it’s still an assumption that they will make gains among this dmeographic) offset the number of votes they may lose from disaffected progressives?
We won’t find out the answer to that question until November 3rd at the earliest, but there is a bit of history we can draw on to see if the Democratic strategy of embracing Never Trump Republicans will pay off. 2020 is far from the first year a politician of one party has spoken at the convention of the other, so I thought I’d look at three relatively recent examples of this phenomenon to see if such speeches have any effect on the election. Specifically, I’ll be looking to see if:
- The national percentage of members of one party voting for the presidential candidate from the opposite party increased from the election before (the most obvious goal of Kasich’s speech)
- If the candidate of the party the speaker supported performed better in the speaker’s home state than in the prior election (I’m sure that Kasich being from the swing state of Ohio helped net him a spot at the convention, and that the Democrats would be much less inclined to let him speak if he were from a electorally solid state like, say, Wyoming or Rhode Island).
- If the candidate of the party the speaker supported performed better among any demographic groups the speaker is tied too (white women voted for Trump by a margin of 53% to 43% in 2016, but in the 2018 House elections that gap in party support shrunk, with both Republican and Democratic candidates receiving 49% of this group’s vote. The inclusion of Molinari and the two Whitmans on the virtual DNC stage is a clear attempt by the Democrats to keep nudging this group in a blueward direction).
Make sense? All right, let’s take a look at some speeches:
2004 Republican National Convention, New York, New York
The Speaker: Georgia Senator Zell Miller
The Speech: Zell Miller became the first person in American history to deliver the keynote address at both a Democratic and Republican National Convention. In 1992, while still a governor, he made the argument that the Democratic Party existed because “we can’t all be born rich and handsome and lucky,” and attacked the incumbent presidential team of George H.W. Bush and Dan Quayle as out of touch, while crediting his and his family’s success to every Democratic president between Roosevelt and Carter. In 2004, he disowned that same party in front of a fired up Republican crowd, decrying the Democratic Party as being “motivated more by partisan politics than by national security,” and compared his defection to that of one-time Roosevelt opponent Wendell Willkie. The speech he gave in New York is striking in its hawkishness, accusing the Democrats, and especially presidential nominee John Kerry, as unfit to lead America in the War on Terror. He illustrates his point by invoking Kerry’s opposition to the Vietnam War and his votes against funding for a litany of military weapons and vehicles. “George Bush wants to grab terrorists by the throat and not let them go to get a better grip. From John Kerry, they get a ‘yes-no-maybe’ bowl of mush that can only encourage our enemies and confuse our friends.”
Change in Democratic Support for Republican Candidate, 2000-2004: +0% (2000: 11%, 2004: 11%)
Change in Georgia’s Support for Republican Candidate, 2000-2004: +3.3% (2000: 54.67%, 2004: 57.97%)
Change in White Male Support for Republican Candidate, 2000-2004: +3% (2000: 55%, 2004: 58%)
2008 Republican National Convention, St. Paul, Minnesota
The Speaker: Connecticut Senator (and former Democratic Vice Presidential candidate) Joe Lieberman
The Speech: Lieberman, who ran for and eventually won his Senate seat as an independent candidate in 2006 after losing his party’s primary but continued to caucus with the Democrats, struck a relatively conciliatory chord when he endorsed John McCain for president, especially when compared with fellow Democratic defector Miller’s rallying cry from only four years earlier. He praised Bill Clinton as a Democrat who crossed party lines for the good of the country (which was met with, in the words of Mark Halperin,”grumbling and uncertain applause“) and said that then-Senator Barack Obama was a “gifted and eloquent young man who I think can do great things for our country in the years ahead,” but ultimately endorsed McCain because of his record of “independence and bipartisanship.” He tried to boost vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin as well, saying of the Republican ticket “the Washington bureaucrats and the power-brokers are not going to be able to build a pen that will hold in these two mavericks. It’s just not possible.” He also, like Miller, emphasized the Republican nominee’s foreign policy strengths, highlighting McCain’s support for the Iraq War troop surge and declaring that McCain would be a president that “our allies will trust and our enemies will fear.”
Change in Democratic Support for Republican Candidate, 2004-2004 :-1% (2004: 11%, 20008: 10%)
Change in Connecticut’s Support for Republican Candidate, 2004-2008: -6.28 (2004: 54.31%, 2008: 60.59%)
Change in Jewish Support for Republican Candidate, 2004-2008: -3% (2004: 25%, 2008: 21%)
2016 Democratic National Convention, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
The Speaker: Former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg
The Speech: Having won three terms as mayor of the largest city on the country, twice as a Republican, once as a Republican-endorsed independent,8Hooray for electoral fusionism! Bloomberg set out to persuade Trump-skeptical Republicans and independents to pull the lever for Hillary Clinton instead of staying home. He emphasized how she “worked with Republicans in Washington to ensure that New York got the help it needed to recover and rebuild” in the wake of 9/11 and conceded that while the two of them didn’t always agree, she “always listened.” He also acknowledged the outsider appeal that made him a viable candidate for the mayoralty, but said that voters shouldn’t be fooled by Trump’s alleged business acumen, arguing that his proposed policies would damage the economy, reduce America’s standing in the world, and “make our communities less safe.” “The bottom line is: Trump is a risky, radical choice,” he summed up. “Hillary Clinton understands that this is not reality television; this is reality. She understands the job of president. It involves finding solutions, not pointing fingers, and offering hope, not stoking fear.”
Change in Republican Support for Democratic Presidential Candidate, 2012-2016: +1% (2012: 6%, 2016: 7%)
Change in New York Support for Democratic Presidential Candidate, 2012-2016: -4.34% (2012: 63.35%, 2016: 59.01%)
Change in Jewish Support for Democratic Presidential Candidate, 2012-2016: +2% (2012: 69%, 2016: 71%)
So what does this (statistically insignificant) data seem to show us? Well, it seems like these kinds of speeches are really only so effective. Of our three speakers, none of them saw an improvement in their preferred candidate’s performance in our three chosen categories. Miller’s Bush endorsement comes the closest, with both white male and Georgia voters going for Bush in slightly larger numbers than they did four years earlier, but Democratic support stood pat. Bloomberg’s endorsement of Clinton saw her do marginally better than Obama among both Republican and Jewish voters, but she actually did worse in her home state of New York (and worse in New York City as well, winning 79% of the vote to Obama’s 81%) by a larger margin than both of those percentage gains combined (it likely didn’t help that Donald Trump was also from New York). And Lieberman’s endorsement of McCain seems to have done the Republican absolutely no favors — he underperformed Bush among both Democratic and Jewish voters by a bit, but took a relative nosedive in Connecticut where he posted a 6.28% decrease in support, our largest swing in either direction for all the categories and candidates we looked at.
So it looks like, from our quick and dirty “study,” that having a member of the opposite party speak at your convention doesn’t really put you over the edge with a specific set of voters. It should be noted, of course, that Miller, Lieberman, and Bloomberg hardly represented typical members of their party. Miller wrote a book about how disillusioned he felt as a conservative in a rapidly liberalizing party back in 2003, and would end up co-chairing Newt Gingrich’s campaign for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination. Lieberman lost his Senate primary in 2006 before winning his seat as an independent, and, despite holding liberal positions on abortion, gay rights, and climate change, he was notorious for being a hawk among Democratic doves and for conservative stances on criminal justice, education, and the entertainment industry. And Bloomberg voluntarily left the Republican Party for his 2009 run for a third term, and took liberal positions on issues like gay rights, abortion, climate change, gun control, and, of course, the size of sodas. In fact, Bloomberg wound up as a Democrat again, running for the party’s presidential nomination in 2020, an exercise that saw him spend a lot of money all for the honor of being humiliated in his first debate by Elizabeth Warren.
What to make of these kinds of speeches then? Was the air time the Democratic Party gave to its old adversaries, as some progressives alleged, a waste of time, or did they serve a purpose? A generous assessment might say that it’s a good way to grab headlines — a Republican speaking at the Democratic convention is more newsworthy than a Democratic speaking at the Democratic convention, and the party might get some viewers (and, by extension, potential converts) who tune in for the sheer novelty of it all. But a more likely explanation seems to be that these speeches are less about the voters that the party is looking to win over, and more about voters they’ve already won over. Think about Miller’s home state of Georgia: when Roy Barnes won the state’s governorship in 2002, he was the first Republican to do so since 1868. When Saxby Chambliss was elected to the Senate from Georgia in that same year, he was only the third Republican to do so since Reconstruction. But few of those Democratic governors and senators were liberals in the vein of today’s, or even 2004’s, Democratic Party — at times they were staunch segregationists explicitly advocating for the interests of white, conservative Southerners.
The success of state Democrats in Georgia runs counter to the success of Democratic presidential candidates in that same state, however. The Democratic candidate won Georgia in only three of the eight presidential elections held between 1964 and 1992 — and in two of those elections, the winner was Jimmy Carter, a born and raised Georgian (the other was another Southern moderate — Bill Clinton in 1992). Perhaps it’s more helpful to think of cross-party endorsements like Miller’s as lagging indicators of where the electorate has shifted as opposed to efforts by the party to win over voters. This line of thinking could be applied to the trio of Republican women who endorsed Joe Biden, as well. White suburban women were already starting to break Democratic, and they aren’t doing it because Christine Todd Whitman and Meg Whitman told them too — Christine Todd Whitman and Meg Whitman are endorsing Biden because they’re also white, suburban women. Such speeches are less an act of persuasion than an act of affirmation. “You’re right”, Miller may as well have said, “the Democrats have abandoned the white working man. That’s why I, like you, am voting for George W. Bush.” Alternatively, Susan Molinari may as well have said, “It’s true, the Republican Party has become a den of misogyny more focused on limiting abortion rights than fostering a working economy. That’s why I, like millions of other white women, have embraced the Democratic Party.” Lieberman could say something similar for pro-Israel hawks, and Bloomberg something similar for socially liberal white collar workers.
What about someone like Kasich, though? As a white male Republican from Ohio, he represents a demographic that, if anything, has been consistently Republican-leaning over the last few decades. One could argue that he stands in for white collar workers or college educated voters, both of whom seem to be shifting into the Democratic tent. But, perhaps more compellingly, he represents a faction that was once synonymous with the Republican Party: movement conservatives.
A coalition of libertarians, anti-communists, foreign policy hawks, traditionalists, and the religious right, movement conservatism reached its apex with the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980, and have dominated the GOP for most of recent history. In a nutshell, movement conservatism was a reaction to New Deal liberalism that sought to cut taxes, slash government spending, promote traditional Judeo-Christian values and flex American military strength, all in the name of preserving individual liberty and bringing an end to the “big government” of the post-war American consensus. Shortsighted and paradoxical though this philosophy can sometimes be (control of government spending never seemed to extend to the military budget), it has more or less dictated the arc of American politics in the last forty years, and acted as the unofficial platform of the Republican Party in that time span.
At least it did until Donald Trump came along. By promoting immigration restrictions, trade tariffs, isolationism, and white identity politics, Trump broke with the Republican mainstream in more than just his bombastic, oftentimes offensive rhetoric. He fundamentally shifted the agenda of the Republican Party, taking the focus off of tax policy and the deficit and embracing an ideology more similar to the Old Right of the 1930s or Pat Buchanan’s paleoconservatism than the policies of Reagan or George H.W. Bush. And it’s proved contagious — conservative commentators have found new audiences railing against what they call ”zombie Reaganism“ or, in the words of Peter Spiliakos, “The application of 1980s Republican politics to a very different time.” A few of these commentators even drafted a manifesto opposing “zombie Reaganism” and what they argued as its “fetishiz[ation] of [individual] autonomy.” Rather than advocate for “free trade on every front, free movement through every boundary, small government as an end of itself, [and] technology as a cure all,” the authors of the manifesto called on conservatives to instead support policies opposing the spread of pornography, limiting immigration, and adopting policies that favor workers instead of business owners — in other words, “big government” with a right wing twist.
The manifesto also declares that “there is no returning to the pre-Trump conservative consensus that collapsed in 2016.” In other words, the GOP is Trump’s party now, and the president’s 90% approval rating among his own party shows little hope of that changing anytime soon. So what’s a Reagan Republican like John Kasich, an elite by any measure, a man who sat on corporate boards as a private citizen, fought for welfare reform as a congressman, and signed aggressively anti-labor legislation as a governor, supposed to do? With decidedly Trump like figures such as Missouri Senator Josh Hawley and Fox News commentator Tucker Carlson rising to prominence in the GOP and even pondering runs for the presidency, could it be that the path of least resistance may in fact be to join the Democratic Party? There, he could form an uneasy alliance with a party establishment that’s thus far held back its own populist revolt and has, in recent history, been willing to compromise with “moderate” Republicans such as himself, all in the name of protecting individual autonomy from a more socially and economically interventionist Republican Party. It’s a crazy thought, and not where I thought this article would end up, but hey, if the Never Trump Republicans in the electorate have already become Democrats, the Never Trump Republicans in office may be smart to do the same. America is a democracy after all — it only makes sense that the voters would pull politicians with them across party lines, and not the other way around.