June 22, 2021

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Republican dissidents have a mailing list problem

4 min read

The Republican Party can’t split, no matter how divided on policy it is, no matter how wide the forever-Trump vs. never-Trump chasm, no matter how eagerly some factions want a Myanmar-style coup and how close other factions come to apoplexy over the suggestion. GOP politicos can’t leave because they can’t abandon the mailing list.

It’s not just the mailing list, of course. It’s all the data — emails, phone numbers, donation histories — on lists built, bought, and borrowed. It’s access to high-dollar donors, the party’s collective war chest, and the support of partisan PACs. It’s reliably friendly coverage from media outlets like Fox and One Ameria News. It’s ties to the local party organization, all the little people who knock on doors and hand out flyers and run for local and state office and sometimes prove themselves valuable enough to be promoted off the farm team and into the big leagues. It’s connections to contractors and consultants, the professional spammers, list brokers, pollsters, and fixers who often only work with campaigns from one party, lest their mercenary loyalty be in doubt. It’s control of the presidential debates, the ability to select the moderator, steer the topical choices, and (usually) exclude all but one other candidate in the general election. And it’s ballot access, an arduous and expensive process that favors established, larger parties over newer and smaller ones — and also an absolute necessity for any would-be viable campaign.

All this infrastructure and more is the indivisible asset precluding Republican divorce. You can’t divvy this stuff up in a geographically delimited, winner-take-all politics like our present electoral system; and you can’t win national races without it.

It might be possible to replicate all this infrastructure in a new party, to make a clean break and rebuild from scratch. But “possible” here is so far from “plausible.” There are three huge obstacles to this idea which I suspect makes it a non-starter.

First and foremost is the timeline. Forget about the 2022 midterms — party infrastructure on this scale can’t be made from scratch in the half-year before those races begin. Nor can it be assembled in the 18 months between now and January of 2023, when the 2024 presidential candidates will probably begin to announce their campaigns. How long the whole process might take, I’m not sure, but something like eight or 10 years wouldn’t surprise me. Data collection can happen relatively quickly, especially if you have the enormous financial resources this project would require. But a lot of this infrastructure is far more human in nature.

Our hypothetical new partisans would need to convince people switching teams is not only ideologically worthwhile but politically pragmatic. That’s a huge lift, and the new party would be constantly fighting the clock. The longer it takes to gain momentum, the more the pragmatic angle looks like a lie. “If this is so popular,” those high-dollar donors would ask, “why isn’t it more popular?” Without quick progress, money and enthusiasm would wane, making quick progress even more unattainable.

The ballot access rules present a unique hurdle, too, as some state’s procedures require the same qualifying work every single election cycle, while some base what a party must do in one cycle on their performance in the previous cycle. Fail to win in 2024 and you have to work harder for access in 2026. It’s a vicious cycle with which extant third parties are all too familiar.

Closely related to the timing problem is the opportunity cost. All those years of collecting data and wooing voters and donors away from the GOP would almost certainly be years of Democratic triumph. With the center-right vote split between the Republican Party and those who left it, Democratic candidates would likely win several consecutive elections in a landslide. This would be intolerable for the GOP and ex-GOP alike. It would also give Democrats an opportunity to legislate structural changes to consolidate their own power and keep the right divided into two ineffective, possibly regional parties. Democrats could redraw districts in their own favor, for example, or make ballot access costlier and more complicated.

That brings me to the third obstacle, which is another sort of party infrastructure: the power of a congressional majority. Even if Democrats were in the minority at the time of the split and gained no seats (both unlikely), they would become the congressional plurality. Unless the two conservative parties could form a governing coalition immediately after their bitter split, the Democrats would control committee assignments and congressional voting schedules. That’s quite a prize in our ever more oligarchic Congress, as the recent GOP ouster of Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) from the pecking order and the whole career of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) have demonstrated.

Among the GOP political class, this is all far too much to cede, however furious the intra-party fights. They are locked inside the big tent together, because the tent is where the infrastructure is. They are stuck, unhappy, under the same brand because no one can surrender the lists.

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