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Trump's Indiana win raises unsettling questions for GOP

Shifts in thought

Donald Trump became the presumptive Republican presidential nominee Tuesday, winning the Indiana primary as Ted Cruz dropped out. It punctuates the power of the populist rebellion against the GOP elite.  

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    Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks at a campaign event at The Palladium at the Center for Performing Arts in Carmel, Ind.
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For weeks, #NeverTrump Republicans saw the Indiana primary as one of the final firewalls standing between an outright win for the Manhattan billionaire and a contested convention in July, where another candidate could possibly emerge victorious.

The Hoosier state, after all, seemed ripe for Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas – strongly evangelical and with a pronounced tea-party tilt.

Now, it stands as a microcosm of this Republican primary season, showing the depth of the Republican revolt in the most decisive terms yet.

Indiana Republicans chose Donald Trump Tuesday, giving him more than 50 percent of the vote with two-thirds of the vote counted. Senator Cruz responded by suspending his presidential campaign. Mr. Trump's pathway to the Republican presidential nomination now appears clear. 

As a result, Indiana has underlined deep and unsettling questions for the Republican Party.

Mr. Trump’s appeal to working class whites through economic populism and anti-immigrant nationalism beat Senator Cruz’s focus on establishment orthodoxy and culture-war worries.

On one hand, that’s nothing new. In sweeping the South, Trump again and again won Republican bulwarks with a message that, stripped to its essence, doesn’t really look very Republican – at least not as the party has defined itself since Ronald Reagan. Save Social Security. Rein in free trade. Support Planned Parenthood.

The difference is, Indiana was #NeverTrump’s last stand. Practically speaking, it has no more deeply red and electorally significant states in which to fight. And now, it has lost Cruz, too.

Republican voters have decided, and the forces seeking to push the Trump rebellion to the margins have lost.

What happens in the embers of this primary season and the general election ahead will shape what the Republican Party takes from 2016. But Indiana punctuates a now-inescapable conclusion: The party is not what it thought it was just nine months ago.

The last stand

The Republican Party has been loath to reach this conclusion.

In rallying behind Cruz in a last-ditch effort to stop Trump, many insiders chose a candidate who was, at least, reliably Republican – even if his politics and personality grated.

Now the party must ask itself if it is merely Trump’s personality that has galvanized Republican primary voters, or if he is the vessel for a deeper shift away from the low tax, small government, free trade orthodoxies that have dominated the party for more than 30 years.

That remains an open question. To some, Trump is a singular phenomenon – a political outlier whose success comes from his inimitable style. Cruz’s inability to compete even on such apparently friendly turf speaks to his lack of charisma.

“It appears that Cruz is having a hard time galvanizing voters because he is not winning the hearts of voters the way successful candidates need to do,” says Amy Black, a political scientist at Wheaton College in Illinois. “He isn't perceived as likeable, and that is a tough hurdle for voters. For many voters, it isn't enough for a candidate to line up with them on issues; personality and charisma matter a lot in American politics.”

Moreover, Indiana held unique advantages for Trump, too. It has more manufacturing jobs as part of its total employment than any other state in the nation. Since the early days of the campaign, Trump has railed against Indianapolis-based Carrier Corp. moving production of its air conditioners to Mexico.

“From steel mills on the shores of Lake Michigan to the medical device hub of Warsaw, to Elkhart, the ‘RV capital of the world,’ Indiana’s blue-collar workforce – and its blue-collar retirees – are machine-made for Trump,” wrote David Wasserman at FiveThirtyEight on Monday.

Still, Trump’s repeated success in some of the reddest and most evangelical states – such as Indiana – has thrown doubt on the traditional Republican message. As the white working class continues to struggle after the Great Recession, classic Republican talking-points don't appear to be resonating as they once did.

A Cruz advertisement in Indiana likened Trump to Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton: “Both support the Obamacare individual mandate. Both support taxpayer funding for Planned Parenthood. Both support letting transgender men go in little girls’ bathrooms,” the ad says.

And again on Tuesday, Cruz’s angst boiled over as he made a desperate plea to the Republican spirit he knows best, accusing Trump of being “utterly amoral” and “a serial philanderer.”

None of it worked.

“At the very least, [this] does suggest that Republicans’ longstanding strategy of building majorities for their anti-tax platform by appealing to working-class voters’ Christian morals has lost a lot of its power,” wrote Eduardo Porter in The New York Times last month. And “it took Mr. Trump to identify the real Achilles’ heel in the Reagan coalition: an economic policy built around tax cuts for the wealthy that has failed to deliver the goods to the Republican base for far too long.”

This in a state where, in 2012 exit polls, more than 1 in 3 voters identified as white, born-again Christians. Where GOP primary voters ousted Sen. Richard Lugar, a 36-year moderate incumbent, in favor of tea party purist Richard Mourdock. (Mr. Mourdock lost the general election after making controversial comments about rape and abortion.)

The path ahead

Nine GOP primaries remain before June 7, and the two biggest – New Jersey and California – are hardly deep red.

As working class concerns dominate this year’s election in both parties, the relative strength of Evangelicals has begun to wane – as well as their traditional support for Republicans.

Republicans delivered nothing but “defeat after defeat in the culture wars,” wrote Stephen Prothero, professor of religion at Boston University, in Politico Magazine in March. “Cultural conservatives failed to pass constitutional amendments on school prayer or abortion. They lost on Bill Clinton’s impeachment. They lost on pop culture, where movies and television shows today make the sort of entertainment decried by the Moral Majority look like ‘It’s a Wonderful Life.’ And same-sex marriage is now the law of the land.”

Cruz announced his candidacy at evangelical Liberty University last year to signal his strategy of courting the GOP’s most reliable constituency over the years. He sent his father, Rafael Cruz, an evangelical minister, to congregations across the state. Now, he might end up being a cautionary tale to those who depend on such a strategy.

“Cruz has been hobbled all along by his failure to win evangelical-rich states,” wrote The Atlantic’s David Graham on Monday, “so it would be fitting if Trump manages to deal his campaign a mortal blow by beating him in just such a state on Tuesday.”

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