William Henry Harrison and Zachary Taylor were both elected president on the Whig Party ticket. John Tyler was a Whig, too, but was expelled from the party. And Millard Fillmore was a Whig who became president after President Taylor died in office. Henry Clay, Daniel Webster, and Abraham Lincoln were all Whigs. It was a pretty successful political party for a couple of decades, but it fell apart over the question of slavery.
As you might suspect, the party developed northern and southern wings that grew less and less compatible, until the two factions could no longer work together. The northern wing gravitated to the newly-formed Republican Party or, like their former colleagues in the South, joined up with the Know-Nothings.
I don’t see the current divisions within the Republican Party as quite that stark, but the polls are showing some serious signs of strain.
In December, just a month after the GOP experienced a string of election losses, nearly two-thirds of all Republicans held a positive view of their party. Ten months later that share has dropped to less than half.
Among those who are more wavering in their ties to the GOP—a group that is nearly twice the size of the party’s most fervent followers—affection for the party in the latest poll dropped to 35%, with almost an equal number saying they viewed the party in a negative light. (See table at bottom of this post.)
By comparison, nearly three-quarters of all Democrats in the poll said they have a positive view of their party, down just slightly since the end of last year. Even the more wavering among the Democrats are positive toward their party (61%).
The sharp divisions over political style with the GOP also have no corollary among Democrats.
One of the canaries in the coal mine is the way that Mid-Atlantic Republicans like Rep. Peter King, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, and New York City mayoral candidate Joe Lhota have denounced southern Republicans for not coming to their aid in the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy. They felt the same way about the recent government shutdown and threat to default on the nation’s debt. And the same break can be seen in how Republicans view negotiations over the budget.
A similar break can be seen over the question of whether Republicans want their party members in Congress to make compromises to gain a consensus on budgetary matters, or stick to their positions even if this means no budget agreement.
Just under half of all Republicans favored compromise. But among tea-party Republicans, a solid 64% said Republicans in Congress should stick to their positions no matter what. Just a third of non-tea party Republicans took that stauncher position.
When the same question was asked of Democrats, a solid 68% favored compromise, with little variation among liberals and more wavering Democrats.
Only a third of non-Tea Party Republicans think that the Republicans should eschew compromise in the budget negotiations, but that public opinion is not reflected at all in how congressional Republicans are acting.
It might be possible to sustain this kind of division if the budget debate could somehow remain an abstract argument, but the truth is that the sequester cuts that are kicking in for 2014 are real and they have consequences that cannot be ignored. When the “no compromise” position is only supported by half of your party and one third of your non-Tea Partiers, then unity becomes impossible.
Support for a third party is at an historic high in the country right now, but it is particularly strong on the right.
Asked if they would be more likely to vote for an independent or third-party candidate for Congress if one existed in their district, just 19% of Democrats said they would.
But among all Republicans, that number was 28%. And among wavering Republicans—who constituted nearly a quarter of the poll’s registered voters—the desire to vote for a third-party candidate was a startling 41%.
What’s fascinating about these numbers is that it is the more moderate, Establishment Republicans who are more interested in a third party than the renegade anti-Establishment upstarts in the Tea Party. Overall, fifty-six percent of Tea Party Republicans have a favorable view of the GOP, while only forty-one percent of non-Tea Party Republicans approve.
It doesn’t surprise me that the tensions are strongest in the Mid-Atlantic region where the Republican Party’s ties to Wall Street are the strongest, but this split has a cultural component as well. Republicans have been all but wiped out in New England, where they do not have even one serving member in the House of Representatives, and only two senators. Business-minded people in New England would be well-served to ditch the Republican brand entirely and start over from scratch. In the meantime, Gov. Chris Christie is cruising to reelection in large part because he split from the southern wing of the party and embraced federal aid and the president when his state needed disaster relief. That is increasingly going to be the only way a Republican in these parts can be popular. And that is going to start showing up in Congress in a big way as the budget debate drags on.
Unlike the Whigs, I don’t see the Republican Party simply disappearing, but I think some other vehicle will become preferable for people on the right who are running outside of the South.