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Misguided Descriptive and Attitudinal Representation: The Republican Party and the Rise of Trumpism

Comparative Politics
Party Manifestos
Populism
Representation
USA
Candidate
Hilmar L Mjelde
Universitetet i Bergen
Hilmar L Mjelde
Universitetet i Bergen

Abstract

It is generally assumed that parties’ capacity for descriptive and attitudinal representation matters greatly for their electoral prospects. After the 2012 presidential election defeat, the Republican Party vowed to become more demographically representative of the electorate as a whole and ideologically less extreme, lest it lose another election. With the nomination of firebrand populist Donald Trump as its presidential candidate, however, the party adopted a more exclusionist rhetoric and altered its stance altogether on key issues such as immigration, free trade, and foreign policy, and won the election. Thus, the party elites’ idea of descriptive and policy representation was fundamentally flawed. Analyzing party platform and exit polling data from the 2012 and 2016 presidential elections, this article problematizes the Republican Party’s concept of descriptive and attitudinal representation in order to determine what caused it to fundamentally misread the lay of the land in terms of the policy preferences of its own electorate and the hypothesized consequences of failing to reform. At this point, the argument of the article is that parties need to thoroughly consider their own conceptualization of descriptive and attitudinal representation in order for it to fruitfully guide them in their policy and strategy choices.