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Is Trump Losing his Grip on the GOP?
New polling suggests that the Republican Party's creepily close embrace of Trump may not reflect the will of their voters
In recent days, gleeful speculation about Donald Trump’s weakening hold over the Republican Party emerged in the political press. This past weekend, the Washington Post published a story with the headline “A weakened Trump? As some voters edge away, he battles parts of the Republican Party he once ran." According to the report:
The former president’s power within the party and his continued focus on personal grievances is increasingly questioned behind closed doors at Republican gatherings, according to interviews with more than a dozen prominent Republicans in Washington and across the country, including some Trump advisers. Many spoke on the condition of anonymity because there remains significant fear of attracting Trump’s public wrath.
Similarly, the New York Times reported on an aggressive behind-the-scenes effort by Mitch McConnell to stop Trump-backed Senate candidates:
But the message that he [McConnell] delivers privately now is unsparing, if debatable: Mr. Trump is losing political altitude and need not be feared in a primary, he has told Mr. Ducey in repeated phone calls, as the Senate leader’s lieutenants share polling data they argue proves it.
In conversations with senators and would-be senators, Mr. McConnell is blunt about the damage he believes Mr. Trump has done to the G.O.P., according to those who have spoken to him. Privately, he has declared he won’t let unelectable “goofballs” win Republican primaries.
Both of these articles are good reads. They are chock full of anecdotes about the Republican Party establishment coming to terms with the Faustian bargain they made five years ago. Who among us doesn’t enjoy reading stories about detestable Republicans fighting each other to the political death?
My initial reaction to these stories was to dismiss them. McConnell’s private protestation’s aside, the GOP is fully in the thrall of Trump. Only a few weeks ago the Republican National Committee passed a resolution endorsing political violence to appease Trump. Based on the actions and rhetoric of Republican elected officials, Trump arguably controls the party more now than when he was President. Concerning the election, there is less public dissent, greater consequences for the dissenters, and near-universal adherence to the Big Lie. But digging into the data reveals substantial evidence that Republican voters are starting to move away from Trump as the party establishment moves closer.
Evidence of Weakness
I want to stipulate that Donald Trump remains disturbingly popular among Republicans. He is a twice-impeached, failed President who incited a violent insurrection. He should be persona non grata in polite company, not a highly sought-after speaker and endorsee. It is a searing indictment of the Republican Party and Right-Wing media that they continue to embrace someone so dumb, dangerous, and disgraced. But according to a new analysis based on more than 44,000 interviews conducted by Change Research, there are signs that his cult-like hold over the Republican base has significantly weakened.
In May of 2021, 63% of those who voted for Trump in 2020 rated him 10 out of 10. But that number has fallen, month after month. And by January 2022, for the first time, fewer than half of 2020 Trump voters rated him 10 out of 10. While it is still true that most Trump voters still think quite highly of him, these trends show that his dominance among the Republican base has been.
To be clear, Trump remains quite popular. His average rating is 8.53 – which is quite high for a former President largely absent from the public scene.
There are signs of a similar degradation on other polls:
A January Change Research poll of rural counties in Iowa, Minnesota, and Wisconsin found that just 60 percent of Republicans said they hoped Trump would run for President again in 2024.
According to a CNN poll, 49 percent of Republicans prefer someone other than Trump to run for President in 2024. Of those who prefer someone else, 39 percent said their reason was that they did not want to see him as President again.
While Trump’s favorable ratings among Republicans remain high, the percentage of Republicans rating him “very favorably” has declined significantly. As the Washington Post pointed out, the number of Republicans who rate Trump “very favorably” dropped 20 points since December 2020.
Trump is still the most popular Republican in the country, but his popularity is on the decline – a trend that could be exacerbated in the coming months as Trump’s legal troubles grow.
What It All Means
Ultimately, none of this matters if Republican elected officials continue to treat Trump as their inevitable example. If no one is willing to make a public argument against Trump or chart a different course for their party, Trump will be the standard-bearer ad infinitum. Despite diminishing support, Trump is the overwhelming favorite to win the Republican nomination. A recent Politco/Morning Consult poll revealed:
Half of GOP voters said they would vote for Trump in a 2024 primary, compared with 14 percent who said they would support DeSantis and 13 percent who would back former Vice President Mike Pence.
This is a strong position to start from, but Trump is not necessarily unbeatable if concerns about his electability continue to grow. Something that could happen if Trump-endorsed MAGA candidates lose winnable races this fall. If the same shitty candidates run the same shitty campaigns they ran in the 2016 GOP primary, Trump will win the nomination. And if he wins the nomination, he is a coinflip from regaining the White House.
It’s easy to overstate the case and engage in wishful thinking about Trump’s demise. I am certainly not making any predictions about what will happen. I am simply noting the growing evidence that the full-on embrace of Trump is not something the base wants as much as it did before.
In 2016, nearly everyone missed Trump’s rise because they gave too much weight to the opinions of elites at the expense of the voters. I do wonder if we are making the same mistake all over again.