When it comes to Donald Trump, conventional wisdom has often gotten it wrong.
He was never supposed to win the nomination — certainly not after attacking John McCain’s military record, or Megyn Kelly’s appearance, or Ted Cruz’s wife. Still, he won.
Once he won the nomination, of course, the hits kept coming. And so did the doubts about his electability. There were the tweets, the campaign chaos and, of course, the Access Hollywood tape. Still, he won.
As president, Trump would say or do something outrageous, and we wondered if this would be the breaking point between the controversial commander-in-chief and the party. Still, even after January 6th and its fallout, GOP voters — and most of the GOP establishment — stood with him.
Today, word of a likely indictment by the Manhattan District Attorney over hush fund payments to a former mistress seems to be following this familiar pattern.
Trump argues that he is being persecuted by a liberal and biased prosecutor. GOP leaders, including those who aren’t huge fans of the former president (like Gov. Chris Sununu and former Vice President Mike Pence) have echoed Trump’s contention that this is a politically motivated stunt. Next will come the “rally” of GOP voters around the besieged Trump. And, as we saw in 2016, Trump will harness that energy and anger and ride it to the GOP nomination in 2024.
But what if, once again, conventional wisdom about Trump is wrong?
First, will the GOP base “rally” to Trump’s side? And, if it were to happen, how would we know?
One way would be to see if his favorable ratings among GOP voters improve or fall.
For example, when Trump announced his candidacy in 2015, his favorable ratings with GOP voters were underwater. By the time the primaries were underway, however, his favorable ratings had climbed. A Quinnipiac poll taken in May of 2015 found more GOP voters saw Trump unfavorably to favorably (34% favorable to 52% unfavorable). By July of that year, Trump was above water at 50% favorable to 33% unfavorable. By December, his favorable ratings jumped to 63% with 30% unfavorable. In less than a year, opinions of Trump among GOP partisans moved 51 points in the positive direction. This was when we first learned that political controversies that would have destroyed other candidates didn’t have the same impact on the former reality TV star. Instead of bowing to the traditional rules of the game, Trump rewrote them.
Ever since that turnaround in 2016, Trump’s never gone back underwater with the GOP base, nor have his numbers moved as dramatically as we saw back in his pre-2016 days. There is evidence, however, that Trump’s popularity with the base has faded some since he left office in 2021.
For example, merged survey data from NBC polling taken in 2020 found Trump’s positive ratings with GOP voters at +76% (85% positive to 9% negative). By 2022, Trump’s positive ratings with GOP voters was +58% (72% positive to 14% negative). A January 2023 NBC poll (the only survey thus far this year from NBC) found Trump’s positive ratings among GOP partisans at +49% (64% to 15%).
The most recent Marist survey (February 2023) found his ratings among Republicans at +43% (68% favorable to 25% unfavorable), his lowest ratings among GOP voters since September of 2016.
Quinnipiac surveys found similar slippage. In June of 2020, for example, Trump’s favorable ratings among Republican voters was at +81% (89/8). By May of 2021, it had slipped to +71 (84/13). A year later, in July of 2022, it had slipped a bit more to +60 (76/16). The most recent survey, taken in March of this year, found Trump’s favorable ratings stable at +60 (77/17).
A bump in favorable/positive ratings by GOP voters could be a good gauge for how the indictment is playing among his base. But is this the best gauge of Trump’s primary election strength?
What if, instead, we look at Trump’s standing in primary polls? House GOP Conference Chair Rep. Elise Stefanik said the other day she expected an indictment to “continue to solidify his position in the Republican nomination.”
According to a recent post by the New York Times’ Nate Cohn, that “solidifying” has already happened. “Over the last two months, we’ve gotten about a dozen polls from pollsters who had surveyed the Republican race over the previous two months,” wrote Cohn. And, he notes, the “trend is unequivocal: Every single one of these polls has shown Mr. DeSantis faring worse than before, and Mr. Trump faring better.”
Cohn, and others, have various theories as to why this has happened, including Trump’s recent offensive attacks on DeSantis, DeSantis’ lack of a forceful contrast with Trump and the dissipation of midterm bump that favored the Florida governor.
I’d argue that the post-midterm bump has been the most consequential of the three. The media attention for much of late November and December was almost exclusively focused on Republican underperformance in the midterm elections, with Trump taking a lot of the blame. By January and February, the media attention had gone elsewhere.
As such, since early this year, Republican voters have come home. It’s not that they started disliking DeSantis more or liking Trump better. It’s that the media environment was no longer driving a narrative that put Trump in an unflattering light.
In theory, an indictment, and the media coverage of it, should put Trump in an unflattering light once again. However, as we saw last summer with the FBI search of Trump’s residence at Mar-a-Lago, Republican elites and conservative media are united in their defense of Trump. And with the GOP in charge of the House, Republican leaders have another way to broadcast that unity. Just this week, GOP House leaders have even called on the Manhattan District Attorney to testify before Congress.
OK, so let’s say we see some positive movement for Trump in polling. How confident should we be that it will endure — especially as Trump’s legal troubles continue to unfold over the course of the year?
What has helped Trump in the past is the fact that GOP voters had no other choice but to stick with him. Yes, many hated the tweets. And they didn’t always like the way he conducted himself. But, he was also the only one standing up to the “swamp” and the liberals. In listening to focus groups over the last couple of years, I heard GOP voters hold two conflicting thoughts at once: a) Trump was a good president who is being persecuted by political swamp creatures bent on his destruction, but b:) he is not the strongest candidate for Republicans to nominate in 2024 and they’d like an alternative.
DeSantis, of course, is presenting himself as that alternative.
On Monday, at a press conference in Florida, DeSantis criticized Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg for pursuing a political agenda and weaponizing the office, without absolving Trump of the underlying charges. “I don’t know what goes into paying hush money to a porn star to secure silence over some type of alleged affair,” DeSantis said. “I just, I can’t speak to that.”
He then went on to undermine Trump’s claims of victimhood by arguing that the “the real victims are ordinary New Yorkers, ordinary Americans in all these different jurisdictions, but they get victimized every day because of the reckless political agenda that these Soros D.A.s bring to their job.”
As one experienced Republican strategist told me the other day, it’s not enough for DeSantis to boast of his recent wins electorally and politically. Instead, said this strategist (who is not affiliated with any 2024 candidate), DeSantis has to be able to credibly make the case that he is the one looking out for them while Trump, obsessed with his own legal troubles and his 2020 loss, has forgotten them.
Polling in these next few weeks may help provide some answers to the question of how GOP voters are responding to legal action (or actions) against Trump. But I’d argue that we will have to wait until next August, and the first GOP debate, before we can fairly assess the impact on the 2024 race for the nomination. For now, the conversation about Trump’s strengths and weaknesses are theoretical. Same goes for Gov. DeSantis. As the famous American philosopher Mike Tyson once said, “everyone’s got a plan. Until they are punched in the mouth.” Voters will get to see for themselves if Trump has what it takes to go another few rounds, or if his opponents are bringing the heat.
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