A new Pew Research Center poll finds that “the share of Republicans who are very or somewhat pessimistic about the future of their party has nearly doubled, from 20% in December to 39% in the current survey.” Optimism has dimmed as well. “About six-in-ten Republicans (59%) say they are very (12%) or somewhat (47%) optimistic about the future of the Republican Party. In December 2016, nearly eight-in-ten (79%) said they were very (28%) or somewhat (51%) optimistic.”
As interesting as the plunging level of optimism is the profile of those who figure the GOP is in trouble. “College-educated Republicans have seen a particularly sharp drop in their party outlook,” the poll found. “In December, 73% of Republicans with a college degree said they were very or somewhat optimistic about the future of the Republican Party. In the September survey, just 44% say this – a drop of 29 percentage points. Among Republicans without a college degree, the share expressing optimism has also declined, but by just 16 points.”
We don’t know precisely why there’s rising pessimism especially among college-educated Republicans, although we can make some informed guesses. Some may be turned off by the paucity of policy ideas or excessive infighting. Others might quietly acknowledge that President Trump is an unhinged narcissist who cannot lead the party, let alone the country. Some, we imagine, would see congressional leaders as ineffective, out of touch or unprincipled. There is probably a little of all of those sentiments.
The mood change among so many Republicans tells us something about the GOP.
First, Trump’s crutches — yelling “Fake News!” or blaming others or self-praise or continually changing the topic to avoid any one scandal taking hold — have not worked to abate rising pessimism even if the vast majority of Republicans say they still support the president. Trump’s devices are aimed at defending himself, not his party or a larger ideological movement. As he struggles for his own political survival, he’s allowing (or intending) the party to atrophy and descend into chaos.
Second, the numbers don’t bode well for the GOP in midterms when Trump will not be on the ballot. Other polling shows a big lead for Democrats in generic congressional surveys and confirms that Republicans are less excited about the election, a sign many may sit out the 2018 races. They might still love Trump (or refuse to admit they were wrong about him), but Trump may have successfully demonized his own party within the GOP, thereby making it much harder for him to turn around next year to ask voters to return GOP majorities in the House and Senate.
Third, the growing gap between college (44 percent are optimistic) and non-college educated Republicans (65 are optimistic) may be much more significant than ideological divisions. (Among liberals/moderates 57 percent say they are optimistic, statistically no different than the 60 percent of conservatives who say they are optimistic about their party’s future.) This makes sense when one considers how unmoored Trump is to any ideology and how unaccomplished is his presidency. Trump is not about policy specifics or passing legislation; he is not an ideological leader or a problem solver. He’s an emotive figure who channels the anger and resentments of his followers. His administration is increasingly defined by Trump’s enemies not by his accomplishments; it reflects irrational anger, embraces a-factual politics and repudiates of democratic norms. That attitudinal style of politics may be enough to keep less-educated Trump fans in line but offers little if anything to professionals, main street business people and the suburban and urban Republicans (think of Mitt Romney voters) who wanted specific things from a Trump administration.
The unpleasant reality for Trump, of course, is that having neglected or attacked his own party he may find many of its members replaced by hostile Democrats who will seek to remove him. That is certainly reason for Republican pessimism.