The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Many Republicans want a primary fight. But would they actually vote for Trump’s challengers?

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R) in Annapolis on Jan. 16. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)
Placeholder while article actions load

If you’re a Republican who loves chaos, mudslinging, and — depending on what wing of the party you occupy — either existential panic or the joy of crushing your Establishment Enemies, then you’re in luck. We’ve got some new polling that suggests the GOP might end up with another presidential primary in 2020!

On Monday, CNN released the results of a poll of Iowa voters and found that 40 percent of registered Republicans hope that there will be a primary challenge to President Trump for the GOP nomination in 2020. Forty-one percent do not. That may be a roughly even split, but it’s not exactly a promising sign for an incumbent president. Monmouth University recently asked a national sample of Republicans and Republican-leaning voters a similar question and found that 40 percent said they wanted Trump to face a primary challenge, while 53 percent said they’d prefer that Trump run unopposed. Those numbers might seem like a Bat-Signal to Trump-skeptical Republicans who are eager for any sign that they could put up a real fight against Trump.

But that’s much easier said than done. A living, breathing primary challenger will have to take positions; attack a president who is popular within his own party (if unpopular nationally); and unite Republicans who want a primary challenge to Trump for very different reasons.

The best way to illustrate this difficulty is to look at Trump’s polling relative to his possible opponents.

According to the CNN poll, 82 percent of registered Republicans in Iowa rated Trump favorably while only 15 percent rated him unfavorably. Former Ohio governor John Kasich, one of Trump’s 2016 opponents, is already rated unfavorably by 28 percent of Iowa Republicans, with 27 percent rating him favorably. Larry Hogan, the highly competent Maryland governor who has expressed some interest in challenging Trump, was rated favorably by 4 percent of respondents and unfavorably by 12 percent. Bill Weld, the moderate former Massachusetts governor who has already formed a presidential exploratory committee, is also underwater, with only 4 percent approving and 15 percent disapproving. Favorability numbers can change, but Trump is starting in the driver’s seat and his opponents don’t have outstanding early numbers with which to challenge him.

Monmouth pitted Trump against Hogan and Weld in hypothetical one-on-one match-ups, and tested the firmness of the president’s support by asking Trump supporters if it was “at least somewhat possible” that they’d pick Weld or Hogan. More than half of the respondents (54 percent against Weld, 55 percent against Hogan) said they were firmly with Trump. Twenty percent of Trump supporters said that it was at least somewhat possible that they’d support Weld or Hogan, but that’s not some great victory. We have no idea how many of them would actually consider flipping, how many would really leave Trump and how many just picked a response that made them sound open-minded. In total, that means about three-quarters of the primary electorate supports Trump against his competitors. That’s a landslide margin.

Though scenarios such as these may seem to contradict the urge for a primary, it’s not hard to square these numbers with the roughly 40 percent who want Trump to face a primary challenge.

Different people who want Trump to face “a primary challenger” are probably imagining different challengers. Someone who would prefer Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) to Trump might not prefer Kasich to Trump. Some of these voters are also probably imagining an idealized challenger who would cater to their exact preferences rather than a real person who has his or her own ideas and flaws. Everyone knows that guy who always complains about not having a significant other but then nitpicks and rejects every real person he goes out with. If some Trump-skeptical Republicans are thinking this way, then the anti-Trump base may be functionally smaller than those 40 percent numbers suggest.

That said, we shouldn’t overstate Trump’s strength. He isn’t invincible, and the most promising potential challengers weren’t included in these polls. The president also has a lot of catastrophe potential: a recession, a Mueller bombshell or some other shock could knock Trump off course and create a competitive (or even open) primary that a consensus conservative could win. “Never say never” is a good rule in politics generally and a great rule when it comes to Trump.

But the GOP primary may also be a non-event. According to a series of CNN/ORC polls, about 1 in 5 Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents wanted to nominate someone other than then-President Barack Obama for much of 2010 and 2011. But in 2012, Obama won renomination without any real trouble. Pollsters also measured match-ups between Bill Clinton (who, like Trump and Obama, saw his party suffer significant losses in Congress in his first midterm elections) and potential opponents such as Jesse Jackson in 1996. Clinton led by a wide margin in many of those polls and won renomination handily.

Republicans would be wise to prepare some sort of backup for Trump. Scandal or crises can unexpectedly (or maybe in Trump’s case, expectedly) hit anyone. And, in theory, it might be possible to imagine someone uniting the less Trump-y factions of the GOP and putting together a solid challenge to Trump. But it’s hard to do that in practice — which is why the non-Trump Republicans failed in 2016 and why their odds of doing so are much worse in 2020.

Read more:

Stephen F. Hayes: The country needs a Republican to challenge Trump in 2020

Jennifer Rubin: Here’s just the guy to primary Trump

David Byler: Sorry, Republicans, Larry Hogan isn’t the answer to Trumpism

Sarah Longwell: The right strategy to primary Trump

David Byler: Everyone is underestimating Trump. It could hurt Democrats and Republicans alike.