The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Donald Trump seems to be losing his grip on the GOP

President Trump speaks during a Make America Great Again rally at La Crosse Fairgrounds Speedway in West Salem, Wis., on Oct. 27, 2020. (Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images)

It’s becoming increasingly obvious that Donald Trump’s influence within the Republican Party is waning. Indeed, it’s dropping quickly enough that what was once unthinkable might be coming true: The former president could lose the 2024 GOP presidential primaries.

It has long been common wisdom that Trump owns the Republican Party lock, stock and barrel. He had the power to shame sitting legislators and even drive them out of office without a fight, as happened to former senators Jeff Flake of Arizona and Bob Corker of Tennessee. The continued visits of aspiring candidates to his Mar-a-Lago lair in Florida and the repeated invocations of his name in primary campaigns maintained his veneer of invulnerability.

But there are widening cracks underneath that facade. The crowds are getting smaller at Trump’s trademark rallies. Trump’s endorsed candidates are often losing contests to other Republicans. When they do prevail, they often win with less than 33 percent of the vote.

Most importantly, polls are showing GOP voters are moving on from the former president. An NBC News poll conducted in October 2020 showed that a majority of GOP voters said they supported Trump first over the party. Its May poll shows the situation reversed, with 58 percent saying they back the party first.

Follow Henry Olsen's opinionsFollow

That difference matters, as the April Echelon Insights Verified Voter Omnibus poll shows. Eighty-four percent of those who say they back Trump first want him to run again in 2024, compared with only 39 percent who back the party first. Seventy-four percent of Trump supporters say they would definitely or probably back Trump if he did run again, compared with only 26 percent of party-first Republicans. Indeed, 50 percent of party-first Republicans say they would vote for another Republican in the primaries against the former president. The more these voters move away from blind support of Trump, the more open they become to abandoning him altogether.

That’s what happened this weekend at the Wisconsin state Republican convention. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis beat Trump in a straw poll of convention-goers 38 to 32 percent, with former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley finishing third with 7 percent.

That’s just one straw poll in one state, but other more representative polls also show Trump with uneasy leads over DeSantis. Polls of GOP primary voters in Texas and North Carolina showed him getting only between 45 and 52 percent against DeSantis. The April Echelon Insights poll echoes this, finding that Trump would beat DeSantis in a head-to-head race by an uninspiring 55-to-34 percent if the election were held today. Party-first Republicans would back DeSantis 47 to 42 percent, with only 25 percent of this group saying they would definitely back Trump.

The trend away from Trump is also moving fast. The Echelon Insights poll found the balance between Trump-first and party-first Republicans was roughly even between November 2020 and this February. Trump-first support has since dropped by 10 points while party-first backing has increased by 12. The May NBC News poll also found Trump-first support at its lowest level ever and party-first backing at its all-time high. It seems Trump’s highly public interventions in contested primaries and his continued obsession with the 2020 election is hurting, not helping, his standing.

None of this means Trump has completely fallen from grace. Levels of personal devotion to him are still high, and any potential adversary must contend carefully with the loyalists. GOP voters also still largely view Trump positively, regularly giving him high approval ratings in national and state polls.

But it’s clear he’s no longer invulnerable. It’s easy to see how this decline continues as the year progresses. Trump-backed candidates could lose more contested primaries, and other Republicans could gain stature as they make names for themselves as fighters for conservative and populist values. There will always be a segment of Republicans for whom Trump is the be-all and end-all. But defeated Pennsylvania Senate candidate Kathy Barnette spoke for many Republicans when she said, “MAGA does not belong to Donald Trump. … It was Donald Trump who shifted and aligned with our values.” Rising numbers of Republicans appear to be reaching the same conclusion.

Political observers would have lost millions betting against Trump’s political future in the past few years, so don’t bet the farm against him now. But the data are beginning to show the GOP’s wannabe emperor is less powerful than he and many others think. Don’t be surprised if DeSantis or other strong candidates get into the 2024 race early — whether or not Trump is in.