You’d be hard-pressed to find a better example of the Republican Party’s transition to Trumpism than this: Both of Trump’s two predecessors as the Republican presidential nominee voted against him on a key vote, and each found himself suddenly less popular with Republicans than Democrats.
For his trouble, Romney is something amounting to a pariah in the national Republican Party. Gallup pegged his approval among Republicans and Republican-leaning voters at 84 percent when he was the GOP nominee in November 2012. Now it has it at just 23 percent.
In contrast, Romney’s approval rating has surged among Democrats and Democratic leaners. It’s at 56 percent — more than twice his approval among his party’s base.
The situation is a more-pronounced version of what happened to the late senator John McCain (R-Ariz.). After he voted against the Republican replacement for Obamacare, effectively killing the legislation, his approval dropped among Republicans and rose among Democrats.
Gallup at the time also found more Democrats who approved of him (71 percent) than Republicans (51 percent).
There are two other more low-profile examples of this at the state level. One is former senator Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), who was the only Republican to vote against Trump’s tax cut package.
After that happened, a Mason-Dixon poll of Tennessee voters found 49 percent of Democrats approved of him vs. just 36 percent of Republicans. Corker eventually voted for the final package, but he opted not to seek reelection.
Ditto for former senator Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), who delayed a final committee vote on Supreme Court nominee Brett M. Kavanaugh to give the FBI another week to investigate decades-old allegations of sexual assault. A poll of Arizona voters at the time showed 59 percent of Arizona Democrats had a favorable view of him, as compared with just 20 percent of Republicans. Flake took the same exit ramp as Corker, acknowledging he couldn’t win a GOP primary.
If there’s a silver lining for Romney, it’s that he hasn’t seen quite as much erosion among his home-state Republicans as he has nationally. But even there, he’s not in a great position. A poll last month showed 40 percent of Utah Republicans approved of him, while 49 percent disapproved. His overall approval rating was 50 percent, again indicating he was more popular outside his party than in it. (Romney doesn’t face reelection until 2024, though.)
Distilling each of these into a mere response to a single vote is an oversimplification. In each of these instances, these GOP senators at times found themselves being critical of Trump and his behavior as president. Romney’s vote, for instance, was the culmination of many comments that were critical of Trump’s actions vis-a-vis Ukraine. Romney was also perhaps the most vocal GOP establishment critic of Trump during the 2016 campaign, delivering an indictment of Trump and his moral character in a March 2016 speech. As you can see in the chart above, even back then, his approval ratings among Republicans and Democrats were somewhat similar.
But the bottom didn’t fall out until Romney cast the historic vote against Trump on impeachment. As with many of these previous examples, that’s when Trump truly trained his fire on his fellow Republican. In this and these other cases, Trump did so as a means of enforcing a code of behavior inside the GOP and discouraging future apostasies. He has even gone so far as to repeatedly criticize McCain even after his death.
It has arguably worked — so much so that the conservatives that Republicans made their nominees in 2008 and 2012 were suddenly outcasts in their own parties, less than a decade later.