The argument made by a super PAC associated with former national security adviser John Bolton centered on the extent to which Republican voters were still likely to follow Trump’s political lead. The desired outcome here is obvious: Bolton, who became a vocal Trump critic, wants to suggest to Republicans that the political cost of bucking Trump has faded. Ergo, the poll.
It centered on three points: that Trump’s favorability has fallen, that his endorsement isn’t critical and that many Republicans don’t plan to support him in a possible 2024 bid. Each of those arguments, though, isn’t very strong. The favorability drop compares two polls and shows a small (and probably not significant) shift from “very favorable” views to “somewhat favorable.” The endorsement point leverages a format — would you be more or less likely to vote for a candidate endorsed by Trump, etc. — that is notoriously iffy.
The 2024 polling still shows Trump at 50 percent among Republican voters, 39 points above the second-place contender. Not exactly a weak position in a crowded field.
Trump being Trump, though, his team went to the mattresses. Jason Miller, his top aide, tweeted or retweeted 12 rebuttals to the Bolton poll, disparaging Bolton and taking issue with the poll numbers. He cited data from Trump’s longtime pollster John McLaughlin that showed that 83 percent of Republicans would support Trump in a 2024 primary bid.
Miller didn’t point out that Trump is the first choice of a smaller 55 percent of Republicans in 2024 — not far from the Bolton numbers. (Miller also didn’t dwell on the numbers from McLaughlin’s poll showing that for the first time in at least seven years, Americans think the country is on the right track and that President Biden has a 58 percent approval rating.)
This is all a theoretically interesting debate and one that is, in fact, likely to hold some sway with Republican elected officials. But a fight centered on the political prospects and power of Trump on an individual basis is a fight that sits somewhat to the side of the actual struggle within the party at the moment. The question is often less about what Trump does than the extent to which Republicans are viewed as loyal to Trumpism as a (nebulous) concept. The yardstick against which Republican officials are often measured isn’t “Does Trump approve?” but “Does Trump’s base approve?” — a different and trickier calculus.
Consider new reporting from the New York Times’s Robert Draper about the Feb. 3 vote by the House Republican conference on whether Rep. Liz Cheney (Wyo.), the party’s third-ranking member, should face reprimand for voting to impeach Trump after the Jan. 6 insurrection at the Capitol.
A lot of revealing moments are reported, including when Rep. Mike Kelly (R-Pa.) likened Cheney’s impeachment vote to being a high school football player forced to “look up into the stands and see your girlfriend on the opposition’s side.” In the end, Cheney kept her position, as she expected to after speaking with her peers.
“Individual colleagues had confided in her that most of the conference was only too happy to move on from Trump — but saying so in public was another matter,” Draper reports. “To do so meant risking defeat at the hands of a Trump-adoring Republican primary electorate or even, many of them feared, the well-being of their families.”
That was the concern: that this often-vocal group, a small subset of which had stormed the Capitol the prior month, would turn on them.
A March poll from Tony Fabrizio, another regular Trump pollster, segmented the GOP into five “tribes.” About two-thirds of the party fell into one of three pro-Trump groups: the Trump boosters (the quarter of the party that supports Trump but is more loyal to the party), the die-hards (the quarter that are fervent Trump supporters) and the “Infowars GOP” (the 10 percent of Republicans whose strong support for Trump overlaps with an embrace of conspiracy theories such as QAnon). There was no polling about which groups had the loudest voices in the political conversation, but it doesn’t take many voices to make a politician uncomfortable.
This has been a pattern in Republican politics for more than a decade: a vocal, party-adjacent movement stoked by conservative media causing headaches for the establishment. It’s a central theme of a new book by former House speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio). What shifted under Trump was partly about Trump and partly about cementing that fringe-and-right-wing-media-led approach to politics at the center of Republican politics. Trump’s ascent in 2015 was largely powered by his willingness to say the sorts of things they were saying on Fox News and that traditional Republicans thought were too toxic to embrace. That, I would argue, is at the center of what Trumpism is about.
On Wednesday, the Associated Press reported on the House effort to establish a commission that would look at the causes of and failures surrounding the attack on the Capitol. What once seemed likely has become uncertain, as Republican lawmakers have shown little willingness for that sort of examination.
“Republicans swiftly decried the broad latitude to investigate the causes of the insurrection,” the Associated Press’s Mary Clare Jalonick reported. “They also objected to a series of findings in the bill that quoted FBI Director Christopher Wray saying that racially motivated violent extremism, and especially white supremacy, is one of the biggest threats to domestic security.”
“The Republicans said the investigation should focus not just on what led to the Jan. 6 insurrection but also on violence in the summer of 2020 during protests over police brutality,” Jalonick wrote. That, of course, is the theme in much of conservative media: that the left’s actions are as questionable. (It is a bad comparison.)
It is clearly the case that Trump carries significant weight with the Republican base. But it is also the case that his control over the flow of Trumpism — that bend of politics and outrage and culture that he leveraged — has limits. His departure from the White House and his removal from platforms such as Twitter and Facebook have given new space to people like Fox News’s Tucker Carlson (1 percent in the McLaughlin 2024 primary poll) and Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida (7 percent) to help shape how the Trump base views politics. Much of the loyalty Trump inspires is specific to Trump, but not all of it is, and a lot of people will be looking to peel that loyalty away for their own purposes.
For lawmakers like those looking at Republican primaries or evaluating questions such as Cheney’s impeachment vote, it’s a tricky moment. Trump coming out and endorsing your opponent isn’t great, but can be survivable. (Just ask Rep. Madison Cawthorn, a Republican from North Carolina.) Having Republican voters come to see you as out of line with the party because of Fox News coverage or tweets from Dan Bongino is a whole different threat — and one that’s harder to manage.
There’s a lot of uncertainty here. What happens if Trump is reinstated on Facebook, as might happen soon? Will a continued distance from culture-war conversations create a new center of gravity for the passions of the base? Did Trump actually seize that center of gravity in the first place, or was it simply on loan?
These questions, not polls about a primary that’s years away, are the interesting ones. That they’re hard to answer is a central reason for the wariness shown by Republican elected officials.