The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A third of the GOP is skeptical of Trump — but half of that group prefers Trump-supportive candidates

A supporter of President Donald Trump holds an image of Jesus as she and others gather in Washington on Jan. 6. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)

President Biden’s approval ratings have been unusually stable for a very simple reason: Democrats like him a lot, and Republicans don’t. That’s a majority of Americans with strong, mostly unmoving opinions, meaning that variations that occur won’t move the top-line number very much. It’s an artifact of the sharp polarization the country has been experiencing for years — and is not something unique to Biden. President Donald Trump saw a similar effect for nearly all of his time in office as did President Barack Obama after an initial honeymoon period.

One effect of that stability is that we don’t spend very much time talking about Biden’s approval numbers. News organizations tend to focus on what’s new (hence the name) or otherwise notable, and months of slightly-above-50-percent polling ain’t that.

What is unusual, though, are the number of Republicans who, despite their skepticism of Biden, approve of his handling of the coronavirus pandemic. About a third of Republicans think Biden is handling the pandemic well, according to new polling from Quinnipiac University. That’s about four times as many Republicans as approve of Biden’s performance overall or view him favorably. It’s an unusual bit of semi-bipartisanship; getting a third of Republicans to say anything positive about Biden seems remarkable.

As it turns out, that two-thirds/one-third split among Republicans pops up a lot in the Quinnipiac poll. For example, two-thirds of Republicans also say that the Republican Party is heading in the right direction. Two-thirds say that Biden did not win the 2020 presidential election legitimately. Two-thirds also say that they want Trump to run for president again in 2024.

There’s a consistent undercurrent to all of those results, of course. Those who say that Biden wasn’t legitimately elected are reflecting Trump’s false insistences that the election was tainted by fraud. Those who say they want Trump to run again are obviously his supporters, as well. Given that the Republican Party is moving to cement Trump’s importance by cracking down on anti-Trump sentiment, that two-thirds of Republicans view the party’s direction positively is not a surprise. Nor is it surprising that an outlying third might be willing to view Biden’s pandemic handling positively.

We’ve spent a lot of time exploring the evolution of the Republican Party over the past few months; that, unlike stable partisanship, is something new. That said, the Quinnipiac two-thirds/one-third split does mirror polling from Fabrizio Lee, a pollster used by Trump’s 2020 campaign. Fabrizio Lee found similarly that about two-thirds of Republicans were fervently pro-Trump, with another third more skeptical. It also found another split that shows up in Quinnipiac’s numbers: Of the Trump-skeptical third, about half aren’t actively hostile to the former president.

In Quinnipiac’s numbers, for example, about 84 percent of Republicans view Trump favorably, leaving about 16 percent — one-half of one-third — unwilling to offer that opinion. Asked their opinion of Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.), whose vocal criticism of Trump’s dishonesty about the election led to her ouster from the House Republican conference’s leadership team, only 18 percent of Republicans who had any opinion said that they view her favorably.

Most on-point is that 85 percent of Republicans told Quinnipiac that they would prefer to see candidates who agreed with Trump rather than mostly disagree with him. Two-thirds of Republicans — plus another sixth or so.

It’s useful to compare these numbers to where Democrats stand. While two-thirds of Republicans say the GOP is headed in the right direction, 80 percent of Democrats say the same of their own party. While 84 percent of Republicans view Trump favorably, 89 percent of Democrats say the same of Biden. Of Democrats who have an opinion on Cheney, a remarkable 73 percent say that they view her favorably.

There’s been a lot of focus on views of Biden’s legitimacy. As we’ve pointed out, similar questions followed the elections of both George W. Bush in 2000 and Trump in 2016. What’s different now is the extent to which Trump has embraced and promotes the idea, and the extent to which Republicans have embraced obviously false claims about evidence of fraud to rationalize the claim. That confidence in Trump’s presentations explains both of the fissures in the GOP measured by Quinnipiac and Fabrizio Lee. It explains the divide between the most loyal Trump Republicans and the rest of the party, and it divides the rest of the party into those who do and don’t view Trump’s claims as broadly acceptable.

Meanwhile, Biden cruises along at 50-plus-percent approval, with independents slightly more approving of his presidency than they were of Trump’s. Skepticism of Trump among Republicans might mean more willingness to grant Biden success on specific issues such as the pandemic, but it doesn’t seem to be shaking loose any overall support from Republican voters.

Among Republicans, it continues to not be enough for Biden simply to not be Trump.