The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Eight Jan. 6 hearings later, Republicans still mostly just shrug

Rioters breach the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. (John Minchillo/AP)

It’s rare for the American public to be exposed to as lengthy and detailed an investigation into a political actor as it has been during the hearings held by the House select committee probing the Capitol attack. Over the span of more than 16 hours of hearings this year, evidence has been presented of a broad effort by the sitting president of the United States to retain power. That effort culminated in the Jan. 6 attack, but the riot was not its sole component, as the committee has shown through documentary evidence and testimony.

The question all along was the extent to which the public’s views of Donald Trump’s effort to stay president would be changed by the committee’s work. Might the committee be able to convince non-Democrats of Trump’s culpability for the worst elements of that day? Could it persuade Republicans to see Trump’s efforts as unacceptable?

New polling from CNN, conducted by SSRS, suggests that views of Trump within his party have eroded a bit since the hearings began. Overall, though, many Republicans don’t see Trump as having done anything wrong — and a plurality still somehow believe the purported predicate for Trump’s objections, that there’s solid evidence the 2020 election was stolen.

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There does appear to be some anecdotal evidence that Republican primary voters are wary of chaining themselves to another Trump candidacy. In CNN’s poll, about 1 in 10 of those who didn’t want to see the party nominate Trump again said it was because he was so divisive or controversial. That group grew from 49 percent of Republican primary voters (Republicans and Republican-leaning independents) in a February CNN poll to 55 percent in the new one. In other words, Republican primary voters went from being split on having Trump as their candidate to preferring someone else by an 11-point margin.

A decline! But one worth considering in the context of how Democratic primary voters shifted on President Biden.

Compared with Biden, Trump’s still wildly popular with his party.

In addition to working toward eroding his political support, the Jan. 6 committee has been trying to make a case that Trump violated the law in his efforts to retain power. In CNN’s poll, just under half of Americans think Trump acted illegally in his effort to retain power. More than three-quarters say he acted either illegally or at least unethically. Forty-five percent of Republicans, though, think he did nothing wrong.

Of course, Republicans are also less likely to say they’re tracking the Jan. 6 hearings closely, as the CNN poll reinforces. (Fox News has declined to broadcast the two that were held in prime-time and often blanketed coverage about the hearings with Trump-friendly conversation.) So, asked if Trump could have done more to curtail the violence on Jan. 6, the subject of the most recent hearing, 55 percent of Republicans said he could, compared with 77 percent of Americans overall.

Republicans are also sympathetic to the idea that the election was stolen. While the percentage of Republicans saying there’s solid evidence that Biden didn’t win in 2020 has dropped significantly since CNN’s poll in September, a plurality still hold that position. Only about a third think Biden legitimately won.

This has been a common defense of Trump: If he really thought the election was stolen, why shouldn’t he try to retain power? The answer isn’t complicated — there was no reason for him to think that — but the former president was very effective at inculcating with his party the idea that perhaps it was. His incessant efforts to present the results as suspect are at this point close to GOP orthodoxy.

Asked if the Republican Party should be accepting of a candidate who believes the election was stolen, just under three-quarters of Republicans (and Republican leaners) said the party should be accepting of them. That was a higher percentage than the group that said the party should be accepting of candidate who said the election was legitimate.

In other words, respondents were more likely to suggest that the GOP should embrace those who deny the reality of the election than those who accept it.

None of this is to say that the hearings have had no effect. More Democrats and independents see American democracy as being on shaky ground since the hearings began, perhaps a function of the committee’s casting the effort to oppose election results as an ongoing threat.

Republicans, though, are much less likely to express concern about the threat to democracy than they were in February. Where they exist, those concerns have generally been centered on election security, not on Trump’s behavior.

At some point in the next few months, it’s expected that Trump will announce a bid for the 2024 Republican nomination. It’s possible that his candidacy will do what he’s so far been able to avoid: spur members of his own party and of the right-wing media universe to criticize him openly for his post-election behavior.

It is also possible that, upon his announcement, he’ll be the front-runner, and his opponents will be wary of criticizing him at risk of alienating his base. This has been Trump’s successful strategy for avoiding criticism from his party since 2015. As this poll shows, it promises to be a successful strategy moving forward.