Updated February 23, 2023 at 4:38 p.m. EST|Published February 23, 2023 at 6:00 a.m. EST
One recent snowy evening at a gun range in the middle of Michigan, the police showed up at a meeting of the Saginaw County Republican Party that unraveled into a shouting match — the latest flare-up in a power struggle between loyalists to Donald Trump and people like Josiah Jaster.
The 20-year-old insurance actuary, dressed up in a coat and tie, had been working with allies to elect a less Trump-centric slate of delegates to the upcoming state convention. By the end of the night, they had won 36 out of 37 spots, wresting some influence back from the die-hard pro-Trump crowd who had claimed party leadership positions last fall. Both camps tipped off the police that the meeting could get heated — and it did — but officers made no arrests and mainly watched from the back of the room where some of Jaster’s opponents stewed.
“I and a lot of other Republicans who were supportive of President Trump are becoming less and less supportive,” Jaster said. “Not because I’m a ‘Never Trumper.’ I just don’t believe Trump is the best person to move this party forward.”
The foremost reason is electability. Even Republicans who said they still supported Trump and believed his false claims that the 2020 election was stolen acknowledged doubts on whether he could defeat President Biden or another Democrat in 2024. “They’ve put so much doubt and mistrust in the people’s minds that he might have a hard time winning,” said Mark Goodman, a retired FedEx driver who lives in Chattahoochee Hills, Ga., and remains a staunch supporter.
It’s not the first time that Trump supporters have admitted their misgivings. But during his presidency, the only choices were to be with him or against him, so they stuck with him.
Now there is a new option — a way to still support Trump as the 45th president without being sold on him as the party’s best shot at becoming the 47th. Not anti-Trump, or even non-Trump — just post-Trump. That’s how 70 percent of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents could have a favorable view of Trump in a Marquette Law School poll last month, while the same survey found Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) beating him 64 percent to 36 percent in a hypothetical one-on-one matchup.
DeSantis was the potential rival most often volunteered in voter interviews — in fact, it was almost the only other name that ever came up. He appeared to have established a national profile independent of subservience to Trump: Voters said they liked what they’d heard about DeSantis’s positions on covid-19 and immigration, and they liked that at 44 he was younger than the 76-year-old Trump and — based on his landslide reelection last November — seemed capable of winning moderates and independents. Some of the voters said they viewed DeSantis as someone who could unite the country in a way Trump couldn’t. Recent opinion surveys have shown a mix of leads for Trump or DeSantisnationally and in early primary states.
In most interviews, fatigue with Trump was not a break with Trumpist politics. While these voters expressed interest in someone less divisive, they showed little appetite for more moderate policies or messaging — a combination many saw possible with DeSantis.
To assess Trump’s current standing with the GOP base, Washington Post reporters fanned out across the five states that decided the 2020 election and are poised to be the biggest electoral battlegrounds again in 2024: Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.
In three of the states, The Post focused on so-called pivot counties that voted for Obama in 2008 and 2012, flipped to Trump in 2016, and then either was held by Trump or that flipped back to Democrats in 2020.
Reporting from Arizona: Yvonne Wingett Sanchez, a democracy reporter based in Arizona, and Isaac Arnsdorf, a national political reporter covering Trump and the MAGA movement, attended the Arizona GOP state meeting in Phoenix.
Reporting from Georgia: Josh Dawsey is a political investigations and enterprise reporter. He visited the north Atlanta suburbs, GOP strongholds that have been trending Democratic and where Trump has underperformed other Republicans.
Reporting from Michigan: Hannah Knowles is a national politics reporter covering the 2024 campaigns. She visited Saginaw County, which flipped back to Biden in 2020, and Bay County, which Trump retained. Arnsdorf reported from the state party convention in Lansing.
Reporting from Pennsylvania: Ashley Parker is a senior national correspondent for The Washington Post. She visited Northampton County, in the Allentown area, which flipped back to Democrats in 2020 and trended bluer in 2022, and Luzerne County, around Wilkes-Barre, which Trump retained in 2020.
Reporting from Wisconsin: Patrick Marley is a democracy reporter based in Wisconsin. He visited Sauk County, northwest of Madison, which voted for Obama, Trump and Biden.
End of carousel
But DeSantis’s bond with voters interviewed also appeared relatively loose — many just called him “the Florida guy” — suggesting they were still persuadable for Trump or someone else. Trump, by contrast, brought out a uniquely firm commitment with some subset of voters. “We don’t even think about it,” Catherine Upton, a 63-year-old Republican activist in Chino Valley near Prescott, Ariz., said of contemplating other candidates. “There is no Plan B.”
Such “Forever Trumpers,” who say they won’t vote for anyone else, form the bedrock of Trump’s enduring power in the GOP — an implicit threat that the party can’t win without him. In voter interviews, finding people like Upton who wouldn’t agree to supporting anyone else as the eventual Republican nominee was rare. Still, Trump’s enduring strength with a sizable chunk of the GOP base could be his best path to beating a crowded field of rivals — a scenario that his advisers privately say they’re rooting for.
“Both things can be true: A majority of the party can want to move on, and enough of a plurality is so dug in that they won’t let them,” said Sarah Longwell, an anti-Trump Republican strategist who hosts the Focus Group Podcast featuring panel discussions with average voters and who has polled Republicans on their evolving loyalty to Trump. “Ron DeSantis or other Republicans, they’ve got to figure out how to chip away at that.”
To assess Trump’s current standing with the GOP base, Washington Post reporters fanned out across the five states that decided the 2020 election and are poised to be the biggest electoral battlegrounds again in 2024: Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. In several states, The Post focused on so-called pivot counties that Trump flipped in 2016 and that either he held or that flipped back to Democrats in 2020. The voters interviewed included men and women; young, old and middle-aged; professionals and laborers; from big cities, suburbs and small towns; and like Trump’s base, mostly but not exclusively White. Trump is viewed most favorably by evangelical Christians, rural voters, people with household incomes below $50,000 and White people without a college degree, according to an NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll this month.
Across every location and demographic, reporters encountered a range of attitudes toward Trump’s candidacy, generally falling into four broad categories: There were voters who vowed to stick with Trump no matter what; those who strongly supported Trump but were open to other options; others who were more eager to see a new nominee; and finally, some voters who said they were finished with Trump and couldn’t see themselves voting for him again.
“There is no one else who can generate enthusiasm and excitement like President Trump, which is why he has support from top elected officials, grass roots leaders, and people from across the country,” said Trump campaign spokesman Steven Cheung.
The bright desert sun steadily warmed the winter air outside a Phoenix megachurch where some 1,400 delegates to the Arizona Republican Party met on a recent Saturday. While officials inside busily tabulated the votes for a new state party chair, the delegates wandered out to eat lunch or visit the booths set up for various candidates and groups, including two unofficial outfits supporting DeSantis for president.
Here in the birthplace of the “Stop the Steal” movement — where Fox News’s early call for Joe Biden on election night 2020 was a radicalizing moment for Trump supporters who refused to accept his defeat — the most active party members remain overwhelmingly dedicated to the former president.
“He did a magnificent job when he was in, and then he got robbed, and he should have another chance,” said Debbie Kelly, a 71-year-old state committee member from the Phoenix area. On whether she could support a different nominee, Kelly echoed Trump’s own position: “Depends on who it is.”
Some faithful Trump supporters acknowledged that they have heard concerns about his electability, or that his demands for candidates to accept his election fraud claims were a drag on the party’s midterm performance.
“The message that we sent out was we’re still looking at the 2020 election and how many people believe it was stolen instead of focusing on the issues to get people elected,” said Robert Branch, a county parks commissioner wearing a camouflage Trump 2024 cap. But even if that same message fuels Trump’s comeback bid, it doesn’t change Branch’s allegiance. His only concern, he said, was the media discouraging Trump supporters by saying he couldn’t win.
“Trump’s got my vote,” Branch, 64, said. “I don’t care what Trump says or what Trump does.”
Anna Peto, 63, of Tucson, likened Trump to “the father you would want — someone who would take care of their family.”
Many of these die-hards said they liked what they’d seen of DeSantis and approved of his leadership in Florida. But they said he had no business challenging Trump for the presidential nomination. “I like DeSantis, but it’s not his turn,” Deanna Schreckler, of Phoenix, said. “He needs to stay in Florida.”
Joseph Dailey, a 62-year-old engineering consultant from Phoenix, said his ideal ticket would be Trump-DeSantis, though he does not believe that is realistic. Dailey said Trump is stronger now for facing investigations into his businesses, his efforts to overturn the 2020 election and his handling of classified documents. “He knows what the deep state is now and I don’t think he’ll make the mistakes he did the first time,” Dailey said of Trump.
Linda Conn, 71, of Prescott, went so far as to say she’d vote for Trump as an independent, even though she’s a lifelong Republican, if her party failed to nominate him. A recent poll by Monmouth University estimated the slice of Republicans who say they’d support Trump running as an independent at 27 percent, down from 34 percent in 2016.
“I’m tired of losing,” Conn said.
Open to someone else
In Rock Springs, Wis.
The heat was slow to kick on at the Sauk County Republican Party’s office, so the dozen members who gathered there kept their winter coats on. From a corner, a cardboard cutout of Trump gazed at them, his thumb raised in one of his signature poses.
They sipped coffee from Styrofoam cups and ate chocolate cake on paper plates decorated with American flags. From the kitchen in back, one woman brought out a plate of fruit, deviled eggs and cheese curds. “The curds are warm,” she said. “Not in this room!” said another attendee.
Sauk County, a bucolic area northwest of Madison, is a purple place in a purple state. In 2016, Trump edged out Clinton here by less than a third of a percentage point. Four years later, he lost to Biden by 1.7 percentage points.
Stephen Hinke, dressed in a U.S. Navy sweatshirt, told the group about a recent trip he’d taken to Madison, where he watched state Supreme Court arguments in a case that centered on the use of ivermectin to treat coronavirus infections. He was impressed with the acumen of the justices, even one of the liberal members.
“I don’t think being liberal means you’re stupid,” he told the group. Another chimed in: “It just means you’re evil.”
Then, as it sometimes does at the county party’s informal weekly gatherings in this town of 330 people, the conversation turned to the emerging presidential race. Hinke said he attended a Trump rally last August in suburban Milwaukee and found that the former president came across even better in person than he’d expected.
“Until he’s dead, I would vote for him,” said Hinke, a retired salesman in his 70s from nearby Reedsburg. “Look at the world and tell me he’s not a good leader, especially being hated by 30 percent of the population. Who can overcome that?”
Nodding along was Dave Olson, who wore a red, white and blue jacket and a foam cheesehead hat, the kind most often seen at Green Bay Packers games. Olson had attached a model of a John Deere tractor and three American flags to the top of the hat. He’d pasted bumper stickers touting Trump and the Constitution to its sides.
“Mr. Trump, yes, ran his mouth a little too much,” Olson, 75, told his friends. “If he would listen to this down-to-earth guy from Sauk County, he would hush up a little because actions speak louder than words.”
But Hinke and Olson, like others backing Trump in Sauk County, said they would support whoever wins the nomination. As Olson said at a different meeting, “If the gentleman from Florida succeeds, I will vote for him. I like both of them.”
At the Thursday gatherings, DeSantis is the name that most often comes up as a potential alternative to Trump. Jerry Helmer, the chairman of the county party, said he sees DeSantis as having a better chance than Trump of winning the presidency.
“I would take Trump as president in a minute,” Helmer, 72, said. “But I’m afraid that some people that didn’t vote for him last time won’t vote for him again.”
Eager for someone else
In Sandy Springs, Ga.
Rusty Paul, 70, the GOP mayor of this booming and affluent suburb north of Atlanta, looked out of his sprawling glass-walled office on a recent afternoon and pointed toward parts of his city where voters increasingly slam doors — literally — in the faces of Republicans who are door-knocking.
“Donald Trump single-handedly dropped a big bottle of dye in this area and changed it from red to purple,” Paul said. “I’ve talked to so many of my constituents who told me, ‘I voted Republican my whole life, but Donald Trump, I just won’t do it.’”
Instead, Paul said, his constituents are looking for someone like DeSantis. “They want someone with the policies without the edge,” he said.
Trump overwhelmingly lost this majority-White but increasingly diverse city where Republicans traditionally won, a shift reflected throughout the Atlanta suburbs. Trump performed worse in every ring county around Atlanta in 2020 than he did in 2016, a key factor in why he lost the state and the presidency. In counties he won, like Forsyth, he won by fewer votes. In counties he lost, like Gwinnett and Cobb, he lost by more.
Results in places like Sandy Springs also exposed another challenge for Trump — growing resistance in areas with above average income. Trump’s shortfall in those areas doubled in 2020 to almost 450,000 votes, too many to make up among his lower-income supporters.
Interviews with more than two-dozen voters, longtime operatives, activists and party leaders in Atlanta and the suburbs — all of whom said they voted for Trump twice — illuminate the challenges ahead for Trump.
They worry he can’t win. They are exhausted by his rhetoric and insults. They didn’t approve of his efforts to overturn the election. They didn’t like his attacks on their popular governor, Brian Kemp (R). They thought he cost the party seats in the state Senate. And they are fans of DeSantis, with his name coming up more than any other.
Cole Muzio, an antiabortion advocate who leads the Frontline Policy Council, a prominent Republican political group outside Atlanta, said he voted for Trump twice and backed many of his policies. But as he travels the state meeting with groups and giving speeches, he said, there is little enthusiasm for Trump now.
“The overwhelming majority of people I talk to fall into two camps: Extreme Trump fatigue where they really want him to fade from the scene entirely, and a group of voters who are really appreciative of Trump and pay attention to what he says and does, but he’s not their preferred candidate,” Muzio, who recently posted a Facebook photo of himself with DeSantis, said of Trump. “There are very few people I talk to who say he’s their number one choice.”
As eight consecutive callers dialed into Erick Erickson’s conservative talk show on Atlanta radio one day in early February, none criticized Trump’s policies. All said they voted for him twice. But five of the eight said they would not consider supporting him again in a primary — while three said they would vote for him no matter what. Sitting in his underground studio, Erickson said he was not surprised — and that his callers have increasingly faded from supporting Trump.
There were a host of reasons. Pierce from Lawrenceville pointed to Senate losses last November as a reason to support DeSantis: “He doesn’t come with the baggage of Trump. I’m moving on from Trump. He cost us in Pennsylvania, he cost us in Arizona. We could have maybe had 52 or 53 to 47.”
Steve from the Atlanta suburbs said: “I voted for Trump twice. It’s really going to be hard to bend my arm to vote for him again. He has a lot of baggage. There are certain people who just hate him. They aren’t going to change their mind.”
To be sure, Trump could still win a splintered primary in Georgia with 30 or 40 percent of the vote, operatives and strategists say. A faction of the voters and activists interviewed said they would only support Trump — with operatives and officials in the state saying he probably has a higher political floor than any other would-be GOP candidate.
Brian Strickland, a state senator in the southern Atlanta suburbs, said his constituents were open to backing Trump again if he would offer a different vision than focusing on the 2020 election and a resonant message they cared about. But unless he does, Strickland said, he believes a wide swath of people are just ready to move on.
“The idea of supporting a candidate like Trump that’s just going to talk about the 2020 election — that’s not going to work. If Donald Trump is going to be successful, he’s going to have to have a new message. That’s what people are looking for,” he said.
Trump, he added, just became “too exhausting and too much … He just wore people out in 2020.”
Sonia-Francis Rolle, 67, a longtime Republican in the southern Atlanta suburbs, said she hears mainly about DeSantis these days. She praised Trump for his outreach to minorities, which she said was important to her as a Black woman. She also liked his economic policies, she said. But it would be hard for him to win again if DeSantis ran, she said, even while maintaining Trump was “unfairly targeted.”
“There are just so many distractions with Trump,” she said, adding: “The Republican Party is not doing a lot of winning lately.”
Done with Trump
In Bethlehem, Pa.
Nestled late one afternoon at the bar of the Hotel Bethlehem, John and Terri Gress sipped Pinot Grigio and chatted with the easy familiarity that comes from 46 years of marriage. Even their cellphone numbers are just one digit apart.
They had driven down from their home in Brodheadsville, Pa., earlier in the day to meet with their financial planner, and they now found themselves at the historic hotel in Northampton County — which went for Trump in 2016 by less than 4 percent and then for Biden in 2020 by less than 1 percent.
Both John, 69, and Terri, 70, voted for Trump both times — they’d even voted for him in the 2016 Republican primary. But now the two Republicans were confounded by their longtime party. Terri said she had been “too disgusted” to vote in the 2022 midterms, and John had divided his ticket: for Senate he voted for Republican Mehmet Oz, the celebrity doctor, who lost; but for governor he voted for Democrat Josh Shapiro, the state’s former attorney general, who won.
Now, as they looked ahead to the 2024 presidential contest, John said his party needed “somebody new.”
“Trump — go retire, and just whatever,” John said. “Enough’s enough. We’ve had enough.”
“DeSantis,” Terri said.
“Yeah, DeSantis is a good candidate,” John agreed.
Terri explained that John “influenced me a lot against some things that Trump was saying and doing,” but that she came to DeSantis’s appeal on her own. Her sister lives in Florida, and they spent a lot of time down there, especially during the peak of the coronavirus pandemic, when DeSantis lifted many pandemic restrictions earlier than other states.
“So I had a lot of exposure to the things that DeSantis was doing for Florida, especially during covid,” she said. “And that’s what turned me — covid, and the way he handled it.”
But here is where the two diverge. As a retired educator and high school principal, John said he considers himself someone who is “just a little more conservative” but is also always “open to new things.” Initially, he really liked Trump.
“I think we needed him back in ’16,” John said. “I was just tired of politics as it was. And here was a guy saying, you know, we’re going to something different. That’s why he won.”
John said he started to become disillusioned halfway through Trump’s presidency, though he still voted for him in 2020. Then came the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol by pro-Trump rioters, which “didn’t help.”
“My heart fell through the floor,” he said.
Now, John said even if Trump is the Republican nominee again, he just can’t bring himself to vote for him. “I would just hope that the Democrats would put some good candidates up there, and they don’t have too many,” he said. “That’s the problem right now.”
For Terri, however, the calculation is different. She’d like to see somebody new, specifically DeSantis, but Jan. 6 wasn’t a tipping point for her — in fact, some of her friends headed to Washington that day, though John noted they weren’t the ones who stormed the Capitol. She said that unlike her husband, she could vote for Trump again if he was the 2024 Republican nominee.
“I would though, if I had to, if that was an option, I would do it,” Terri said, explaining a bit later: “No, I’m not voting for another Democrat, no matter what.”
“If Biden ran, I just don’t know what I’d do,” John said. “I couldn’t vote for Trump.”
“You couldn’t?” Terri asked.
“No, no, I can’t,” John said. “That’s how I feel about it. I’m just so, you know, disappointed. I think he let us down.”
Terri interjected: “But he did a lot of good, too.”
A Biden vs. Trump rematch in 2024, however, would still prove something of an existential crisis for the Gresses, especially John.
“If there were no more options, if Biden ran against Trump, who would you vote for?” Teri prodded. “That's what I'm saying.”
“That’s the dilemma,” John replied. “Hopefully we’re not in that quandary.”
“I don’t think we’re going to be in that quandary.”
“I don’t think so either.”
“But that’s what I’m saying,” Teri pressed.
Still sitting at the bar, angled toward his wife, John circled back to a version of the same question he’d posed several minutes earlier: “My God,” he asked, “who else is going to run?”
‘Less blind loyalty’
In Lansing, Mich.
Jaster, the 20-year-old from Saginaw County, arrived for the state GOP convention last Saturday as a delegation leader, anxiously checking in his members off a roster in a black binder. Some of the more pro-Trump activists came as alternates and grumbled about challenging the slate’s credentials, but they ended up backing off.
“We’re all America First, we all agree on the same points that what Trump has done was good for our country,” Jaster said. “Our group has less blind loyalty to Trump.”
All 10 candidates running for state party chair aligned themselves with the MAGA movement, even though only one, former attorney general candidate Matt DePerno, had Trump’s official endorsement.
Jaster’s first choice — a software developer who said he believed Trump was cheated in the 2020 election but was noncommittal on who he’d support in 2024 — was eliminated after the first round. Jaster then settled for DePerno, but he wasn’t disappointed when Kristina Karamo, an election denier who positioned herself as an even purer MAGA messenger, beat DePerno on the third ballot.
The result was the latest sign of both how Trump has remade the party — and how his power to command the base is not what it once was.
“Trump might still be able to sway 10 percent,” Jaster said. “Doesn’t sound like a big sway to me.”
Alice Crites, Anu Narayanswamy, Dylan Freedman, Dan Keating, Jeremy Merrill, Scott Clement and Emily Guskin in Washington contributed to this report.
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