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The Quiet Significance of NeverTrump

The hashtag isn't important. But the voters are.
February 1, 2020
The Quiet Significance of NeverTrump

Speak to enough voters who oppose Trump—which is, per polling, slightly more than half the country—and you will hear a strange resignation to the feeling that no matter what happens, President Trump is probably going to win re-election. They talk about their worry Democrats will screw up what should be a layup. They confess that they believe the GOP is so spellbound by Trump that nothing can rip them from his grasp. It’s like there’s a communal sense of PTSD lingering over the political system in the wake of Trump’s 2016 upset victory.

At first, people couldn’t believe that Trump had won. Now, they can’t envision him losing. No one seems to trust their senses anymore. They’ve forgotten the very basics of campaigns.

Starting with this obvious point: Trump needs Republicans to win. Not just his MAGA-hat-wearing, self-avowed deplorables. He needs all of them. He needs GOP suit-and-tie Chamber of Commerce types, the suburban yoga moms, and the buttoned-up Sunday school teachers alike. Even those camped out in the farthest nooks and crannies of the most gerrymandered districts in the swingiest of swing states. Why? Because he’s never even entertained the concept of reaching out to Democratic and Independent voters.

The 2018 midterm elections showed us two important things: Trump’s historic disapproval rating is real and Democratic turnout in 2020 is going to be off the charts. The Democrats may not yet be united behind a Democratic nominee, but they are absolutely united in lockstep against Trump.

Remember, Trump beat Hillary Clinton by a total of just under 80,000 votes in the swing states of Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin. Trump got a shade under 63 million votes in 2016, which means that if he loses one tenth of one percent of those people, his margin is gone. Yes, yes. Spare me the pedantry about how, depending on the distribution, he could stand to lose as much as half of one percent of his 2016 voters and—if the stars align and Jupiter is in it’s seventh house and Ivanka eats Sweetgreen on Election Day—could still, maybe, get to 270 in the Electoral College. If that’s your plan for winning reelection as an incumbent president when the economy is humming and unemployment is under 4 percent . . . well. Schedule lots of time for self-care November 4, 2020.

Which explains why the president is constantly hate tweeting about the human scum NeverTrumpers, who he describes as being simultaneously both woefully ineffective and dangerously powerful. Their presence is a constant reminder of the intra-party turmoil.

To be fair, anti-Trump Republicans have not had a great deal of influence on elected Republicans. Never Trumpers had hoped to rally a group of Republican officials who would act as a check on the president’s most destructive and/or illegal impulses. They failed in that mission.

If anything, Republicans have run into Trump’s arms for protection from Democrats, the media, and NeverTrumpers. Ted Cruz’s 2016 campaign manager Jeff Roe told Republicans that the only way to survive the midterms was by staying on board with Trump. “[Y]ou are in the same boat as Mr. Trump, whether you like it or not,” he wrote. “If enough people jump ship, generic party identification will suffer, and everyone will sink. . . . The lesson for Republicans: Stay in the boat and keep rowing.” And, row, row, row the boat they did.

On the other hand, rank and file Republican voters—the people out there in the suburbs who don’t have to report to Captain Trump, but do turn out in November, pose a very real danger to Trump’s prospects. Therein lies the quiet significance of NeverTrump. While not many Republicans identify as “NeverTrump,” an important bloc vote like they are.

We’ve already seen Republican voters defecting from Trump’s party. They just haven’t had the chance to defect from Trump himself. (Yet.)

For instance, Virginia gubernatorial candidate Ed Gillespie, a longtime GOP operative who is no dummy to politics, tried to deploy Trumpism in his 2017 race and promptly lost by 9 points. Two years later, Virginia turned completely blue as Democrats took full control of the state government for the first time in 26 years.

I can hear you now: “But Trump didn’t win Virginia in 2016! And who cares about Gillespie?” Well, losing suburban voters is a bad indicator for pretty much everywhere. And everywhere matters. Had Trump paid more attention to the problems emerging in suburban districts—where Republican majority makers such as Virginia Rep. Barbara Comstock got blown out in the 2018 midterms—then the GOP wouldn’t have lost the House of Representatives. And impeachment would have never happened.

Impeachment. Oh, yes. That. Despite Trump’s inevitable Senate acquittal, the fact that he’s the first impeached president in history to face re-election is likely to have some negative impact on the race. Democrats will run ads from sea to shining sea accusing the president of cheating to win elections. And, what a lucky label for them to hang on Trump, since “cheater” applies neatly to pretty much every aspect of his personal and professional life.

Trump loves to claim a 90-plus approval rating among Republicans—this isn’t quite right—yet, 10 percent of Republicans think he should be removed from office. If 10 percent of Republicans are unhappy enough to rip him out of the Oval Office today, how many more would be content to send him packing in November? Additionally, two recent Fox News polls showed a slim majority of voters want Trump removed from office and the five leading Democratic presidential candidates are all beating Trump in general election matchups.

You don’t get to numbers like that without bleeding Republican—or at least formerly Republican—votes.

That’s the real NeverTrump caucus in action. Even if they don’t know it.

We’ve seen other signs. How did Cruz’s midterm race turn out? The skateboarding boy wonder of a candidate Beto O’Rourke came within 2.6 points of beating the rock-ribbed conservative Tea Party rockstar—making it the closest Senate race in Texas since 1978. Rowing the boat worked, but consider the fact Cruz beat his Democratic candidate in 2012 by more than 16 points.

Trump-hugging Florida Republican Ron DeSantis only beat Democrat Andrew Gillum by four-tenths of a point to become Governor of the Sunshine State.

It wasn’t much better for former Florida Republican Governor Rick Scott, who spent $40 million of his own money and tried his best to play “keep away” from Trump in his Senate race. He won by 0.12 percentage points.

If these red state margins don’t keep the big brains at the RNC up at night, then I don’t know what would. Maybe it’s the races they already lost and stand to lose again.

Combat pilot Martha McSally lost John McCain’s Arizona seat to the tutu-clad, anti-war protester Kyrsten Sinema in 2018. (Read that again to let it sink in.) If her latest attempt to execute the Gillespie gambit works out as well as it did for Ed, she’ll hold the distinction of losing bids for both of her state’s Senate seats, in back-to-back elections. And please, let’s not forget the big dose of bat crap crazy Trumpism that led to a Democrat winning a Senate election in . . . Alabama.

In all these states there seems to be an analogous cohort of voters who probably don’t care about hashtags, but who are, functionally, Never Trump in their outlook. It would be an exaggeration to call them a silent majority. It’s better to understand them as the silent majority-makers.

And they’re coming for Trump.

Amanda Carpenter

Amanda Carpenter is an author, a former communications director to Sen. Ted Cruz, and a former speechwriter to Sen. Jim DeMint. She was formerly a Bulwark political columnist.