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Trump: Still Not Losing His Grip on the GOP

He’s more popular than he’s ever been.
April 14, 2022
Trump: Still Not Losing His Grip on the GOP
Trump supporters cheer ahead of former President Donald Trumps arrival during the Save America rally on January 29, 2022 in Conroe, Texas. Former President Donald Trump spoke at the rally, making it his first Texas MAGA rally since 2019. (Photo by Brandon Bell/Getty Images)

There’s been a lot of talk about how former President Trump is losing his grip on the Republican party. There are some signs to support this theory. But the full picture suggests that even if his influence is waning—which is not definite—it’s not happening fast enough to save the Republicans who wish he would go away without them having to do anything to make it happen.

The Trump-is-in-decline narrative began with Glenn Youngkin’s victory in Virginia last year. The idea was that Youngkin was the model for a post-Trump GOP by being supportive of the idea of Trump, but by never talking about the former president.

There were two problems with this theory, though. The first is that Youngkin won his gubernatorial race because he didn’t have to face Republican primary voters. If he had, then it’s likely that uber-Trumpy rival Amanda Chase would have defeated him.

But even with the buffer that insulated him from primary voters, there was no mistaking Youngkin for, say, Sen. John Thune, who voted to certify the 2020 election. Youngkin spent most of his campaign refusing to directly answer whether or not he would have. Worse still, Youngkin said, “President Trump represents so much of why I’m running.” So while Youngkin may not have been the Trumpiest Republican in Virginia, he was still publicly invested in Trump and all his works. Had he been opposed to Trump—or even willing to plainly state that Trump lost a free and fair election—it’s doubtful he could have been elected.

The next oft-cited data point is the flame-out of Trump-endorsed Sean Parnell in the Pennsylvania Senate race. But Parnell dropped out because he lost custody of his children, not because he lacked support from voters. Then there’s Trump-endorsed Georgia gubernatorial candidate David Perdue, who hasn’t been able to get traction against Gov. Brian Kemp. And last month, Trump un-endorsed Rep. Mo Brooks in the Alabama Senate race, where Brooks was sitting in a distant third place in primary polls.

If you squint hard enough, maybe you can talk yourself into believing that all of this is a sign of Trump losing sway with Republican voters.

But on the other hand, there are explanations for many of these failures, and counter-examples on the other side of the ledger.

For instance, Brooks is a bad candidate and while he was Trump-endorsed, the other two candidates in the Alabama Senate GOP primary race have run not as #NeverTrump but as #MoreTrump. Rival Katie Britt loves to talk about the need to “build the wall” even though the contest is in . . . Alabama. And Mike Durant runs ads calling himself a “Trump Republican.” “President Trump did so much right,” Durant begins in one ad. After Trump un-endorsed Brooks, Durant released a statement saying that “President Trump was ROBBED.” It concluded, “We won’t move on and we won’t forget!” Durant has decided that his path to victory lies in repeating Trump’s Big Lie.

Then we have “Stop the Steal” candidate Herschel Walker in the Georgia Senate race. He’s a shoo-in for the Republican nomination for no real reason other than he has been all-in on Trump from the start. It’s a show of Trump’s power that establishment Republicans, including Mitch McConnell, made their peace with Walker, and not the other way around.

Speaking of McConnell, Trump’s power in the Republican party can be seen in the negative: Look how McConnell wasn’t able to get his preferred candidates for key Senate races this year. New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu, Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, and Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey all declined what would have been very winnable races. Instead, there’s a slew of mini-Trumps running in virtually every race in the country.

The people who believe that Trump’s influence is declining cite polls showing that as many as 40 percent of Republican voters don’t want him to run in 2024. This is true. But that top line number is also misleading, because it does not show why voters don’t want Trump to run: It isn’t because they are tired of Trump—it’s because they think he’s either too old or unlikely to win.

I see these sentiments often in focus groups with Republican voters who are, without exception, overwhelmingly Trumpian. I recently asked eight Trump 2020 voters if they wanted Trump to run in 2024. All of them said yes. One of them, however, was squishy—but not because she disliked Trump. She said, “He’s getting old. I wish he was younger. I like him, but he is getting old.”

In another group of nine Trump voters, four said they don’t want Trump to run again, but their reasons were practical.

Texas Republican 1: As much as I want Trump to run in 2024, can he win? [That] is the problem.

Texas Republican 2: I’d be hesitant just because I think there’s so many people that hate him and don’t like him.

To get a sense of Trump’s power, look at the fate of Republican candidates he’s actively opposed. Anthony Gonzalez is retiring rather than face a challenger he couldn’t beat. Liz Cheney is in a world of trouble. Ditto Nancy Mace. Maybe Lisa Murkowski will be able to hold on because of the oddities of Alaska’s voting laws. (But maybe not.)

Brian Kemp may be the exception who proves the rule. He has all the advantages of incumbency, and Trump still went all-in with his attempt to unseat him in a primary. So far, it hasn’t paid off. But the rule of thumb seems to be that Republican candidates can only survive Trump endorsing another candidate if they are willing to keep smiling and insisting that they love Trump, too.

What’s remarkable about Trump’s grip on the party is not only that he has maintained it despite his exit from the presidency and from (mainstream) social media—but that by some measures his standing has actually improved.

As of today, Trump’s favorable/unfavorable split is the best it’s ever been.

Throughout Trump’s candidacy and presidency, his average approval rating was never higher than 44.5 percent—and it hit that mark only for a moment in the honeymoon period after the 2016 election and before his inauguration, when America was still hoping that he would “grow in office.”

By the spring of 2017, he had settled into a -15 point split—the lowest and most durable net disapproval rating of any president in the history of modern polling.

Following the Jan. 6th insurrection and his second impeachment, Trump’s approval rating bottomed out at -21. A truly spectacular implosion.

But over the last 12 months, even as his grip on the party was supposedly waning, his disapproval numbers floated down and his approval number ticked all the way up to 44.6 percent—the highest it’s ever been.

I would love to be wrong about Trump and the Republican party. It would be good for America if the GOP would move on. But when you look at the numbers and listen to the voters, the idea that the party is growing to be independent of Trump seems less like analysis and more like wishcasting.

Sarah Longwell

Sarah Longwell is publisher of The Bulwark.