It’s still Donald Trump’s party: Why the GOP can’t escape his grip

For a brief period following the Republican Party’s lackluster showing in the November 2022 midterms, it seemed like the GOP was finally ready to move on from Donald Trump. It was assumed that the losses of Trump-backed candidates in winnable swing-state races would be the last straw for rank-and-file Republicans, who voiced their frustration that Trump had caused their party to underperform in yet another national election. 

But nine months later, the former president has only tightened his grip on the GOP, leaving little doubt that it is still Donald Trump’s Republican Party.  

New national polling by our firm, Schoen Cooperman Research, underscores Trump’s dominance. He leads the full GOP primary field with 61 percent of the vote, putting him nearly 50 points ahead of the second and third-place contenders: businessman Vivek Ramaswamy with 13 percent and Gov. Ron DeSantis (R-Fla.) with 12 percent. None of the other dozen-or-so candidates eclipse single digits. 

The intensity of Trump’s support is just as significant to note, as 56 percent of Republican primary voters say they will “definitely” vote for him, while 19 percent probably will — versus 11 percent who probably will not, and 11 percent who definitely will not.  

What is driving Trump’s ever-increasing strength? In addition to GOP voters’ genuine fondness for Trump and his policies — nine in 10 approve of the job he did as president, including 2 in 3 who “strongly” approve — his campaign’s successful messaging around his legal challenges has certainly played a role, with Trump having been indicted in four separate cases, both state and federal, on 91 counts this year.  

Trump has used the charges to reinforce his core positioning as a political martyr facing unfair persecution by the establishment and has clearly struck a responsive chord: 51 percent of Republican primary voters say the recent indictments have made them more likely to support Trump in the primary, while only 17 percent are now less likely to support him. 

That said, Republicans’ affection for Trump isn’t new, and their acceptance of his martyrdom narrative does not explain how Trump has ostensibly overcome concerns about his general election viability. In a December 2022 USA Today-Suffolk Poll, just weeks after the midterms, 61 percent of GOP voters said they liked Trump and his policies but would prefer a different Republican to carry them on, while only 31 percent wanted Trump to remain the party’s standard-bearer. Yet, in SCR’s August 2023 poll, the inverse was essentially found: By 57 percent to 40 percent, the GOP electorate prefers Trump over “another Republican who holds Trump’s values and supports his policies, but doesn’t bring along all of Trump’s baggage.” 

One of the clearest explanations for this shift is the increasing weakness of President Joe Biden, who GOP voters now view as “eminently beatable,” according to an analysis by pollster Kristin Soltis Anderson, based on focus groups she conducted with Republican voters in early primary states this month. Separately, Republican strategist Josh Holmes recently noted that “the perception that Biden is the weakest possible candidate has lowered the electability question in the calculus of [Republican] primary voters.” 

SCR’s most recent polling data lends to this conclusion as well. Only 21 percent of GOP voters in SCR’s poll believe another Republican without Trump’s baggage would be more electable against Biden, while three-quarters of GOP voters (75 percent) say Trump is electable. 

The media – especially conservative media – has certainly played a role in driving this shift with their consistent focus on Biden’s diminishing mental faculties and old age. According to data collected by Media Matters, in the week following Biden’s official campaign launch, the three largest cable news outlets mentioned the president’s age nearly 600 times. Fox News alone mentioned Biden’s age 236 times, at least one mention every single hour. For reference, the age of Trump, who is nearly as old as Biden, was mentioned only nine times by Fox News in that week. 

While Trump’s main GOP rivals are still pushing the idea that he is unelectable, this argument is largely falling flat with voters, as evidenced by Trump’s increasing strength and the corresponding weakening of DeSantis, who experienced early success by riding the coattails of his strong midterm performance and positioning himself as “Donald Trump without the baggage.” Despite being largely well-liked by the primary electorate — with 72 percent of GOP voters viewing him favorably, according to our poll — he is now struggling to break through.  

A poll by Monmouth University taken weeks after the midterms — when Biden enjoyed the best midterm election performance for a first-term Democratic president since John F. Kennedy in 1962 — found DeSantis leading Trump by 13 points, 53 percent to 40 percent, in a two-way contest. But now nine months later, our poll found Trump leading DeSantis in a head-to-head primary matchup by nearly 50 points, 72 percent to 23 percent. 

To be sure, DeSantis has stumbled in his own right during the campaign, trying to straddle the Trump wing with the establishment, and was the subject of Trump’s attacks, which for months went largely uncontested. Republican voters also have tended to prioritize ideology over traditional electability for the last decade, hence the rise of Trump, who even before the indictments brought along a great deal of political baggage. 

Still, based on the trajectory of the race, taken together with both quantitative and qualitative research on the Republican electorate, it is abundantly clear that Trump’s overwhelming strength in the primary race cannot be separated from Biden’s perceived weakness.

Douglas E. Schoen and Carly Cooperman are pollsters and partners with the public opinion company Schoen Cooperman Research based in New York. They are co-authors of the book, “America: Unite or Die.” 

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