Welcome to FiveThirtyEight’s politics chat. The transcript below has been lightly edited.
sarah (Sarah Frostenson, politics editor): We at FiveThirtyEight in no way mean to undermine the very real and lasting influence that former President Donald Trump has within the GOP, but we do want to probe whether his power might be overstated.
From Republican senators calling for the cancellation of Trump’s event on the first anniversary of Jan. 6 to their defense of South Dakota Sen. Mike Rounds when he said on ABC News that President Biden had won the 2020 presidential election — not Trump, as many Republicans have falsely claimed — there appear to be cracks emerging in Trump’s control of the party. Even Trump acolyte Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has criticized Trump’s COVID-19 restrictions, while the former president’s supporters have also booed him at rallies for encouraging people to get vaccinated.
Is it possible that Trump is losing his sway within the GOP? To tackle this question, let’s break it into three parts:
- First, what evidence do we have that Republican elites — politicians, media personalities, etc. — might not be as firmly under Trump’s thumb?
- Second, what evidence, if any, do we have that Republican voters might be souring on Trump?
- Finally, what does this all mean for Trump’s status within the party? Is he losing his grip on the GOP?
Let’s start with Republican elites. What’s the case for — and the case against — them breaking more with Trump?
alex (Alex Samuels, politics reporter): To me, one case against breaking up with Trump is that there’s no obvious person who is ready to succeed him. And, as Nathaniel wrote in October, there’s still some appetite among the base for Trump to be involved in GOP politics. Moreover, and probably most importantly, there’s not a long list of GOP politicians who have disavowed Trump and been successful — in the short term at least.
On the flip side, there’s a case to be made for breaking up with him, too. As Glenn Youngkin’s victory in the Virginia governor’s race proved, Republicans in competitive — or even bluish — states can win if they attack identity politics without embracing Trump’s extremism. That could be a winning message for the party, especially if they’re looking to make inroads with voting blocs that Trump repelled, like women, voters of color and suburbanites.
kaleigh (Kaleigh Rogers, tech and politics reporter): Right, Alex, I think it is pretty apparent why DeSantis — who has been on a short list of presidential candidates for the GOP for a while now — might want to differentiate himself from Trump. Even if he is true to his word that he doesn’t plan to run in 2024, setting up a path to distinguish himself from the Trump era, wherever it may go, makes a lot of political sense.
nrakich (Nathaniel Rakich, senior elections analyst): Well, I’m the elections guy, so of course I’m going to go to an electoral example.
In two special elections last year — for Texas’s 6th District and Ohio’s 15th District — Republican elites weren’t afraid to support candidates other than the ones endorsed by Trump. For instance, former Texas Gov. Rick Perry explained his support for the non-Trump-endorsed candidate in the state’s 6th Congressional District by saying Trump wasn’t fully informed about the differences between the candidates (kind of a slap in the face if you think about it!).
But I think it’s important not to miss the forest for the trees. Most Republicans are still following Trump’s lead by, for example, falsely claiming that the 2020 election was stolen and opposing efforts to investigate the Jan. 6 Capitol riot.
meredithconroy (Meredith Conroy, political science professor at California State University, San Bernardino, and FiveThirtyEight contributor): Another place to look for hints of Trump’s weakness is GOP media. There’s little question that conservative media is, as historian Nicole Hemmer put it, “a coequal branch of party politics” among Republicans. But which conservative media currently wields the most influence is less obvious right now. For decades, conservative talk radio was influential behind the scenes, and then later Fox News was the most trusted source among Republicans. But after Trump lost and was critical of Fox News reporting on election night, it seemed like Fox News might be ready to break off from Trump. But the rise of newer media organizations like Newsmax and One America News Network (OANN) seem to be keeping Fox News on a Trump leash as they compete to keep their viewers. So, all this probably signals he has a strong hold.
kaleigh: Right, Meredith, and increasingly media is decentralized, so you have folks like Steve Bannon, who says his “War Room” podcasts and videos are streamed millions of times, and Alex Jones, whose audience is large enough to earn him millions of dollars in sales. Bannon is obviously a Trump loyalist, and Jones is a conspiracy theorist whose messaging promotes a lot of Trump’s claims, like the Big Lie.
These are influential personalities who aren’t tacking away from Trump anytime soon. So even if Fox News starts to take a more critical stance on Trump — which I’m not convinced they have — that doesn’t necessarily mean Trump is less popular with the base. Nor is it indicative of an overall shift.
Basically, I’m saying Fox News is not the be-all and end-all of conservative media.
meredithconroy: That’s fair. And the fact that I wanted to call OANN and Newsmax Trumpian news sites shows just how strong Trump’s influence has continued to be.
kaleigh: Don’t forget Breitbart.
meredithconroy: But can Trumpian politics still be strong if Trump himself is weak? I think Alex’s comments point to yes.
kaleigh: We can cherry-pick a few examples, but I think that’s evidence that politicians are testing out different strategies rather than evidence that Trump himself is weaker.
alex: I was pretty shocked, though, that Trump’s criticism of Rounds didn’t really go anywhere. In fact, the South Dakota senator has doubled down and is encouraging other members of his party to reject the myth that the 2020 election was unfair.
I also think there’s evidence of a weakened Trump outside of conservative media and his relationships (or lack thereof) with various members of Congress.
nrakich: Well, Rounds is a major political figure in South Dakota, and he seems to be calculating that he isn’t vulnerable in a primary, which I’d be inclined to agree with. He’s also not up for reelection until 2026, so there’s plenty of time for his comments to fade into the mists of time.
But, ultimately, I think all that the Rounds episode underscores is that other Republican elites have influence too — which was always true, IMO; they just haven’t flexed it very often.
kaleigh: There are good explanations for each of the examples other than “Republicans see Trump as weak and are starting to cut ties.” Nathaniel did a good job explaining what’s unique about Rounds’s case, and as I mentioned, DeSantis is also a unique case.
If we started to see Trump loyalists vocally breaking ties, or Republican members of Congress who are facing primary challengers starting to pivot away from the former president, that would make me sit up in my chair. But we haven’t seen that.
meredithconroy: Regarding Trump’s criticism of Rounds, this is why I am glad that FiveThirtyEight is tracking Trump-endorsed primary candidates again this year. If candidates like Rounds do well, that’s a knock against Trump. I know Rounds isn’t up for reelection this cycle, but if Trump’s primary picks flail in 2022, I think that gives GOP leaders an out (insofar as they’re looking for an out).
On that point, maybe they don’t want an out. Former FiveThirtyEight senior writer Perry Bacon Jr. put it well: “The riot on Jan. 6 provided an opportunity for the Republican Party and therefore the country to begin to take an off-ramp from Trump himself and Trumpism. But Trump’s acquittal suggests that Republicans did not want to take that off-ramp — and that means the nation couldn’t either.”
kaleigh: Instead, Meredith, we saw the GOP (mostly) refuse to vote to impeach Trump for his role in Jan. 6 and to oppose the independent commission to investigate exactly what happened. It’s been clear over the past year that Republicans have no intention of using Jan. 6 as an off-ramp from Trump, as Perry put it.
But they would love to have Jan. 6 in the rearview mirror (if we want to just extend this driving metaphor for miles).
sarah: Kaleigh and Meredith bring up a good point here, and maybe we are cherry-picking a little. We haven’t, for instance, seen a watershed moment with Republican politicians breaking with Trump en masse (despite ample opportunity to do so), so maybe talking about Trump being weaker is all semantics without this type of reaction?
I’m not sure this is the right comparison to be making in the context of this chat, but The Bulwark recently published an article arguing that the GOP is experimenting with a dual-track strategy for winning elections. That is, in the primary, many Republicans run as far to the right as they can, talking up their connections to Trump, but then in the general election try to present themselves as more moderate, downplaying their connections to Trump. The case of Youngkin in Virginia is an example of this, as Alex mentioned earlier, but I’m curious to what extent we think Republicans might be using Trump versus kowtowing to him.
kaleigh: It’s really going to depend on the politician and the election. Someone like Georgia Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, whose entire — winning — platform in 2020 was basically “I love Trump,” is unlikely to try to thread the needle. But in other districts, it will make sense for candidates to be choosy about when they embrace Trump and when they employ convenient amnesia. Youngkin did this pretty skillfully (and, clearly, successfully). He was endorsed by Trump and trotted that out for the right crowds while ignoring that fact and refusing to engage in some Trumpian rhetoric the rest of the time.
Just a small anecdote from my story on Greene’s campaign: She rented a Trump bus and carried around a cardboard cutout of him on her campaign stops. This is the opposite of the “parallel” strategy noted in the Bulwark article.
alex: But what it takes to win Greene’s district is different from what it takes for, say, Youngkin to win a bluish state like Virginia.
In other words, their opposing strategies make total sense for those very specific races. I completely agree with what Kaleigh is saying here.
meredithconroy: So, I think I am failing at this because I interpret every instance where Trump is held back (e.g., canceling his Jan. 6 event, not stumping for Youngkin) as an indicator of his weakness, but maybe that’s wrong!
alex: No, Meredith, I’m on your team!
meredithconroy: As you all are saying, just because Trump’s politics don’t work in Virginia doesn’t mean he is weak.
kaleigh: There’s no right or wrong interpretation, Meredith! But, yes, you are wrong and I am right.
meredithconroy: Hahaha. Yes, I know, Alex! We must defeat Kaleigh.
alex: I’ll try to articulate my case for “Trump is weaker than some want to believe.” For starters, there are factors working against him now: He’s hampered by the fact that he has no social-media presence, and as I pointed out in March, you have rising stars like DeSantis making a name for themselves and pushing for Trumpian policies without having some of the same baggage that the former president does.
It’s also pretty telling that Trump himself doesn’t think it’s a foregone conclusion that he’s the GOP presidential nominee in 2024. According to The New York Times, he was annoyed that DeSantis didn’t state publicly that he wouldn’t run for president if Trump did. To me, that’s a sign that Trump mainly wants to clear the field of potential opposition. I by no means think Trump is dead, but do I think his grip on the GOP is loosening since he left office? Absolutely.
sarah: OK, we’ve talked a lot about how Trump’s grasp has maybe weakened among GOP elites, but what about rank-and-file voters? Trump has long been popular among Republican voters. Has that changed?
nrakich: According to Civiqs, which has tracked Trump’s favorability ratings for years, his popularity among Republicans has ticked down since he left office. But to be clear, Republicans still love him: 85 percent have a favorable opinion of him, while just 8 percent have an unfavorable rating.
Notably, too, that unfavorable rating hasn’t really increased; instead, Republicans are switching from “favorable” to “unsure.” That’s hardly turning their back on Trump.
In addition, as Alex mentioned earlier, I wrote in October about how Republicans overwhelmingly want him to run for president again.
To quote from that article: “By a 67 percent to 29 percent margin, Republican registered voters told Morning Consult/Politico that Trump should run again, including 51 percent who said he should ‘definitely’ run. A HarrisX/The Hill poll from Oct. 13-14 similarly found that Republican registered voters supported a third consecutive Trump candidacy 77 percent to 23 percent, including 52 percent who ‘strongly’ supported it. And Quinnipiac found that 78 percent of Republicans would like to see Trump run again, and only 16 percent would not.”
So, again, I really think it’s missing the forest for the trees to say that Trump is getting weaker within the GOP. Maybe slightly, but he is still ridiculously strong.
alex: One semi-recent data point that I found pretty striking, from a September Pew Research Center poll, said just 44 percent of Republicans wanted Trump to run for president again — and 32 percent said they wanted him out of the national political sphere for years to come!
Something else that stuck with me is this January NBC News poll (h/t Nathaniel) of Republicans who were asked whether they’re more a supporter of Trump or more a supporter of the Republican Party: 56 percent said the GOP, and 36 percent said Trump, which is the lowest number for him ever recorded in this poll.
But according to a CNN/SSRS poll in August and September, Republicans appeared split on a Trump run in 2024: 51 percent said the GOP had a better shot at reclaiming the White House with Trump as their presidential nominee, while 49 percent thought someone else would give the party a better chance. And, as CNN wrote in its write-up of the poll, these numbers still vary drastically from the ones recorded in 2019, when over three-quarters of Republicans said they had the best shot of winning in 2020 with Trump at the top of the ticket.
meredithconroy: Nathaniel, are there any more recent polls for this question? It is fascinating to me to see a presidential candidate who lost still have so much appeal and influence on his party, although we know that not everyone believes he lost.
kaleigh: Meredith, an Economist/YouGov poll from Jan. 15-18 found that 78 percent of Republicans had a favorable view of Trump.
meredithconroy: Ah, yes, that is high.
kaleigh: And of those Republicans, 58 percent said they had a “very” favorable view of Trump.
nrakich: A Morning Consult/Politico poll from last month also found that 70 percent of Republicans “definitely” or “probably” want Trump to run for president again in 2024. Forty-nine percent said “definitely.”
sarah: Perhaps, what’s most challenging about this is there isn’t currently a strong alternative to Trump looking ahead to 2024 polls. And at least as far as the past two presidential elections go, the nominee hasn’t been a surprise (on both the GOP and Democratic sides), which is perhaps one reason why Trump still feels like such a serious heavyweight?
meredithconroy: Definitely, Sarah. And it is fair to assume that the reason there isn’t a strong challenger is that Trump is still the default leader of the party, right?
kaleigh: Polling certainly shows Republicans continue to prefer Trump as the 2024 candidate. In a Reuters/Ipsos poll from the end of last year, 54 percent of Republicans picked Trump as their preferred candidate from a list of choices that included DeSantis, former Vice President Mike Pence and former U.N ambassador Nikki Haley. No other candidate named broke more than 11 percent.
alex: There’s arguably no obvious successor in the GOP if Trump is out. But 2022 is a referendum on Trump just as much as on Biden, and voters’ verdicts on Trump will come in competitive races like the ones in Georgia and Alabama. As Nathaniel and former FiveThirtyEight politics intern Mackenzie Wilkes wrote last month, Trump had already endorsed nearly 50 candidates in Republican primaries, and I believe his record in these races will serve as a decent barometer of whether he has lasting strength in the GOP or whether he’ll ultimately fade out.
kaleigh: The GOP knows who their voters like. After the Jan. 6 attack, we did see a tiny glimmer suggesting Republicans might start to break with Trump. But it’s my view that as soon as polling showed voters hadn’t wavered in their support, any inkling of that was quickly extinguished.
meredithconroy: I agree with Alex, though, that 2022 could loosen Trump’s grip on the party.
nrakich: I don’t know about that, Alex. I think Trump’s “win rate” in Republican primaries will almost certainly decrease this year, and a lot of pundits will probably use that to try to claim that Trump’s hold on the party is weakening. But, really, I think it will be more reflective of the fact that Trump’s endorsement strategy has changed. He is endorsing a lot more candidates who are longer shots to win, whereas before he mostly just endorsed incumbents and other candidates who were sure to win, likely in an attempt to pad his own statistics.
In other words, I think Trump’s hold on the party was never as strong as his 98 percent win rate in past primaries implied. But, to be clear, it’s still strong.
alex: Hmm, I guess what I’m trying to say is that if Trump fails in 2022, that could give other Republicans an opening to replace him in 2024 (not a given, but a possibility).
sarah: I also think whether Trump changed his endorsement strategy is a little beside the point if his track record this year is abysmal … that still says something!
nrakich: Sure, Sarah, if his endorsement win rate is 20 percent, that will be telling. But I think it will be closer to, say, 80 percent.
sarah: OK, time for everyone’s final verdict. Has Trump’s grip on the GOP loosened?
kaleigh: Honestly, if I’m answering that question, Sarah, I’ll say yes. I don’t think I can argue that Trump’s influence in the GOP is exactly the same as it was when he was in the White House, or still on Twitter, or at various other points in his history as the party leader.
But do I think Trump is weak? No. There’s very little evidence that the handful of politicians mildly butting heads with Trump is indicative of a wider shift, and when you consider just how beloved Trump remains among Republican voters, it’s hard to imagine the party turning its back on its base.
nrakich: I guess relatively speaking, yes, cracks in his Teflon (ewww, mixed metaphor) are starting to show, mostly because elites are starting to probe around the edges of what Trump criticism they can get away with. But I don’t think anything has fundamentally changed. I think Republican elites always had more power than they thought they did (if they cared to use it), and I still think Trump is an extremely powerful figure within the Republican Party who still has the power to end careers and waltz to the 2024 nomination — if he wants to do those things.
alex: Eh, I stand by my original statement that Trump is weaker than some would like to admit. That said, I could easily change my mind given what happens in certain primaries over the next few months.
I truly think the full extent of Trump’s power will be measured by whether he can persuade voters to reject these three incumbents: Wyoming Rep. Liz Cheney, Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski and Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp. 🤷🏽♀️
kaleigh: Alex, you maybe won in the end, lol.
meredithconroy: Here is where I come down on this: If someone like DeSantis or Texas Rep. Dan Crenshaw or Missouri Sen. Josh Hawley said they were running and decided they didn’t want to wait for Trump, do we think that candidate would break through?
I think the response to that is a good indicator of whether Trump is strong or whether he is just a guy who was in the right place (2016 election against an unpopular woman) at the right time (weak GOP party). My view is that if someone credible stepped up, Trump would be displaced, but the fact that no one is willing to do that is telling, too.