What next for the Republican Party?
As the US prepares for midterm elections next month, one crucial factor is Donald Trump’s ongoing dominant role within the Republican Party.
Trump remains a deeply divisive figure. Among Democrats, 90 percent have an unfavorable view of him, according to a recent Morning Consult poll. Importantly for competitive races, 60 percent of independents view Trump unfavorably. However, 78 percent of Republicans have a favorable view of him, compared to 20 percent of Republicans with an unfavorable view. These survey results highlight a key reality in US politics today: Many Americans do not like Trump, but he remains a dominant force within the Republican Party.
In general, there are three types of Republicans today: A small group that does not like Trump, a larger group that is deeply loyal to him and a third group that accepts Trump but is open to considering other Republican leaders. It is difficult to determine the relative size of these groups, but an August NBC News poll found that 41 percent of Republicans say they support Trump more than they support the Republican Party, while 50 percent say they support the party more. Compared to a May survey, support for Trump over the party has increased.
This year, Trump’s main form of influence has been through endorsing candidates in Republican primary elections, in which the party chooses its candidates for the general elections in November. Trump endorsed more than 200 candidates for US Congress and top state-level positions. Most of those that he endorsed support his claims about fraud in the 2020 election. While the vast majority of his picks won their primaries, most were expected to win anyway, which makes it difficult to assess the impact of a Trump endorsement.
His record in competitive races is mixed. Trump’s endorsement was clearly a factor in several high-profile races, where his support for candidates such as J.D. Vance in Ohio and Mehmet Oz in Pennsylvania were important. He also showed his ability to take revenge on some Republicans who had criticized him. He was mostly successful in supporting challengers to the few House Republicans who had voted to impeach him, particularly in the high-profile case of Liz Cheney. However, Trump’s picks to run against the incumbent Republican governor and secretary of state in Georgia lost. Going forward, if his chosen candidates underperform expectations in the coming elections, it might damage Trump’s reputation in the party, although it is unclear how much that would matter to voters.
Trump has tried to exert influence through right-wing media, with mixed results. After Twitter and Facebook blocked him on their platforms, Trump established a blog but closed it down in less than a month. This year, he launched social media platform Truth Social. Its user numbers are small and a recent Pew Research Center survey found that only 27 percent of US adults have heard of Truth Social and only 2 percent use it regularly for news.
However, “alternative” social media platforms are particularly popular with Republicans. Trump’s social media site has almost no influence in the wider population but does play a role in the right-wing media ecosystem. Most importantly, Trump no longer dominates Fox News coverage, but he is mentioned on the news network more often than any other potential Republican candidate for president.
Despite Trump’s media struggles, he has successfully shaped the Republican narrative. While many establishment Republican leaders have wanted to focus on inflation and other issues, Trump has kept the right-wing narrative focused on his election grievances and other personal priorities. For example, a recent Monmouth University poll found that only 13 percent of Republicans now say that the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the US Capitol was an insurrection and only 45 percent agree that it was a riot — significant reductions since a previous poll in June 2021. Today, 61 percent of Republicans say the attack was a “legitimate protest.” These shifts in Republican opinion reflect the successful efforts by Trump and his allies to push a pro-Trump story.
Republican leaders know that criticizing Trump is a risky political move. When the FBI searched Mar-a-Lago in August, many Republican leaders — who often portray themselves as supporters of law enforcement — reacted with outrage and some severely criticized the FBI. Many Republicans who openly criticized Trump in the wake of the Jan. 6 attack have since embraced him again.
Despite the former president’s media struggles, he has successfully shaped the Republican narrative.
Kerry Boyd Anderson
Meanwhile, Trump is widely expected to run for president again and potential contenders are waiting to see what he will do. A New York Times poll over the summer found that Trump is the top candidate for 49 percent of Republicans, followed by 25 percent who prefer Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, with other potential candidates far behind. Furthermore, Trump has accumulated a huge amount of donations that he could use to support a presidential campaign.
There is no question that Trump remains the dominant figure in the Republican Party. The true uncertainty is whether many Republicans are loyal to Trump as an individual or whether he represents something deeper. Is the attraction to Trump limited to him? Or are many Republicans interested in other figures that might adopt his style: An unapologetic, populist, us-versus-them approach that emphasizes constant war with “the left?” If the latter is true, then DeSantis or others could pose a threat to Trump’s hold on the party. However, if that is the case, the few Republicans who want the party to return to its pre-Trump identity must face the reality that the party has changed in ways that go beyond one man.
- Kerry Boyd Anderson is a writer and political risk consultant with more than 18 years of experience as a professional analyst of international security issues and Middle East political and business risk. Her previous positions include deputy director for advisory with Oxford Analytica. Twitter: @KBAresearch