Do Trump’s Core Supporters Even Want the GOP to Win the Midterms?

If the agenda of the Republican establishment excited rank-and-file voters, Trump wouldn’t now preside over the party.

Brian Snyder / Reuters

The Republican Party’s prospects in the midterm elections are threatened in part by their trust in Donald Trump, Joshua Green argues this week in Bloomberg Businessweek, citing an internal poll by the Republican National Committee. It reportedly shows that while most American voters believe that Democrats are well-positioned to take back the House, a majority who describe themselves as strong Trump supporters don’t believe that the opposition party even has a chance of victory.

Even as Trump keeps telling his rally-goers and Twitter followers that the GOP might increase its advantage, the report asserts a need “to make real the threat that Democrats have a good shot of winning control of Congress.”

As Green reports:

The internal RNC study finds that complacency among GOP voters is tied directly to their trust in the president—and their distrust of traditional polling. “While a significant part of that lack of intensity is undoubtedly due to these voters’ sentiments toward the President, it may also be partly because they don’t believe there is anything at stake in this election,” the authors write. “Put simply, they don’t believe that Democrats will win the House. (Why should they believe the same prognosticators who told them that Hillary was going to be elected President?)”

It is not surprising that Trump’s most dedicated supporters are prone to believe what he says to be true or that doing so misleads them about reality—there has never been a more brazen or unabashed liar in the White House. Perhaps that is enough to explain the complacency that the RNC found.

But reflecting on my interviews and correspondence with strong Trump supporters during the 2016 election, it seems to me that a significant subset of them have reasons to be complacent about the 2018 midterms that are independent of the outcome that they expect in the contest. For that subset, placing so low a value on Republican victory that they stay home rather than bothering to cast ballots is a perfectly rational choice.

That analysis doesn’t apply to the most reliably partisan Republicans or voters mostly interested in the legislative priorities of the GOP. But recall that while winning most partisan Republicans and losing the popular vote, Trump got a boost from a constituency of nontraditional voters.

Consider the Trump voters who strongly gravitated toward him in the 2016 primaries because they felt so alienated by the rest of the GOP establishment; or who voted for him in the general election due to his celebrity, or his status as a political outsider, or faith that he would “drain the swamp” of a corrupt, bipartisan, establishment elite, or confidence that he would be a good “dealmaker” once in Washington, or a desire to “shake things up,” or to stoke and then revel in chaos, or because of an unusually strong or visceral dislike of Hillary Clinton.

Yes, some of those voters now worry that a Democratic majority would seek impeachment, representing a threat to a president that they want in office.

Still, if what you like most about the Trump presidency is watching him drive the media crazy; or reading his steady stream of combative tweets ostensibly “owning the libs”; or having a white man rather than a black man back in the White House; or seeing a president unapologetically attack Muslims, Mexicans, and NFL players; or following along to Sean Hannity’s sycophantic analysis of daily events; or believing that Trump is keeping North Korea or Iran in check? Well, all of that will continue regardless of the 2018 election.

For the subset of Trump supporters mostly in it for the “are you not entertained” spectacle, Democratic victory might even enhance their enjoyment, with their champion stepping daily into an arena filled with new villains. “Here’s the question facing the voters this fall,” talk-radio host Hugh Hewitt, a perennial Republican Party partisan, wrote recently in a Washington Post op-ed. “Do they vote to ratchet up this culture of conflict and chaos, or to return Republican legislative majorities that have figured out how to work with this most unusual of presidents?”

For at least some of the Americans who put Trump into power, revealed preference would seem to suggest their choice is: Ratchet up the conflict! As the reality-TV POTUS preps for a new season, fans want plot twists.

Meanwhile, the distinct subset that still believes what Trump said during the campaign may credulously expect a Democratic victory to allow their “master dealmaker” to win negotiations with a new set of congressional leaders, who they dislike no more than those they replaced.

Trump’s approval rating is around 40 percent among voters overall and substantially higher than that among staunch Republicans. In contrast, “just 18 percent of voters approve of Congress, while 75 percent disapprove. And worse for the lawmakers: Only 11 percent of those enthusiastic to vote in the upcoming midterm elections approve of Congress's job performance.” While that figure reflects dislike of congressional Democrats as well as Republicans, it does not portend an electorate that is motivated to turn out in the midterms to protect the status quo, regardless of the outcome that they would bet on if forced.

The RNC and establishment GOP partisans like Hewitt may be right that a Republican loss will stymie their agenda. But if their agenda excited GOP voters, Trump wouldn’t now preside over the Republican Party.