Plenty of Republicans claim to have found Donald Trump’s boasts of groping women reprehensible—but increasingly, many seem willing to vote for him all the same.
GOP elected officials in particular have done some awkward maneuvering: After righteously denouncing the Republican nominee’s comments in a 2005 Access Hollywood recording—wherein Trump bragged about forcing himself on women without their consent—some withdrew their endorsements entirely. But some Republican members of Congress have since clarified that they nevertheless plan to vote for Trump, even as women continue to come forward to publicly accuse him of groping them—allegations he denies.
A similar dynamic appears to be playing out in the polls. Hillary Clinton currently leads in the RealClearPolitics national polling average, but Trump’s standing in the polls has nevertheless risen after taking a hit in the days after the Access Hollywood recording surfaced. In a state-of-the-race analysis published on Wednesday, FiveThirtyEight’s Nate Silver concluded that “Trump’s gains are partly the result of Republicans returning home to his campaign.”
The polling suggests that some Republican voters who either abandoned Trump or felt uncomfortable expressing their support for him in the immediate aftermath of the tape’s release have since decided to forgive the nominee. Or, at the very least, they have made a determination that his comments, and the assault allegations against him, are not enough to withhold their vote.
That’s not entirely surprising. Partisan affiliation is a strong indicator of how people ultimately decide to vote. Voter conviction can also change rapidly if the overarching narrative of the presidential race changes. Trump initially faced intense criticism over the recording, but that has faded, in part because GOP leaders are no longer expressing the same kind of outrage they once were. Meanwhile, Republicans have seized on the FBI's announcement on Friday that it will examine additional emails in connection with the Clinton email inquiry to intensify criticism of the Democratic nominee. The news may provide cover for more GOP officials to press the case that for all of Trump’s flaws, Clinton’s are far worse.
That doesn’t mean Trump will win, however, or that the GOP itself will emerge unscathed. It’s hard to see how high-profile Republicans who have vocally criticized Trump, only to ultimately concede they will vote for him anyway, haven’t damaged their credibility in the eyes of Republican voters who believe Trump’s words and alleged behavior are in fact disqualifying.
Republican women, in particular, may find that apparent willingness to forgive unacceptable. My colleague David Graham recently wrote: “Repeatedly, conservative women have raised concerns about Trump’s language and treatment of women, and repeatedly, conservative men have not merely disagreed with them but have dismissed their concerns as evidence of bias or foolishness or identity politics.” When Republicans who expressed shock over Trump bragging about groping women conclude that he is still worthy of support, it leaves the impression that trivializing and even promoting sexual assault is not serious enough to completely disavow a candidate. Republican women may not soon forget that.
Republicans giving in to Trump also risk leaving the impression that they lack conviction, no matter how they attempt to justify their decision. In recent days, Republican members of Congress—such as Representative Jason Chaffetz of Utah and Senator Mike Crapo of Idaho—have said they plan to vote for Trump, despite previously rescinding their endorsements. Though they may express reservations about Trump, these officials are inevitably sending a signal to voters that he is an acceptable candidate. That nod of approval tacitly endorses his entire candidacy, even if only as the lesser of two evils.
While Trump may have won back some of the support he’d once seemed to have lost that doesn’t mean it will be enough to salvage his candidacy. Any new disclosures in the FBI's email investigation could cause Clinton’s lead in the polls to erode, but for now, she remains the favorite to win the White House. Whatever the outcome of the election, GOP leaders may find that damage inflicted by their willingness to repeatedly downplay the significance of the Republican nominee’s many controversies won’t easily go away.