Republican Voters Trust Trump More Than GOP Leaders in Congress

If congressional Republicans challenge the president they risk a backlash from their base.

President Donald Trump is greeted by Vice President Mike Pence and House Speaker Paul Ryan in Philadelphia.  (Jonathan Ernst / Reuters)

Now that Republicans control Congress and the White House, the stage is set in Washington for the GOP to enact sweeping legislative change after eight years of President Obama. But for Republicans, that new-found power comes with a caveat: Republican voters tell pollsters they trust President Trump more than they trust GOP leaders in Congress. And if Republican lawmakers clash with Trump, either by opposing his agenda or pursuing one of their own that runs contrary to the president’s priorities, they may face backlash from voters whose support they will need to remain in office.

A Pew Research Center survey released on Wednesday found that if Trump and Republican leaders in Congress disagree, more than half of Republican and Republican-leaning voters—at 52 percent—are more likely to trust Trump. Only 34 percent of Republican voters, in contrast, responded that they would trust their elected leaders in Congress more than the president.

Republican voters also seem to like Trump more than they like GOP congressional leaders. A full 86 percent of Republican and Republican-leaning voters held a favorable view of  Trump compared to only 65 percent who held a favorable view of House Speaker Paul Ryan and 57 percent who felt favorably about Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, according to the Pew poll conducted earlier this month.

Those numbers help explain why Congressional Republicans have not been very critical of Trump despite his unpopularity overall. If GOP leaders split with the president, they risk having their own base turn against them. That dynamic might make Republicans more beholden to Trump’s policy ambitions. It may also make it more difficult for GOP congressional leaders to push legislative items they have long championed, but which Trump has opposed, including cuts to entitlement programs like Medicare or policies that would bolster free trade. It might also make congressional Republicans less willing to take action that could provoke Trump, such as investigating the potential conflicts of interest that arise from his business empire.

Of course, the mere fact that Trump has voiced opposition in the past to various policies that GOP congressional leaders might want to pursue doesn’t necessarily mean he’ll actively dissent in the future. It remains to be seen whether and how much Republicans in Congress will push an agenda Trump disagrees with, and whether he will oppose them if they do.

So far, Republicans in Congress have been supportive of the president. Most Republicans in the Senate have consistently voted to confirm the various members of Trump’s cabinet, though there have been a few defections. There have also been several dissenting GOP voices in the early days of the Trump administration, most notably Republican Senators Lindsey Graham and John McCain. For the most part, however, Republicans in Congress have adopted a deferential approach.

The polling results indicate that Republican voters may be happy to see that. Pew Research shows a sharp uptick in approval ratings for Republican congressional leaders overall among Republican and Republican-leaning voters over roughly the past year. In September 2015, only 26 percent of GOP voters approved of the work their Republican leaders were doing. That number has now shot up to 68 percent.

That rise in approval for congressional leaders, as well as the fact that the vast majority of Republican voters have a favorable view of Trump, underscores that even if Trump remains unpopular nationally his base still approves. While 86 percent of Republican voters have a favorable view of the president, the poll finds that 57 percent of voters overall, and 87 percent of Democratic voters, view him unfavorably.

The findings reinforce the idea that the electorate remains deeply divided. Trump’s popularity with his base, as well as the recent surge in approval for GOP leaders, could also blunt the ability of liberal protesters showing up at Republican town halls to convince GOP lawmakers they face any real electoral danger from voters unhappy with Trump and Congress. Instead, Republicans could rationally conclude that defying the president carries far greater political risks than supporting him.