As known by anyone who closely follows the American politics news, tomorrow is “Trump at CPAC Day.” For everyone else, that means that the former President will be giving his first full-fledged speech as a former President, and his most comprehensive public utterance since he controversially addressed that pre-Capitol Riot rally on January 6.
The conventional wisdom seems to hold that tomorrow’s event will be just the lastest sign that the Republican Party remains Trump’s to command. All the polls appear to support this claim, and it looks almost certain that he’ll receive a rousing welcome at the Conservative Political Action Conference, a major annual right-of-center conclave. Moreover, even Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, who’s angrily blamed Trump in large measure for the riot, has since stated that he would support a Trump reelection drive if the former President won the Republican nomination in 2024.
I agree that Trump is today’s most popular Republican. But my reading of two new polls adds to my previously stated conviction that the new Trump-ian GOP is less the cult of personality that’s widely supposed, and more a political faction converted to Trump’s nationalist populism. As a result, although the former President himself clearly remains overwhelmingly popular in Republican ranks, there’s potential for other politicians who agree with the “MAGA agenda,” but lack his erratic and often troubling personality, to challenge him successfully in the 2024 primaries.
The most recent of these surveys was conducted by Suffolk (Mass.) University and USA TODAY, and on the surface, it looks like evidence of continuing Republican enthusiasm for Trump. Fully 59 percent wanted him to run for the GOP nomination in 2024 with 29 percent opposed. If he ran, 76 percent would back him in the primaries and 85 percent would vote for him in the general election. Moreover, a strong 80 percent said they’d punish pro-impeachment Republican office-seekers at the polls.
Moreover, by a 46 percent to 27 percent margin respondents said they would leave the GOP and join a Trump-led third party if the former President decided to take this road. And by a roughly similar 54 percent to 34 percent, they voiced more loyalty to Trump than to the party.
But to me, the most revealing result concerns Republican voters’ 2024 nomination preferences. That 59 percent support for a Trump 2024 campaign doesn’t look so overwhelming, and certainly doesn’t scream “personality cult.” Nor does the finding that even fewer – 54 percent – consider themselves Trumpers before Republicans. And don’t forget – fewer than half would follow Trump out of the GOP. Of course, that outcome would gut the current Republican party. But it would also leave Trump with a political rump.
The bigger majorities saying they’d actually vote for Trump in the Republican nomination race and the November election, meanwhile, indicate first and foremost that, in a Trump versus a Democrat race, Republicans would overwhelmingly view the former President as the better choice. That sounds a lot like a “lesser of two evils” or “Anyone But a Democrat” conclusion, not a full-throated endorsement of a political idol, on the part of many Republicans.
Supporting this interpretation is the impressive hostility respondents did display for Democrats in the Suffolk University/USA Today poll. For example, 73 percent don’t regard Joe Biden as the legitimate President, and by a 62 percent to 26 percent margin, they want Congressional Republicans to “do their best to stand up to Biden on major policies, even if it means little gets passed” rather than “do their best to work with Biden on major policies, even if it means making compromises.”
One big shortcoming of the Suffolk University/USA TODAY survey is the absence of questions on specific issues, including MAGA-type issues. That subject, however, is taken care of pretty suggestively by a poll conducted by Echelon Insights. And its overall conclusion was that “’Fight’ and Trump’s Agenda (Not Personality) Key to GOP Voters.”
Echelon’s main evidence? The firm asked Republican voters “When deciding whom to support in future Republican primary elections, how would you feel about a candidate having the following characteristics.”
Of the twelve choices presented, the two most popular by far were “Won’t back down in a fight with the Democrats” (winning 65 percent approval, with 49 percent calling it “Absolutely Necessary for My Support”) and “Supports the Trump/America First agenda (immigration/trade)” (winning 60 percent approval, with 45 percent calling it “Absolutely Necessary”).
And the second least popular choice? “Has a personality that reminds me of Donald Trump.” Here, only 21 percent of respondents clearly viewed this trait favorably in terms of their upcoming votes, and only 13 percent viewed it as a deal-breaker. In fact, even among Republicans describing themselves as “Trump Firsters” and not “GOP Firsters (oddly, the overall percentages weren’t presented), only 19 percent viewed a Trump-ian personality as being “absolutely necessary” for their support.
The main difficulty facing Republicans and especially ideological Trumpers remains the same: Finding a “MAGA”-backing alternative to the former President who shows enough pugnaciousness to excite the Trump base to turn out strongly, but not so much as to turn off the party’s moderates and independent voters.
The CPAC convention is an important first major post-election, post-Capitol Riot, post-second impeachment chance to start establishing this kind of brand. As a result, post-CPAC polls will be important indicators of who, if anyone, has made progress in meeting this challenge.