Following a month of negative publicity, nonpartisan and partisan surveys signal a fall from grace.
It’s been a rough month for former President Trump.
Since his Nov. 15 announcement that he plans to make a third run for the presidency, his legal problems have increased; his handpicked candidate, Herschel Walker, lost the Senate runoff in Georgia; he has endured widespread criticism over his public association with racists and antisemites; and a growing number of Republican figures have started to say publicly what they used to whisper in private: Trump is a liability for their party.
Just after the midterms, it appeared that the results would undermine the former president within the GOP. A raft of new polls show that this has occurred: Trump’s once-solid support among Republicans has cracked, and his approval within his adopted party has fallen to levels not seen since he won its nomination in 2016.
No one should count the former president out. If we’ve learned anything in the more than seven years that he’s dominated public attention, it’s that Trump has formidable survival skills and that Republican elected officials have little stomach for battling him. But for now, and perhaps for longer, the midterm results have shaken his hold on the party in a way that previous events — even the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol — failed to do.
The evidence of a Trump fade could be almost as unwelcome at the White House as it is at Mar-a-Lago: President Biden and his aides have been planning a reelection campaign in large part around the argument that Trump poses a singular threat to American democracy. The former president’s recent social media post in which he called for the “termination of all rules, regulations, and articles, even those found in the Constitution” in order to place him back in office could serve as Exhibit A.
If Republicans nominate someone else, Democrats will argue that the candidate poses the same threat. But that’s a more difficult case to make to voters, especially if whoever emerges as the GOP nominee keeps a distance from Trump.
In this year’s midterm elections, candidates who closely tied themselves to Trump and his lies about the 2020 election — such as gubernatorial hopefuls Kari Lake in Arizona, Doug Mastriano in Pennsylvania and Tudor Dixon in Michigan — all lost. But voters seemed perfectly willing to cast ballots for other Republicans, such as Govs. Brian Kemp in Georgia and Mike DeWine in Ohio.
The evidence for a Trump fade comes from surveys by both partisan and nonpartisan pollsters.
The most recent Wall Street Journal poll found Trump trailing Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis 52%-38% in a hypothetical primary matchup. Perhaps worse for Trump, only 71% of Republicans had a favorable view of him. That’s down from 85% in March and the 90% or higher that polls typically found through most of his presidency.
At the same time, the share of Republicans who see Trump negatively has increased. The Economist/YouGov poll reported last week that 28% of Republicans had an unfavorable view of Trump — the worst rating since YouGov began tracking his image at the start of his presidency. Most of the change had taken place since August, the polling found.
A Suffolk University poll conducted for USA Today found that just 47% of Republicans want Trump to run again, compared with 45% who do not. The share that wants him to run dropped from 56% in October and 60% in July.
It’s possible that these polls have caught Trump at a temporary low from which he’ll rebound. He has been through a month of steady negative publicity and has a rival, DeSantis, who benefits from not having been tested in a national campaign.
But those negative headlines aren’t likely to go away any time soon.
Some of the most damaging stories for Trump have resulted from his own actions, including his decision last month to have dinner with Kanye West and Nick Fuentes, two of the country’s best-known antisemites. Some Trump supporters blamed the dinner on the former president’s staff and said that in the future, aides would more diligently screen his visitors, but Trump has never taken well to efforts to control him.
On Wednesday, Trump posted on social media that he had a “major announcement” scheduled for Thursday. It turned out to be the launch of a line of digital playing cards featuring cartoon versions of his image. That’s hardly as damaging as dinner with racists, but it’s not the sort of action likely to calm Republicans who worry that their former standard-bearer isn’t focused on the task ahead.
Then there are the legal problems.
Between now and the first primaries of 2024, Trump could face trials in three civil cases: New York state Atty. Gen. Letitia James has accused him and his company of financial fraud involving inflated claims about the value of his assets; the writer E. Jean Carroll has accused him of raping her in the 1990s, then defaming her after she made her allegations public; and investors who lost money in what they allege was a pyramid scheme by a company called American Communications Network have sued him and his adult children for promoting the plan in television ads and public appearances.
Trump has survived many lawsuits over the decades, but now he also has exposure in at least three criminal investigations.
The district attorney in Atlanta is investigating whether he violated Georgia laws with his telephone call on Jan. 2, 2021, pressuring Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger to “find 11,780 votes” — the number he would have needed to overturn Biden’s victory in the state. And Justice Department special counsel Jack Smith is overseeing two federal investigations, one into the Jan. 6 attack and the other into the mishandling of classified documents and other records that Trump hid at Mar-a-Lago, his Florida estate.
Some Trump backers have suggested that if he were indicted in one or more of those cases, he could use the charges to rally Republican voters to his side. Perhaps. What the current polling suggests, however, is that bad news has encouraged many Republicans, including some inclined to sympathize with Trump, to look for an alternative candidate.
Right now, that’s DeSantis. Whether the Florida governor can maintain his high standing remains unknown — lots of candidates look great until the campaign begins. For now, however, he fulfills the need that many Republicans feel for a candidate who espouses Trump’s policies without his erratic personal behavior.
The Suffolk University poll found that 65% of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents said they want “Republicans to continue the policies Trump pursued in office, but with a different Republican nominee for president,” compared with 31% who want Trump to run again.
“Republicans and conservative independents increasingly want Trumpism without Trump,” said the poll’s director, David Paleologos.
But, as Paleologos noted, the 31% who still back Trump could be enough to win Republican primaries in a multicandidate field, which is how Trump won in 2016.
And it’s possible that many of those who have stuck with Trump this far will remain with him. His remaining backers are disproportionately rural and white voters who did not go to college — groups that have been among his staunchest supporters since the 2016 campaign. DeSantis does better among groups of Republicans who were more skeptical of Trump to begin with, such as college-educated white voters.