One of the biggest questions during the 2016 campaign was if the GOP party would ever accept Donald Trump, an outsider to the party, as its standard bearer. More than once during 2016 I was convinced that the Republican Party would break apart rather than coalesce around a candidate whose behavior, values and ideology were so foreign to its core. Of course, that proved to be wrong as 90 percent of GOP voters rallied around their unconventional nominee in November.
Today, those GOP voters continue to support the president. The most recent Gallup poll finds Trump with an 87 percent approval rating among GOP voters. Even voters who were less than enthusiastic about Trump in the fall, are behind him today. A new NBC/Wall Street Journal poll found that the president has an 82 percent approval rating among Trump voters who said their vote for him last fall was more about dislike for Clinton than support for him. An online poll of 1,000 Trump voters taken for the University of Virginia by Public Opinion Strategies found Trump’s approval rating among those who reported voting for Barack Obama at least once at 86 percent. In other words, even "soft" Trump supporters are giving him good marks.
Think of the GOP as a body and Trump like a donated organ. Trump is not organic to the GOP, but the body has accepted it as its own.
However, solid and continued support for Trump isn’t the whole story. The question is whether this support for Trump is going to translate into turn-out and support for the GOP in 2018. You don’t have to go too far back in history to find an example of a president who came to office with backing from a new, enthusiastic group of voters, only to find that those voters failed to consistently show up for the party. The so-called Obama coalition never soured on Obama, but they also didn’t show up to vote for his party in 2010, 2014 or 2016 - i.e., the years he wasn’t on the ballot.
Here’s what all the stories about the president’s continued popularity in “Trump country” miss: the Trump brand is better liked than the congressional GOP brand. The UVA poll found Trump’s approval rating among 2016 Trump voters at 93 percent, with 42 percent who said they “strongly” approved of the job Trump is doing. Congressional Republicans got a decent, but lower, 81 percent approval rating, with just 20 percent strongly approving. Speaker Paul Ryan had a decidedly more anemic 52 percent approval rating. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell casts a much smaller shadow, just 56 percent rated him with 28 percent approving of the job he’s doing and 26 percent disapproving.
An April Pew poll found similar results. In that poll, 51 percent of Republicans gave Speaker Ryan a positive job rating. The same poll found that " 57 percent of Republicans see their party as mostly divided, while a similar majority of Democrats (58%) say their party is mostly united."
Moreover, Trump voters blame congressional Republicans more than the president for the failure of a health care reform bill. The UVA poll of Trump voters found that “only 5% of respondents said that Trump was the most responsible for the failed initial attempt to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act. Roughly half (48%) blamed Democrats, while the remainder blamed House Speaker Paul Ryan (12%), moderate Republicans (15%), or the conservative House Freedom Caucus (21%).”
In other words, as many Trump voters blame House Republicans as House Democrats for the failure of the health care bill. They are sticking with Trump while sticking it to Republicans in D.C. Anecdotal reports from the recent Trump rally in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania underscored this dynamic. As the Washington Post’s Marc Fisher wrote the Saturday night crowd:
They’ve concluded that the Washington machine is blocking him at every turn. They blame the conservative Republicans, and they blame the Democrats, and they blame the news media, and they blame, even now, Hillary Clinton.They don’t blame Trump.
To be fair, a president is always going to be better known and better liked than his colleagues in Congress, even among his own partisans. The President can float above the fray in a way House/Senate leaders and members can’t. However, there’s something ironic about the candidate who struggled to be accepted by the party now getting better marks than those who’ve been long-time GOP stalwarts.
Republicans control all levers of power in Washington. If they continue to struggle to accomplish significant stuff, it will be harder for Republicans to get their base to show up to vote in the midterm elections. Meanwhile, there’s no evidence that the dislike for Trump among Democrats is fading anytime soon. That’s a dangerous dynamic for the party in power.