Why a Primary Challenge to Trump Wouldn't Work

Republicans are in a jam. President Trump’s poll numbers are terrible and seem to be getting worse. The RealClearPolitics average of polls shows a presidential-approval rating of 41 percent, the lowest since the third week of September, and a disapproval rating of 55 percent, the highest since early March. In the new CNN poll of 848 adults, taken Thursday and Friday and released Sunday, Trump’s approval rating was 37 percent, down 2 points from the 39 percent he notched in both the November and December CNN polls. The 57 percent disapproval was up from the 55 and 52 percent findings for November and December. Even in the Trump-friendly Rasmussen poll, the president’s numbers are at a nearly one-year low, a sign that Trump Fatigue is setting in.

The November midterm-election results made clear that the Republican vote was highly correlated with Trump’s approval levels, and for that matter, his share of the 2016 election vote. Hence, the GOP had largely favorable outcomes in Senate races that were mostly in red states where Trump is most popular, and far less favorable results in the House and other offices, fought on turf that had more blue and purple voters where he was more of a liability. For both better and worse, Republicans are conjoined with Trump.

It’s rarely a good idea for elected officials and candidates to trash a president of their own party, particularly given that in 23 months of weekly Gallup polls in 2017 and 2018, Trump’s approval rating among Republicans has never dropped below 77 percent and sometimes reached as high as 91 percent. Trump is not hemorrhaging among his fellow Republicans, though we may be seeing a bit of erosion. The CNN poll showed that Trump’s approval ratings among Republicans are dropping some, from 89 percent in November to 84 percent in December to 81 percent this month, though his disapproval ratings were basically unchanged. This pattern could just be statistical noise or it could be real movement, as it is within the margin of error. Regardless, when you see numbers move in one direction over the course of three polls, it’s worth watching.

Well more than half of Republicans really like Trump, what he says and does, and usually how he says and does it. Another group of Republicans, at least a third, is not so enthusiastic about the president’s language, demeanor, and tactics. They don’t agree with him on every issue, but they sure like where the economy has been, their tax cuts, the decrease in regulations, and conservative judicial nominees.

Some speculate that there are enough in this latter group of Republican voters to mount a challenge to Trump’s renomination, pining for a John Kasich, Jeff Flake, Mitt Romney, or Ben Sasse to jump in. But those who think there is actually room for a bona fide challenge to Trump’s nomination miss an important point. Among many Republicans, there isn’t a decision tree to renominate and reelect Trump, or not—and if not, one for who should they choose. Consciously or unconsciously, there is an understanding that a primary challenge to an incumbent president equals losing the White House—think Sen. Edward Kennedy’s challenge to President Carter in 1980 and Pat Buchanan taking on President George H.W. Bush in 1992. Divided parties lose the presidency. Frankly, no matter what is in the Mueller report, my guess is that dental records will be of little use in identifying the corpse of any GOP challenger—Trump would steamroll him, even if it were on the way to a general-election loss.

For Republicans, whether they like it or not, this is a binary choice: It’s Trump or a Democrat in the White House. The cost of losing the presidency, in Republican minds, is that taxes will go back up, regulation will go back to what they saw as an onerous level under President Obama, and liberals would be put on the federal bench instead of conservatives. That is why criticism of Trump within the Republican Party is seen as heretical among many, a form of treason and justification for a GOP officeholder to get a conservative primary. What happened to then-Rep. Mark Sanford and then-Sens. Flake and Bob Corker was no accident. Within this Republican Party, you are either on the Trump Team or off.

This is a tough place to be with a president who is often erratic, never predictable and, at least in November, toxic among swing voters and a unifying force for Democrats.

This story was originally published on nationaljournal.com on January 15, 2019