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Trump’s political base is weaker than it seems, our new study finds

- August 7, 2018

In July, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo faced tough questions from both Democratic and Republican lawmakers over President Trump’s recent summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Republican criticism of the administration’s actions may seem surprising, given that nearly 90 percent of Republicans approve of how Trump is handling his job as president and that a majority of Republicans approve of his handling of the Helsinki summit. Weren’t they worried about angering the president’s base?

There are several possible reasons. It could be that lawmakers believe they have more leeway on foreign policy, where Republican voters may be less engaged than on an issue like immigration. It could be that Putin poses such a significant threat that senators believed it was worth risking blowback from Trump supporters.

Our research suggests another reason: GOP legislators may sense that Trump’s support among voters in his own party may be weaker than it seems and softer than media coverage often suggests.

We looked at sentiment among ordinary Republican voters. While hardcore Republicans are vociferous defenders of the president, a larger number of Republicans who are less attached to their party are much more tepid in their support.

And that may be a problem for some Republican congressional candidates, come November’s midterms.

Here’s how we did our research

During the first two weeks of July, we fielded a nationally representative survey of 1,379 likely voters. Conducted online and on the phone by the National Opinion Research Center, we included only respondents who reported a high likelihood of voting in this year’s midterms. The survey was funded by Cornell’s Center for the Study of Inequality.

In our survey, Trump’s approval rating was 85 percent among Republicans. That’s consistent with other polls. On the surface, the president’s support among his fellow Republicans is overwhelming.

But the key to our analysis was to divide Republicans into three groups: those who say they identify strongly with the Republican Party; those who identify as Republicans but not strongly; and those who call themselves independents but say they lean toward the Republican Party. These distinctions, often obscured in media coverage, are important because research shows that the strength of a voter’s partisan identity has an important effect on their political attitudes.

Among strong Republicans, Trump’s overall approval rating is 93 percent, with 78 percent “strongly” approving of the president. The problem for Trump, however, is that these voters make up less than half of the Republican electorate — and 18 percent of likely voters.

Among the larger number of Republicans who identify less strongly with their party, Trump is much less popular. For example, Trump’s overall approval rating among not-so-strong Republicans is 72 percent, with 38 percent saying they strongly approve. Thirty-four percent say they only “somewhat” approve of Trump. Those numbers are similar among independent-leaning Republicans.

To be sure, having reservations about the president doesn’t mean Republican voters will abandon their party and vote for Democrats in the autumn. But it does raise the question of how much Republican congressional candidates can count on those who “somewhat approve” of Trump.

To go beyond the standard approval question and examine support for Trump in a different way, we also asked respondents how they felt about Trump in comparison with other prominent Republicans: Vice President Pence, former president George W. Bush, Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), former Alaska governor Sarah Palin and the late, former president Ronald Reagan.

We show these assessments as favorability rankings in the figure below. Among strong Republicans, shown on the left side, Trump is the clear winner. He’s even held in higher esteem than Reagan, a party hero. Strong Republicans also dislike McCain, a senator who has repeatedly clashed with Trump.

But the patterns are very different for not-so-strong Republicans (center) and Republican-leaning independents (right). In both groups, Trump’s popularity is not much different than that of Pence or Bush (who has also criticized Trump). These Republicans do not seem to favor Trump substantially more than his Republican predecessor or his own vice president. Notably, Reagan is the clear favorite, with not-so-strong Republicans more likely to favor Reagan over Trump about 80 percent of the time. This is consistent with the finding that “the party of Reagan” still identifies the 40th president as the best in their lifetime. We suspect these results would surprise those discussing Trump’s “almost-unheard-of-level of support from members of his own party.”

Only strong Republicans rank Trump above other GOP leaders.

Who are these strong Republicans who favor Trump above Reagan and rank McCain last? Some might suspect it would be younger voters, who would be less familiar with the Cold War, Reagan’s presidency and McCain’s history of public service. However, people younger than age 45 make up 23 percent of strong Republicans in our sample.

Trump’s strongest supporters are predominantly white, Southern and older than 60. Many are also well-educated (57 percent attended at least some college) and financially well-off (43 percent reported a household income of at least $75,000).

Being associated with Trump might hurt Republican candidates this fall.

All of this suggests that portraying Trump’s support among Republican voters as unflinching is missing a major piece of the picture. The ongoing controversies about Trump appear to affect a large portion of Republican voters. If Republican politicians fail to sufficiently distance themselves from even Trump’s most controversial actions, the GOP might see reduced turnout on Election Day.

The other concern for Republican congressional candidates is that non-Republicans don’t like Trump. “Pure independents” — voters who say they don’t lean toward the Republicans or Democrats — are twice as likely to rate Trump with strong disapproval as they are with strong approval. Independents also ranked Trump second-to-last, compared with other GOP leaders, above only Palin.

The percent of partisans who strongly approve, somewhat approve, somewhat disapprove or strongly disapprove of President Trump.

And not surprising, each group of Democrats strongly disapproves of Trump more than their Republican counterparts strongly approve of Trump. That suggests the resistance to Trump may be more intense than support among his base.

Although standing with Trump may pay off in primary contests where strong Republicans are more likely to turn out, GOP congressional candidates may suffer for this alliance in the midterms, when more moderate Republicans and independents could be the difference between victory and defeat.

Peter K. Enns (@pete_enns) is associate professor of government and executive director of the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research at Cornell University.

Jonathon P. Schuldt (@JonathonSchuldt) is associate professor of communication and a faculty affiliate at the Roper Center at Cornell University.

Adrienne Scott is a PhD student in government at Cornell University.