Bulwark Poll: 28 Percent of 'Always Trumpers' Would Go 3rd Party
Why the GOP could be sleepwalking into another catastrophe.
Your must-read of the day: Sarah Longwell has the details from an exclusive Bulwark Poll.
“A large majority of GOP voters is ready to move on from Donald Trump. But a devoted minority might not let them.”
“This,” writes Longwell, “is the Always Trump faction of the Republican party. And they are why the GOP could be sleepwalking into another Donald Trump catastrophe.”
Here’s the bottom line from a new poll by The Bulwark and GOP pollster Whit Ayres of North Star Opinion Research:
Donald Trump has slipped to his lowest point since he emerged on the political scene almost eight years ago. He remains a formidable force, to be sure, with a lock on approximately 30 percent of likely Republican primary and caucus voters nationally. But a majority of the GOP is ready to move on.
The Bulwark/North Star Opinion Research poll is consistent with several other polls that have found Trump fading with voters and losing to Florida Governor Ron DeSantis in head-to-head match-ups.
In each of three scenarios polled, Trump’s weakness is evident. But, as the pollsters emphasize, he has a tight grip on between 28 and 30 percent of the GOP primary voters.
In a head-to-head match, DeSantis leads Trump 52 percent to 30 percent, with 15 percent undecided and 3 percent saying they would not vote if those were the only two options.
With DeSantis, Trump, and “another candidate,” DeSantis got 44 percent, Trump got 28 percent, and the generic “another candidate” got 10 percent, with 17 percent undecided.
In a 10-candidate field, DeSantis got 39 percent, Trump 28 percent, Mike Pence 9 percent, Nikki Haley and Liz Cheney 4 percent each, and five other candidates registered at 1 percent. In this scenario, 13 percent of the respondents were undecided.
Bad news for Trump, right? Maybe.
But, as Sarah notes, we need some historical context here. Even though most Republican voters want to move on from Trump, his solid core of support might be enough to win him early, winner-take-all-primaries. She reminds us what happened in 2016:
Iowa 24.3 percent (Trump came in second)
New Hampshire 35.3 percent (Trump came in first)
South Carolina 32.5 percent (Trump came in first)
Trump then went on to dominate the field in Nevada with 45.9 percent of the vote before catapulting into Super Tuesday with enough momentum to win 7 of the 11 states. And with the GOP’s “winner take all” or “winner take most” delegate apportionment rules, in a big field of candidates, devoted pluralities can be telling.
The Always Trumpers
Here’s the dilemma for the GOP.
Despite clear evidence of Trump Fatigue, the “Always Trump” faction of the GOP will follow Trump to the gates of Hell.
One question that Sarah was anxious to test with this poll was “how many ‘Always Trumpers’ would follow Trump if he lost the GOP primary and launched an independent bid for president.”
And according to our poll, that 28 percent of Republican primary voters already locked in for Trump say they’ll support him even if he ran as an independent in the general election.
This is why it is dangerous to under-estimate Trump. Sarah writes:
[Even]though Trump is as weak as he’s ever been, even though he is beset by legal peril, and even though there are alternative candidates turning the heads of a large majority of GOP primary voters (and donors), Trump still has an awful lot going for him:
100 percent name ID.
A devoted base that will follow him on an independent run and potentially split the GOP vote. (And even if Trump doesn’t launch an independent bid, does anyone think he’s going to be a loyal Republican who supports the nominee if it isn’t him?)
A big primary field of candidates who are scared of him and his base and therefore more likely to attack each other than Trump.
New revelations that Biden and Pence also had classified docs at their homes and offices, nullifying Trump’s political (if not legal) vulnerability.
An imminent return to Facebook and Twitter allowing him to fire up his small-dollar fundraising machine and push himself back into the news cycle.
None of that makes Trump a lock to win the nomination. But it’s certainly enough assets to make it possible.
Choose your adventure
Sarah sums up what the Bulwark/North Star Opinion Research poll and her focus groups are saying about the current state of play:
If you want to argue that the GOP is moving on from Trump, you’re right.
If you want to argue that Trump still has a grip on enough of the base to win a fractured GOP primary, you’re also (probably) right.
And if you want to argue that voters who are interested in moving on from Trump still like Trump and could swing back to him if Ron DeSantis doesn’t fulfill all their hopes and dreams once he’s on the big stage . . . well, I think that’s right, too.
Which is why it’s not enough for Republicans to simply hope Trump fades and another candidate emerges. They have to be proactive about chipping away at the 30 percent of Always Trumpers before it’s too late.
The Bulwark/North Star Opinion Research poll of likely Republican voters was conducted online from January 16 to 21, 2023. Methodology and result summaries. Topline results.
The GOP’s magical thinking
The new Bulwark poll provides important context to this piece by McKay Coppins in the Atlantic.
Coppins notes that most Republicans will tell you privately that they want to move on from Trump, and that many of them think he’s a disaster waiting to happen.
But ask them how they plan to do that, and the discussion quickly veers into the realm of hopeful hypotheticals. Maybe he’ll get indicted and his legal problems will overwhelm him. Maybe he’ll flame out early in the primaries, or just get bored with politics and wander away. Maybe the situation will resolve itself naturally: He’s old, after all—how many years can he have left?
This magical thinking pervaded my recent conversations with more than a dozen current and former elected GOP officials and party strategists. Faced with the prospect of another election cycle dominated by Trump and uncertain that he can actually be beaten in the primaries, many Republicans are quietly rooting for something to happen that will make him go away. And they would strongly prefer not to make it happen themselves.
“There is a desire for deus ex machina,” said one GOP consultant, who, like others I interviewed, requested anonymity to characterize private conversations taking place inside the party. “It’s like 2016 all over again, only more fatalistic.”
ICYMI: On yesterday’s Bulwark podcast, Will Saletan and I discussed Trump’s sleepy but brutal campaign, Kevin McCarthy’s evasions, the right’s doom loop of lies about Paul Pelosi, Bannon’s new level of election denial, and the problem with the police. You can listen to the whole thing (and consider subscribing).
1. How Bill Barr and John Durham Blazed a Trail for Jim Jordan
Lies and half-truths were at the heart of the failed attempt to “investigate the investigators.” Expect even more of them from the House GOP, write Frederick Baron and Dennis Aftergut.
Aheadline in yesterday’s New York Times opinion section pronounced former Attorney General William Barr’s efforts to rehabilitate his image “kaput.” Hoping to erase from public memory any recollection of how avidly he carried water for Donald Trump, Barr has engaged in a public-relations campaign he launched shortly after Trump left office and advanced in a memoir in which he criticizes the former president he served.
But a Times report last week about the effort Barr initiated to “investigate the investigators”—setting John Durham loose to hunt out Trump’s supposed deep state persecutors—is a jarring reminder of how willing Barr was as attorney general to trample legal norms, disregard national security, and even degrade his own reputation for Trump’s sake.
Significantly, the Times’s January 26 story also did something more: It foreshadowed what we can expect from Reps. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) and Jim Comer (R-Ky.) in the months ahead. Jordan, now chairman of the Judiciary Committee, is also chairing its new subcommittee on the “weaponization of the federal government.” Comer chairs the Oversight Committee, where he will be joined by MAGA extremists Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) and Scott Perry (R-Penn.). You can expect all of them to march down much the same path blazed by Barr and Durham.
2. Covidiocy Marches On
Cathy Young, in today’s Bulwark: Revisionism and recriminations abound as skepticism of “establishment” science becomes a tribal identity marker on the right.
The idea that National Institutes of Health chief immunologist Anthony Fauci must be punished for his role in inflicting upon America a supposed totalitarian nightmare seems to have particular currency; it has even been picked up by Twitter’s new “Chief Twit,” Elon Musk, although the degree of irony he intends is hard to discern:
Meanwhile, one would look in vain for similar concessions or contrition on the right. No one is asking for forgiveness for the fine folks who confidently predicted in the spring of 2020 that COVID-19 would end up being no worse than an average flu season or that fatalities wouldn’t go up by much after the first 60 deaths by mid-March.
Or who peddled ivermectin and hydroxychloroquine (remember that?).
Or who celebrated vaccine refusers while brushing off their later deaths of COVID.
Or who contributed to the strong trend of more people in red states and counties dying of COVID-19 because of lower vaccination rates—a pattern that a September 2022 paper by three Yale scientists confirmed on the individual, Republican vs. Democrat, voter registration level. (Killing off one’s own political “tribe”: Now there’s a novel and compassionate strategy.)
Instead, the covidiot ecosystem on the right—and, to some extent, in “anti-woke” and “cultural dissident” circles that don’t always explicitly identify as right-wing—continues to flourish. Most recently, it’s been manifesting itself in the rather fanciful notion that people didn’t “suddenly” die of heart attacks and strokes before “the jab” came along.
Also from the McKay Coppins article:
"Even if another Republican manages to capture the nomination, there’s no guarantee that Trump—who is not known for his grace in defeat—will go away. Last month, Trump caused a minor panic in GOP circles when he shared an article on Truth Social suggesting that he might run an independent spoiler campaign if his party refuses to back him in 2024. The Republicans I talked with said such a schism would be politically catastrophic for their party. No one had any ideas about how to prevent it."
Those last two sentences are telling. The GOP knows where this is headed, and it knows there is no escape. And this is the trap they've laid for themselves since 2016.
I've thought for a while now that once Trump declared his candidacy, that was the end of any GOP hopes for winning the White House in 2024. If Trump wins the nomination, that's bad, because he will probably lose in the general election. If Trump loses the nomination, he will attack the GOP for rigging the primaries against him, run third party taking his cult with him, and destroy the GOP candidates down ballot. The doomsday scenario for the GOP isn't Trump getting the nomination, it's Trump losing the nomination.
Dilemma for the GOP = Good news for the rest of the country. Hopefully Trump sinks the GOP for the next century.