Donald Trump Is Running a Democratic Campaign in a Republican Primary
He’s defending entitlements. And Republican voters are here for it.
DONALD TRUMP IS PUMMELING RON DESANTIS in the battle for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination. He accuses DeSantis of exaggerating Florida’s economic success, failing to control crime, and locking down businesses during COVID. But Trump’s main line of attack comes straight out of the Democratic playbook: He says DeSantis would cut Medicare and Social Security and would raise the eligibility ages for these programs.
Essentially, Trump is running a Democratic campaign in a Republican primary. It’s the kind of attack that often works in a general election, because most voters oppose cuts to entitlement programs. But will it work in a Republican primary?
Yes, it will. It may not decide the nomination, but it will certainly help Trump. The reason is that Republican voters are willing to cut lots of programs, but not Medicare or Social Security. And they’re strongly inclined to vote on this issue, even in a primary.
Mathematically, this isn’t a close call. In polls, more than three-quarters of Republicans consistently oppose any talk of “reducing benefits” or “cutting” Medicare or Social Security. Only 6 percent of Republicans say their generation should get less money from Medicare and Social Security than previous generations did; 49 percent say they should get more. That’s well above the 36 percent who say they should get the same benefits as previous generations.
Republicans also oppose raising the eligibility ages for these programs. Surveys conducted last month by AP-NORC and Fox News found that more than 70 percent of Republicans and Republican leaners opposed raising the Social Security eligibility age from 67 to 70 (only 13 percent supported this idea), and nearly two-thirds opposed raising the Medicare eligibility age from 65 to 67.
Republican voters haven’t lost their stomach for austerity. The just make an exception for these two programs. In a March Axios-Ipsos survey, Republicans were 30 points more likely than Democrats to support “reducing spending on Medicaid & food assistance” (37 percent of Republicans took this position, compared to 8 percent of Democrats). But they were only 10 points more likely than Democrats to support “reducing spending on Social Security & Medicare” (14 percent of Republicans took this position, compared to 4 percent of Democrats).
Likewise, in a January YouGov poll, fewer than 30 percent of Republicans favored more funding for Medicaid, Supplemental Security Income, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or Temporary Assistance for Needy Families. But 47 percent and 54 percent of Republicans, respectively, wanted more funding for Medicare and Social Security. On those two programs, the views of Republicans differed only marginally from the views of the entire sample.
WHAT WOULD HAPPEN in a Republican primary if one candidate called for fiscal responsibility and another rejected this as an attack on Medicare and Social Security? We don’t have to guess, because this scenario has been tested. The Fox News poll from March asked: “Which is more important to you? Reducing the federal budget deficit [or] continuing to fund entitlement programs such as Social Security and Medicare at their current levels?” By a 21-point margin—59 to 38 percent—Republican respondents chose to protect Social Security and Medicare.
A similar question, posed last month by Echelon Insights, projected a blowout. The survey asked Republicans and Republican leaners to choose between two statements. One was: “When balancing the federal budget, cuts to any and all programs should be considered.” The other was: “No matter what, cuts to Social Security and Medicare should not be considered when balancing the federal budget.” By a 50-point margin (72 to 22 percent), respondents ruled out cuts to those two programs. Even the youngest Republicans and leaners—those aged 18 to 29—rejected any cuts to Medicare or Social Security by a margin of more than 20 points.
But would Republicans actually vote on this issue in a primary? Would they choose a candidate who promised to protect Medicare and Social Security over a candidate who agreed with them on other issues?
The answer seems to be yes. A recent CNN poll asked Republicans and Republican leaners which traits or issue positions they deemed essential, important (but not essential), or not important in choosing “the Republican nominee for president.” Thirty-six percent said it was essential that the nominee “believes the United States should not be involved in the war between Russia and Ukraine.” Fifty-four percent said it was essential that the nominee “would support government action to oppose ‘woke’ values in American society.” But 59 percent—the highest of the three issue positions tested—said it was essential that the nominee “pledges to maintain Social Security and Medicare as they are.”
In fact, protection of these programs—not fighting President Joe Biden or the IRS—might be the broadest point of consensus in the GOP. In an Ipsos poll taken shortly after the midterms, 49 percent of Republicans supported “firing or removing significant numbers of federal workers,” 58 percent supported “reducing funding for the Internal Revenue Service,” 61 percent supported “impeaching President Biden,” and 74 percent opposed “student loan forgiveness up to $10,000 for those earning less than $125,000 per year.” But the most popular position among Republicans, at 81 percent, was opposition to “reducing funding for Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid.”
HOW DID THIS HAPPEN? How did rank-and-file Republicans, who often talk about belt-tightening and controlling the national debt, become almost indistinguishable from Democrats in their opposition to tampering with Medicare and Social Security?
I couldn’t find a survey that tracked attitudes toward Medicare spending on a consistent question over multiple decades. But I did find a question about Social Security. For nearly forty years, NORC’s General Social Survey has asked, with regard to Social Security, whether “we’re spending too much money on it, too little money, or about the right amount.”
From 1985 to 2014, the average percentage of self-identified Democrats who said we were spending too little on Social Security was 59. Since then, there’s been little change: The average has been 60.
But among self-identified Republicans, it’s a different story. From 1985 to 2014, the average percentage who said we were spending too little on Social Security was 44. Then, over the last decade, the percentage steadily increased. It went from 46 (in 2012) to 48 (in 2014) to 51 (in 2016) to 54 (in 2018) to 57 (in 2021). Something seems to have changed.
This week, Sarah Longwell argued that Donald Trump’s ascent in 2015 marked a discontinuity in the GOP. She has found in focus groups that many Republican voters in our After Trump days think differently from Republican voters of the Before Trump era. The GSS data suggest that this is true of entitlements. The Republican electorate has tilted away from the budget-cutting mentality of former House Speaker Paul Ryan and toward the pro-entitlement populism of Trump.
IF THAT’S TRUE, THEN TWO THINGS are likely to happen. First, if Trump can make the 2024 Republican primaries a referendum on entitlements—and if he can persuade Republican voters that DeSantis is a threat to those entitlements—Trump will win.
Second, if Trump loses the primary—and if Republicans instead nominate DeSantis or some other candidate who has a record of supporting changes to Medicare or Social Security—Democrats will attack that candidate the same way Trump has attacked DeSantis. They’ll accuse the Republican nominee of trying to push grandma off a cliff. And they’ll quote Trump’s own words to that effect.
But unlike Trump, they won’t need to persuade a plurality of Republicans that this should be a voting issue. They’ll only have to persuade a few. Those Republican defectors, plus a healthy Democratic turnout and a decent share of independents—who already trust Democratic politicians more than they trust Republican politicians on entitlements—would be enough to decide the election.
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