What will it take for GOP voters to cut Trump loose?

Politico Politics 5 months ago

Donald Trump’s overall approval ratings have cratered to the lowest point in his nascent presidency, according to a new POLITICO/Morning Consult survey and the RealClearPolitics and HuffPost Pollster polling averages. Yet among the Republican base, the president’s standing remains strong in the face of a mounting series of scandals. His seeming defiance of the laws of political gravity is so astounding that it has official Washington wondering, what exactly will it take for GOP voters to cut him loose?

It’s not an easy question to answer. Despite a seemingly never-ending series of gaffes, missteps and scandals that would have derailed other politicians, voters’ perceptions of Trump have been remarkably steady since he launched his presidential campaign nearly two years ago, pollsters say.

Some things have moved the needle — like last year’s “Access Hollywood” tape in which Trump bragged about assaulting women, or the initial failure in March to advance the GOP health care bill through the House. But Trump rebounded within weeks of each event, suggesting his support is unusually, and exceptionally, durable.

“It seems like he is trading in a very narrow band, at 38 [percent] on the low end and 44 [percent] or 45 [percent] on the high end,” said Patrick Ruffini, co-founder of the GOP tech firm Echelon Insights.

In the case of this week’s news — reports that Trump disclosed highly classified information to Russian government officials last week, and that former FBI Director James Comey outlined in a contemporaneous memorandum Trump’s request to “let … go” of an investigation into former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn — it’s too early to evaluate the impact. Even the latest Gallup daily tracking poll still includes some interviews conducted before both stories were first reported.

But there are some clues that suggest the scandals are indeed taking a toll, even if it isn’t immediately obvious from Trump’s top-line approval ratings. In terms of the level of enthusiasm for the president — often an indicator of grassroots passion for or against a president -- his numbers are underwater. According to this week’s POLITICO/Morning Consult poll, twice as many voters “strongly disapprove” of Trump (38 percent) than “strongly approve” (19 percent).

Even there, pollsters note, the Republicans who have moved from “strongly approve” to “somewhat approve” haven’t abandoned the president yet. Ruffini compared it to the presidential campaign, when Trump’s ballot share would slide after gaffes and scandals. But those voters were parking in the “undecided” column, not with Hillary Clinton — and eventually came back to Trump when the controversies abated.

“The base is still with him. Even on a bad week, 80 percent of Republicans approve of the job he is doing,” said Republican pollster John McLaughlin, who worked for Trump during the campaign. “Because he’s adhered in principle to a conservative, populist agenda, they’re still with him. It’s a matter of winning back the center.”

Democrats say this debate misses the point. Even if Trump’s floor remains around 40 percent, he is in rough shape with independents and moderates.

“If he starts losing his base, he’s in even bigger trouble,” said Mark Mellman, a Democratic pollster. “But his base is small enough that even if he holds his base — even if Republicans hold his base, they are in serious trouble.”

Pollsters in both parties are anxiously awaiting results from a number of key elections this year for more clues about Trump’s position. One of them will take place next week with the special congressional election for Montana’s at-large House seat, followed by statewide primaries next month in New Jersey and Virginia, and then a June 20 special election in Georgia’s 6th Congressional District.

“I think those [races] will be better indicators than any question we ask” in polls, Mellman said.

The Montana and Georgia races lean Republican, and a GOP defeat in either race would ring alarm bells — especially in Montana, a state Trump carried easily.

Ruffini said the Georgia congressional primary last month raised red flags about GOP voters’ enthusiasm. “The worrying factor in all of that has been the lower Republican turnout relative to 2014,” Ruffini said. “A lot of the movement so far, and the reason, it’s so close is Republicans haven’t been turning out at the same rate they did in 2014.”

Continued scandals out of the White House could further depress enthusiasm. But without actual vote tallies, many Republicans remain trapped in a push-pull between base voters who want them to stick with Trump, and enraged Trump opponents who want them to cut the president loose.

Republican Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen doesn’t face this problem. She isn’t seeking re-election in her south Florida district, which went for Clinton by a nearly 20-point margin last fall.

But Ros-Lehtinen, in an interview with POLITICO Florida on Wednesday, outlined the dilemma she thinks Republicans face.

“Republican members are divided between a very dedicated electorate — who will stand by Trump through thick and thin — and their reading of the tea leaves saying, ‘Oh my gosh, this is just an untenable situation for us.’ And we’re only a few months into this presidency,” Ros-Lehtinen said Wednesday. “They’re very worried about how this plays out for them in their districts.”

Marc Caputo in Miami contributed to this report.

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