Trump and the Silent Majority
Republicans want him but do they really, really want him?
While perusing the front page of the Washington Post website, I saw a sidebar promo for an opinion piece titled “Might a silent GOP majority be ready to move beyond Trump?” Betteridge’s Law of Headlines notwithstanding, I clicked the link to see it was written by E.J. Dionne. Nonetheless, I persisted.
Is the Republican Party irrevocably committed to Donald Trump? GOP voters will begin to answer this consequential question in Iowa on Monday and eight days later in New Hampshire. Believe it or not, there is a chance the verdict will be no.
So you’re saying there’s a chance?
This is not one of those defy-the-conventional-wisdom-for-the-heck-of-it takes. You can’t look at polls outside New Hampshire and pretend the Las Vegas odds-makers are wrong in viewing Trump as the overwhelming favorite to win the Republican nomination.
No. No, you can’t.
But there is a difference between likelihood and inevitability, just as there is a difference between the few Republicans who are firmly anti-Trump and a larger group willing to ponder escorting him off the national stage.
The candidate who has understood these distinctions best is former U.N. ambassador Nikki Haley. This is why she is poised to run second to Trump in Iowa and has a real chance of beating him in New Hampshire. Trump’s campaign clearly sees the threat and has moved from attacking Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis to assailing her.
While the New Hampshire primary has typically voted for the eventual nominee, there have been notable exceptions. The state went with Henry Cabot Lodge in 1964; eventual nominee Barry Goldwater finished tied for second. Pat Buchanan won in 1996; Bob Dole was the nominee. John McCain won in 2000; George W. Bush eventually won. (It’s been way less predictive on the Democratic side, with Estes Kefauver and Bernie Sanders winning twice and Edmund Muskie, Gary Hart, and Paul Tsongas having their high water marks there.)
Republican pollster Kristen Soltis Anderson offered a shrewd and appropriately tentative reading of the party’s electorate: “There’s not an anti-Trump majority,” she told me. “But it might be possible to build a Beyond Trump Majority.”
I mean . . . I guess. But that’s quite a leap from where we started.
The decisive GOP group, she said, are voters who “say there are things they like about Trump, and things they don’t like about Trump.” Some, maybe many, will vote for him anyway because they “harbor the hope that they can get good Trump and bad Trump will go away.” But others are persuadable because “bad Trump” still troubles them.
Now, that I agree with. While Trump is more genuinely popular with Republicans than I used to think (although, granted, it’s partly because the most virulently anti-Trump Republicans aren’t Republicans anymore), I do think there’s a huge swath of his reporters who would prefer Somebody Else. But I’m highly skeptical that any of the current candidates for the nomination qualify.
The same polling showing Trump with a strong lead in Iowa also offered glimmers of the ambivalence about him. A December CBS News-YouGov poll found that found that 76 percent of likely caucus-goers were considering voting for Trump for a variety of reasons, including — by big margins — that they felt “things were better under Trump” and that “he represents Iowa values.”
But only 54 percent said their support reflected a desire “to show support for his legal fights,” and just 40 percent said they backed him because they “want payback for 2020.” In other words, about half of Trump’s potential voters rejected two of the core rationales he offers for his candidacy.
But that’s just thin gruel. The key is that 76 percent are strongly considering voting for him; that they’re less enthusiastic about certain aspects of his candidacy is, frankly, irrelevant.
Unlike DeSantis, who ran, in the words of Iowa State University political scientist David Peterson, as “diet Trump,” Haley realized there was a market for a Republican candidate who was stylistically different from Trump, could draw more middle-of-the-road voters in November and move the country past the “chaos” of the Trump era.
But unlike former New Jersey governor Chris Christie, whose frontal attacks on Trump endeared him to many Democrats and the relatively small constituency of anti-Trumpers in the party, Haley knew she couldn’t ask Republicans who had voted for Trump twice to admit they were wrong. “She has managed to walk a fine line,” Republican pollster Whit Ayres told me. “She avoided the Chris Christie message that Trump is unfit for office while at the same time making a case that it’s time to move on.”
This is why she has an excellent chance of running second in Iowa and pushing DeSantis into political oblivion.
So . . . that’s probably right. But it still doesn’t establish that Trump’s nomination—barring being banned from the ballot—is other than inevitable.
After several more paragraphs bolstering the case that Haley is likely now the favorite over DeSantis to finish a distance second to Trump, Dionne concludes,
Beyond Iowa and New Hampshire, the road will get tougher for Haley, including in her home state of South Carolina where Trump is very popular. A bitter Christie was caught before he withdrew on a hot mic predicting Haley is “going to get smoked.”
Maybe Christie is right, given that Haley’s exquisite balancing act can smack of unprincipled opportunism and sometimes leads her into gaffes and incoherence.
But if she does win New Hampshire, with the help of Christie’s former supporters, she will give her party’s quiet doubters elsewhere a chance to voice their qualms about Trump — discreetly, in the voting booths. After all, the idea of a “silent majority” was a Republican invention.
Look, I hope this is right. Having the two choices in November both be non-insurrectionist, pro-democracy candidates would be swell. But, right now, Trump is polling over 50% in Haley’s home state, more than doubling her support. (Granted, there is only one truly current poll and only two within the last five weeks. But all of the polls have shown similar numbers.
Let’s say that DeSantis, Ramaswamy, and Hutchinson follow Christie’s lead and drop out before then, leaving us with a head-to-head fight between Trump and Haley. I simply don’t see how she wins if she’s afraid to take him on directly, declaring him unfit for office.