July 24, 2018 | Reading Time: 4 minutes
Trump’s Base Is Probably Smaller Than We Think
Yes, Republicans approve. But take a closer look at "independents."
The Washington Post’s Aaron Blake argued yesterday that the FBI investigation into President Trump’s Kremlin ties won’t end well, because nothing Special Counsel Robert Mueller discovers will satisfy anyone. Republicans will reject evidence pointing to criminal conspiracy while Democrats will reject evidence pointing to absolution.
For all the talk about Trump’s actions triggering a constitutional crisis or even a war, the most likely crisis is the one that will arise from the political purgatory we’ll find ourselves in once Mueller and other officials are finished investigating.
Blake’s assertion seemed underscored by an eye-popping poll released on the same day in which Republicans appeared to be willing to accept pretty much anything the president does, even if Russian espionage helped him win the presidency.
An NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll was conducted just before and just after the Helsinki Summit, in which Trump “threw his country under the bus” in front of Crypto-Czar Vladimir Putin. The poll found that 88 percent of Republicans approved of his performance. Democratic pollster Fred Yang told NBC: “The more Trump gets criticized by the media, the more his base seems to rally behind him.”
The takeaway, for many, was grim: This president can do anything and his party will stand with him. That could mean any number of spooky fascist possibilities, possibilities unthinkable until recently. And because they are spooky fascist, the headlines are running with a story about how the Republican base hearts autocrats.
Before we lose our minds entirely, let’s try to remember that approval among partisans used to be something no one took seriously. No one. Why? Because they’re your people. Of course, they approve of what you’re doing! Anyway, even when your people like you, that doesn’t help when faced with an election favoring the out-party. Seth Masket pointed out this morning that George W. Bush and Barack Obama were hella-popular among partisans in 2006 and 2010, and look how much good it did them.
I suspect we’re paying attention to something we would not normally pay attention to, because this presidency feels so abnormal. After all, no one ever saw an American president show so much deference to a foreign adversary, especially one who is principally responsible for mounting information warfare against the United States (and oh let’s not forget the president’s standing invitation to Putin to come have tea with him at the White House). It’s not hard to wonder, given the president’s very peculiar behavior toward the Kremlin, why so many Republicans approve.
As you know, I believe one factor is that most people most of the time have something better to do than pay attention to politics. But there’s another factor. Yes, 88 percent of Republicans strongly or somewhat approve while 89 percent of Democrats strongly or somewhat disapprove, but look at the independents: 58 percent strongly or disapprove. Something about those independents isn’t getting the attention it deserves.
Independents aren’t really independent. We know this. Some are, but they are a fraction of the number of people who say they are. Most independents are in fact people who don’t want to identify with a political party. I trust they have their reasons, but generally this is an observable and even predictable pattern we have seen over the last few decades. Political scientists call this phenomenon “dealignment.”
Dealignment, however, is a formal designation. Independents are still partisans, because they favor one party or the other. I’m not talking about a few people. I’m talking 70-some percent who tend to vote Republican or Democratic. Apply this to a poll showing nearly 6 in 10 independents disliking Trump’s Helsinki Summit performance, and you realize there’s more to this picture than meets the eye: Lots of Republican Party-supporting voters do not like what the president is doing. And that’s not all. Add the fact that Republican Party identification has been declining (about 25 percent of Americans identify as Republicans) while dealignment has been going up, and one can reasonably claim Trump’s base is probably smaller than we think.
Aaron Blake might be right in thinking that Robert Mueller won’t satisfy anyone, but the ideological schism, if it happens, won’t break along conventional party lines.
If the Mueller probe shows evidence of conspiracy, I’d expect a lot of self-identified Republicans to double down in defense, but they won’t be in the majority.
Not by a long shot.
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John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.