In the initial days after Donald Trump’s “grab ’em by the pussy” tape leaked, several leading Republican politicians and elites renounced their support of the GOP nominee, and there was even speculation that he could be forced off the ticket.
But there’s just one problem: Actual Republican voters still like Donald Trump a whole lot.
Even though Clinton’s position keeps improving in polls of voters generally, a Politico/Morning Consult poll conducted on Saturday found that 74 percent of Republican voters wanted party officials to continue to support Trump, and a mere 13 percent thought the party should no longer back him.
We saw it anecdotally at events over the weekend in Nevada and Wisconsin, at which GOP politicians condemned Trump’s comments and were greeted with boos from some in the audience.
And now we’re seeing it in the wake of Sunday night’s debate, an event at which Trump served up red meat dish after red meat dish for his party’s base. The Washington Post’s Robert Costa sums up the state of play in this tweet:
In calls this morning, many Rs privately want to defect from Trump. But they say the debate gave them pause since he roused their base.— Robert Costa (@costareports) October 10, 2016
That’s the problem for these Republicans. Trump has a hard core of support that now makes up about two-thirds to three-quarters of the Republican electorate — but only one-third of the general electorate. So most of the Republican Party’s most loyal base voters (and a clear majority of its primary voters) do not look kindly on party elites who try to throw Trump under the bus.
All along, this has prevented the party from acting decisively with regards to Trump’s takeover. In the most charitable interpretation, this state of affairs ties GOP officials’ hands because they don’t want to defy the will of their party’s voters, as expressed in a democratic process. They are, after all, supposed to represent the people. Attempting to crush the Trump insurgency from the top down could just end up inflaming the anti-establishment mood even further.
The less charitable interpretation is that GOP elites are cravenly trying to protect their own careers. They fear losing in future primaries if they abandon Trump in his moment of need. They fear losing in the general election if Trump’s prospects are so poor that they significantly depress GOP base turnout. And they fear being attacked by Trump himself.
At the heart of all these fears is the fact that no matter what comes out, the majority of Republican voters seem to remain big fans of Trump. Part of this is due to his current prominence as the party’s standard-bearer, part of it is due to the popularity of his message among the base, part of it is due to his anti–political correctness persona, and part is due to the demonization of Hillary Clinton (since it’s quite clear to everyone that dumping Trump at this point means letting Clinton win the presidency).
Now, some Republicans have been willing to cut Trump loose despite these qualms. A small group of party elites held out and refused to endorse him all along, and that group grew after the leaked tape scandal. Indeed, one-third of Republican senators are now saying they won’t vote for Trump or that they want him to drop out of the race entirely.
But another group of Republicans seem to genuinely want Trump to win. The New York Times reports that on a private conference call of House Republicans Monday morning, Rep. Dana Rohrabacher of California said that those deserting Trump were “cowards,” and Rep. Trent Franks of Arizona said a Clinton victory would mean fetuses being destroyed “limb from limb.”
And the rest have been willing to play along, despite the reported private beliefs of many that Trump is genuinely unfit for office — either not caring if he wins or hoping that he’d lose narrowly enough so they don’t get taken down in a landslide. That bet seems ever more likely to go disastrously awry.