I think too much has probably already been made of the fact that Tea Party scoundrel Joe Walsh, a one-term congressman from Illinois, has announced that he’ll be challenging Donald Trump for the 2020 Republican nomination. More interesting is the president’s standing with the his party’s base. The truth is that Trump has been lying about his approval numbers with Republicans.
He says that he has 94 percent approval with them, and at one point, he actually did poll that well. But recent surveys from Monmouth, Zogby Analytics, AP-NORC, and Fox News all show him polling significantly lower than that. It appears that his support has been slipping and is now somewhere in the low-to-mid eighties. That might still sound impressive, but his approval with Democrats is in the low single digits, and he’s polling in the thirties-to-low forties with independents. He actually needs to be doing better with his base to compensate for this.
Michael Tomasky explains how important this factor will be in the 2020 election:
So let’s say 28 percent of registered voters are Republican. Twenty-eight percent of 175 million is basically 50 million. Okay, now let’s say by election time, Trump is at 80 percent among Republicans. Well, 20 percent of 50 million is 10 million. That means that 10 million Republicans can maybe be persuaded to vote against the man. Or to withhold their support from him and stay home.
Given how close the vote totals were in 2016 in a number of states, these 10 million could make an enormous difference. Florida, 110,000 out of 9 million cast; Pennsylvania, 44,000 out of nearly 6 million; Wisconsin, 22,000 out of 2.8 million; Michigan, 11,000 out of 4.5 million. If there are 10 million anti-Trump Republicans in November 2020, isn’t there a decent chance that 11,000 of them live in Michigan?
Tomasky also looked at exit polls from the last six elections to get some perspective on how much loyalty Republicans are showing to Trump compared to recent GOP nominees:
Out of curiosity I went back and looked at the exit polls over the last 20-plus years’ worth of elections. Trump got 88 percent of Republicans in 2016. Mitt Romney got 93 percent in 2012. John McCain got 90 percent in 2008. George W. Bush got 93 percent in 2004 and 91 percent in 2000.
Then we go back to 1996, when Bob Dole ran against Bill Clinton. Dole got…80 percent of Republicans. Yes, party loyalties were less metastasized then, but whatever the explanation, the fact is the fact. Dole won just 80 percent of Republicans, and he lost—by 8.5 percent, 8 million popular votes, and a whopping 220 Electoral College votes.
If Trump were telling the truth about having 94 percent support from the GOP base, he’d be in reasonable shape, although Romney lost pretty badly at 93 percent. He’s actually in a much worse position than that because he’s not doing as well as he did last time when he got 88 percent—and he’s getting hammered by independents without compensating for it with crossover Democratic votes.
What people like Joe Walsh can do is give some conservatives permission to voice their dissent and displeasure. He doesn’t have to have much influence at all to do some damage to the president. It doesn’t take a lot of slippage among the faithful for the numbers to start to add up.
It has also hits Trump where he’s vulnerable. His strategy has been to please the base and to blow off pleasing the center. I think that’s risky even if it works, but if it doesn’t even succeed in holding the base, then it’s a suicidal strategy.
Joe Walsh is not an ideal person to carry out this work but he doesn’t need to have a lot of impact to potentially make a decisive difference. The danger he represents is that there is actually quite a lot of dissent in the Republican Party against Trump, especially with elected officials and within the professional class. His policies are collectively much less popular with the base and with the general public than the president himself, so they tend to keep their heads down. But when someone comes along and articulates what they’re afraid to say, the cone of silence may not be as effective. And that could cause the dam to break.