Should Republicans dump Trump? Our evidence sure says so
Baseball teams and political parties aren’t all that different: both compete to win, whether for championship glory or coveted offices. And when individual players or politicians fail to meet the goals of the team, they are punished. Given the Republican Party’s recent weakness in federal elections, some members of the party are wondering aloud whether they should drop their power-hitting, trash-talking star player from the lineup: former President Trump. Some want him to take his place on the bench because after all, according to ex-Governor Larry Hogan, “It’s basically the third election in a row that Donald Trump has cost us the race, and it’s like, three strikes, you’re out.” Others remain committed to their leader, with Governor Henry McMaster (R-SC) proclaiming a Trump reelection would “see a burst of freedom and prosperity unlike any we have ever seen before.” Both of these views were expressed after the midterms, an election cycle in which Republicans performance fell short of expectations. Many, like Hogan, put the blame squarely on Trump’s shoulders. But Governor McMaster’s comments make clear that there is no consensus on the issue. So, the question remains: is Trump still worth building the Republican Party’s franchise around?
Multiple news outlets have retrospectively estimated the “Trump effect” in the 2022 elections. According to an estimate from The Economist, Republican candidates who were endorsed by former President Trump in their primary performed about five percentage points worse in the general election than they would have if they had not received his endorsement. Similarly, when comparing the performance-above-baseline for contested races, The Washington Post finds that candidates who did not receive a Trump endorsement over-performed expectations by 2.2 percentage points more than their endorsed colleagues. Association with former President Trump appears to be a liability for Republican candidates, suggesting that Trump’s vision for the Republican Party lacks appeal for a critical mass of swing voters. But to our knowledge, no one has tried to test these theories in an experiment. Just before the 2022 midterm elections, we did just that and found evidence that Trump hurts down-ballot Republicans in general elections.
To collect our data, we conducted an experiment on a nationally representative online survey of 1,346 American adults fielded just before the 2022 midterm elections. All respondents saw a preface about a Republican nominee for a Congressional seat in their state named Terry Mitchell. Respondents either viewed “conventional” Republican viewpoints (lowering taxes, limiting government’s role in healthcare, and opposing citizenship for undocumented immigrants) or “unconventional” Republican viewpoints (increasing taxes, expanding government’s role in healthcare, and supporting citizenship for undocumented immigrants). Respondents then received one of three Trump endorsement conditions: Trump’s support for Mitchell, Trump’s disapproval of Mitchell, or no mention of Trump.
Our findings provide strong evidence that Trump hurts Republican candidates in general election contests. Among respondents who saw the condition where Trump was not mentioned, the average favorability rating was 52 points. When participants were shown a scenario with a Trump endorsement, Mitchell’s favorability decreased by 7 points on average, a penalty of a similar magnitude to what The Economist found. This result can be seen in our first graph.
This effect was due to differing reactions from Republicans and Democrats. For Republicans who saw a condition where there was no mention of Trump, the average favorability rating was 56 points. For Republican respondents who were told that Trump had endorsed Mitchell, the average favorability rating did not change by a statistically significant amount, shown in the second graph. When Trump told voters not to vote for Mitchell, Republican respondents’ ratings decreased by 7 points. From these results, it is evident that Trump’s “cult of personality” was unable to galvanize support among Republican respondents. However, Trump’s disapproval depressed Mitchell’s favorability ratings, showing that losing the support of Trump can still have a notable impact among Republican voters.
For Democratic respondents, analyzing the effect of a Trump endorsement yields a predictable outcome: Democrats are far less likely to support candidates endorsed by Trump. When Democrats saw a scenario where Mitchell received a Trump endorsement, his favorability dropped by 16 points. In contrast, when Trump told voters not to vote for Mitchell, Democrats rated him as 10 points more favorable. These results can be seen in our third graph. From our experiment, it is clear that Democrats show a strong distaste for Trump-backed candidates, but a willingness to support Republicans who are out of step with Trump.
In essence, the Trump “effect” is asymmetrical both within and across parties. Within parties, when presented with a Trump endorsement, Democrats express far lower favorability for candidates. The effect of Trump’s disapproval is smaller than the effect of a Trump endorsement, suggesting that Democrats are more motivated by antipathy towards Trump rather than support for those against him. The reverse is true for Republicans, with Trump’s disapproval depressing favorability but an endorsement leaving favorability unaffected. The second asymmetry is across parties: a Trump endorsement led to a negative change in favorability among Democrats but no change among Republicans in their rating of Mitchell. Therefore we can conclude that a Trump endorsement hurts Republican candidates’ perceptions on balance.
We also looked into how these effects impact voters by asking two additional questions to understand how respondents interpret a Trump endorsement and policy stances. First, we asked whether the respondent thinks that our generic candidate believes there were irregularities in the 2020 presidential election. Second, we asked about perceptions of our candidate’s tariff policy, an issue Trump has diverged from the traditional Republican Party orthodoxy. We found no evidence that the Trump effect flows through election denialism or tariffs. We suspect that most respondents may automatically associate election denialism with the Republican Party independent of the former President’s endorsement, but we are unable to conclude that with certainty. The change in favorability caused by a Trump endorsement for both parties stems from an unobserved phenomenon. We speculate that this is likely former President Trump’s cult of personality; however, we lack the causal evidence to support this notion.
Since Trump’s ascension to the Presidency and even since his departure, Republicans have diagnosed leading Democrats with “Trump Derangement Syndrome,” a condition that they argue leads those afflicted to view all action by Trump as inherently negative. Our results show that Republicans may be reading the political tea leaves correctly: Democrats are indeed turned off by Trump. If the Republican Party wants to tip the electoral scales back in their favor, our results suggest that they would be better off with Trump on the bench than leading the charge out of the dugout. It may be their best chance to avoid a four-cycle sweep by Democrats.