Trump’s hold on the Republican Party might not be as strong as it seems
With the 2024 primaries just around the corner, it is impossible to deny the lasting impact that former President Donald Trump has had on the Republican Party. Trump’s legacy continues to shape the political landscape, influencing policy debates, primary strategies, and the broader conservative movement. Despite Trump’s record-breaking 37 federal indictments, top primary competitors such as Florida Governor Ron DeSantis and Senator Tim Scott of South Carolina have focused their attacks on the alleged weaponization of the Justice Department rather than waging an open criticism of Trump’s misconduct. While many hesitantly assume that Trump’s grip on the Republican Party is as strong as ever, our analysis finds that the majority of Republican primary voters don’t actually have strong ties to Trump, and may be quite open to an alternative nominee for the party.
Analyzing how strong of a hold Trump has on the Republican party poses a challenge to pollsters because we know that people tend to engage in partisan cheerleading, where they respond to surveys partly with the goal of making politicians from their party look good. For example, Democrats have provided better ratings of the economy while Biden has been president while Republicans said the economy was doing better when Trump was in office. A recent Marist College poll finds that partisan cheerleading extends far beyond the economy. When asked about Trump’s recent indictment, 80 percent of Republicans said they believe the investigations are a “witch hunt.” When given the opportunity to say something positive or negative about Trump, Republicans will most likely stand behind him. Yet this doesn’t tell us much about how central Trump is to their identities as Republicans.
As part of the 2022 Cooperative Election Study, we asked nearly 2,000 Republican primary voters to select which groups within the Republican party they most identify with. We provided respondents with a list of 10 options: Business Establishment Republican, Constitutional Conservative Republican, Conservative Republican, Christian Right Republican, Neo-Conservative Republican, Libertarian Republican, Trump Republican, Never Trump Republican, Tea Party Republican, and Other. We also asked these Republican primary voters which group they least identified with and provided them with the same set of options. Republicans most commonly identified with the Conservative, Constitutional Conservative, and Trump groups. Republican primary voters were most likely to choose the ideological labels Conservative or Constitutional Conservative while few identified as Business Establishment or Neo-Conservatives. Fewer than 4 percent of Republican primary voters selected “other,” indicating that this list provided an exhaustive set of options for most Republicans to choose from.
Engaging in this exercise reveals that Trump’s hold on the party’s primary electorate is not quite as widespread as many believe. It is true as many have pointed out that very few Republican primary voters eschew Trump altogether. Just 10 percent of the Republican primary electorate shows up as anti-Trump either by selecting “Never Trump Republican” as something they most identify with or “Trump Republican” as their least important identity. At the same time, an even smaller percentage of Republican primary voters tie their identities solely to Trump by identifying as a “Trump Republican” and nothing else.
Instead, what we find is much more equivocation when it comes to Trump. About 30 percent of Republican primary voters indicate that while they are a Trump Republican, they also identify with other factions of the party as well. In other words, Trump is only a part of this group’s connection to the party. Even more notably, a clear majority of Republican primary voters do not select Trump Republican at all, meaning that Trump Republicans are not even among the top three groups they identify with. This means that nearly two-thirds of Republican primary voters are either actively anti-Trump or do not identify as a Trump Republican when given the opportunity to do so.
The fact that a majority of Republican primary voters decline to accept Trump Republican as an identity suggests that while these Republicans are willing to support Trump, they are not especially loyal to him. We can see this when we compare these groups on items that relate to Trump’s cult of personality. For instance, approval of Trump in 2020 differentiates Trumpers from the rest of the party. More than 90 percent of Republican primary voters who identify as Trump Republicans indicated that they strongly approved of Trump when we first interviewed them in 2020. But among the Republicans who did not identify with Trump, strong approval was considerably lower at 69 percent.
The difference between these groups is also highlighted by adherence to Trump’s claims that U.S. elections are unfair or rigged. Here, 82 percent of Pure Trumpers, or those who identify solely as Trump Republicans, believe that elections in the U.S. are not fair. Comparatively, about two-thirds of Trump Republicans who also identify with other Republican groups express the same belief. But a majority of Republicans who do not identify as Trump Republicans in any respect eschew the belief that U.S. elections are unfair.
Trump Republicans and non-Trump Republicans hold similar positions on a variety of key Republican issues including border security, policing, and fossil fuel production. The only ideologically distinct faction in the Republican Party is the Anti-Trump group, who are considerably more moderate than the mainstream party.
Our results suggest that the door for the Republican nomination remains open for potential challengers to Trump. Sixty percent of Republicans report wanting a primary candidate who shares their issue positions and most Republicans (with the exception of the Anti-Trump group) are in agreement on key issues. Undeniably, the vast majority of non-Trump Republicans will vote for Trump in the General Election if he becomes the nominee. In fact, 60 percent of Anti-Trumpers and 95 percent of non-Trumpers voted for him in 2020. But the fact that a clear majority of Republicans decline to identify as Trump Republicans suggests that they would also be open to another nominee, perhaps one with considerably less baggage.