The announcement of Neil Gorsuch as SCOTUS nominee represented a new high point in Donald Trump’s relationship with the conservative movement and the GOP. It was a full-on love-fest — and beyond the immediate and overwhelmingly positive response among right-of-center folk, the nomination has established significantly more trust for Trump among serious conservatives.
But before mainstream Republicans get too comfortable with the 45th president, they should consider the bad news: That he is stealing their voter base away from them, even as they cheer him on for nominating Gorsuch.
That is the most obvious lesson to derive from some new large-sample data from Morning Consult (via The Upshot):
54 percent of registered voters in districts represented by Republicans viewed Mr. Trump favorably compared with only 42 percent who view him unfavorably. More important, people who identify with the party overwhelmingly view him favorably. In districts represented by Republicans, fully 87 percent of registered Republicans view Mr. Trump favorably.
Support for Mr. Trump in G.O.P. districts is even higher among registered Republicans who are extremely interested in politics (94 percent favorable), identify as strong Republicans (92 percent favorable) or say they are very conservative (94 percent favorable). These groups are especially likely to vote in primaries and are key constituencies in nomination contests for higher office. As a result, they wield disproportionate influence on legislator behavior.
To put it simply, while Republicans may have assumed their most conservative “base” supporters would help them bend Donald Trump to their will when push came to shove, the opposite may prove true: the GOP base increasingly looks like it may become a whip with which Trump lashes establishment conservative elected officials and opinion-leaders to keep them in line.
It’s been true for quite some time that most Republicans in Congress feared primary challenges from their right more than anything Democrats could throw at them. What has changed is that the voters most likely to participate in Republican challenges seem to have fallen in love with Donald Trump, and could keep elected officials who previously thought themselves safe on their toes and ready to defend Trump even when long-cherished ideological tenets would otherwise have them supporting different policies. The alternative would be to likely face a primary challenge by a more robustly Trumpian politician, with the knowledge that the base would probably be with the populist.
While it’s premature to predict the potentially wild course of events just ahead, friction between Trump and his party could be relatively manageable — and a visible schism might never open up between the president and the party mainstream. We could see an implicit deal where Trump gives the older forces in the GOP most of what they want on economic and fiscal policy so long as they go along with Trump on trade, immigration, crime, and maybe some token “populist” gestures like jobs initiatives or protecting Social Security and Medicare.They can probably reach rough agreement on most national security matters so long as defense spending goes up and the administration doesn’t completely abandon Europe to Putin.
But if there is a rupture that threatens the smooth-functioning machine Republicans need to enact an agenda with little or no Democratic support, don’t assume Trump will have to come hat in hand to Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell, or beg for support from conservative think-tanks or opinion outlets. If you look at how far most of them, from Fox News to Ted Cruz to the Wall Street Journal, have come in Trump’s direction since they all mocked and defied him just a year ago, they may have to keep moving towards him, especially if their constituencies are already there.