Inside Story

Is Donald Trump losing his grip?

Regardless of his legal problems, the former president’s self-obsession is increasingly alienating middle-of-the-road voters

Lesley Russell 20 April 2023 1980 words

Me time: Donald Trump expresses solidarity with himself as he leaves his New York apartment for a deposition hearing on 13 April. Anthony Behar/Sipa USA

Donald Trump was the first Republican out of the starting gates and is well ahead of his rivals in the race for the Republican nomination. But with the presidential primaries still more than a year away, the betting odds are starting to turn against him. It’s far from clear he’ll win the race, or even be in contention at the finish.

One reason Trump was an early entrant is his insatiable desire for media attention (good or bad, it’s all publicity, he obviously believes). But a strategy was at work too: his efforts to garner media attention, control the Republican Party, dominate discussions within the chattering classes, and hoover up donations were designed to intimidate rivals and leave little room for those brave enough to consider a challenge.

Florida governor Ron DeSantis, South Carolina senator Tim Scott, former vice-president Mike Pence, former New Jersey governor Chris Christie and several others are loitering hesitantly on the sidelines. Former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley, former Arkansas governor Asa Hutchinson and entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy have declared their candidature but remain largely unknown to most voters. (National Public Radio has compiled a longer catalogue of declared and possible candidates.)

When Republicans are provided with a list of potential presidential candidates and asked who they would vote for, Trump is still the clear winner. The most recent FiveThirtyEight analysis shows Trump on 49.3 per cent and DeSantis on 26.2 per cent, with Pence (5.8 per cent) and Haley (4.3 per cent) lagging, though ahead of several others who barely register. The RealClearPolitics poll average has similar results. History suggests these very early polls say a lot: candidates polling more than 30 per cent have a decent chance of becoming the nominee; those polling below 10 percent are usually doomed.

Trump’s margin over DeSantis (his only viable competitor for the moment, despite not having declared his candidature) varies from thirteen to thirty-seven percentage points. The gap was narrowing until news broke of Trump’s recent indictment in New York. Since then his lead has surged, as has his fundraising.

Polls taken since the indictment, and with several other more serious indictments likely, reflect Trump’s two key strengths — his rusted-on Make America Great Again base and his control over the wider Republican Party, whose members are fearful of breaking with him.

Many Republicans seem to have been energised by the looming cases. Eighty per cent of self-identified Republicans told a national Marist poll that the investigations are a “witch hunt”; just 18 per cent said they were fair. By contrast, a majority of all Americans (56 per cent) say the investigations into Trump are fair and a significant majority (75 per cent) say Trump has behaved illegally and/or unethically.

Despite these apparent portents of success, though, there are growing signs that key support groups (primarily older, white Republican voters), senior members of Congress (including Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell) and the Republican establishment (wealthy donors, the Murdoch empire and some right-wing commentators) are finally deserting Trump, or at least considering that possibility.

The evidence suggests Trump is losing older white Christian voters, key to his 2016 win, who have soured on his coarse and divisive language and his undignified persona. The six-point fall in their support for Trump between 2016 and 2020 may have been critical in the key battleground states that decided the 2020 election.

Support from this group continues to erode. The recent Marist poll, for example, found white conservative seniors were not as enthusiastic as other Republicans, with only 61 per cent calling the threats of indictment a “witch hunt” and 37 per cent saying they were fair. A March poll among Republicans in Iowa, a state with a significant older white Christian demographic, indicated that 74 per cent would “likely” vote for Trump if he were the party’s nominee in 2024 but only 47 percent would “definitely” vote for him.

As it stands, Trump’s support among Republicans is almost certainly enough to win him the presidential primary, regardless of who else enters the race. But it will not be enough to win him the general election. Even the New York Post, a News Corp publication well-recognised as favouring conservative candidates, finds Trump’s unfavourability ratings a huge hurdle. Closer to home, the Murdoch-owned Australian recently worried that “Tarnished Trump May Hand Biden a New Term.”

But Trump and his staff seem unable to crunch the numbers. Their focus is on his adoring MAGA base, and they have shown little interest in appealing to Republicans whose support is wavering, or to the independent voters essential for a win in 2024.

Trump narrowly won independents in 2016, but they swung to Biden in 2020 by a nine-point margin. Today, only 37 per cent of independents approve of Trump, and fully 64 per cent don’t want him to be president. They are appalled by his refusal to preside over a peaceful transition and his role in the violence at the Capitol on 6 January 2020; they are tired of his endless election denial and his focus on perceived slights; they reject his relentless campaign of political revenge against those who refused to stand with him.

This erosion of support from crucial voters in key battleground states like Pennsylvania has rightly been described as a self-inflicted wound. Trump believes that his capture of MAGA Republicans has made him the most powerful force in the Republican Party: he basks in their uncritical admiration and sees no reason to change or to compromise his campaign strategy. He has reportedly told advisers that he must “run as himself” in order to pull off a 2016-style victory.

Meanwhile dissent continues to grow inside the Republican tent and within a growing Never Trump movement. Mostly this sentiment reflects anger that Trump’s interventions in the 2022 midterm elections cost Republicans seats in the House and control of the Senate and that further losses are likely in 2024. These dissidents, too, are increasingly disgusted by his behaviour and concerned that his legal troubles will engulf him at the very time he needs to be focused on the 2024 election.

Georgia governor Brian Kemp is among those making the case for “anyone but Trump.” He has challenged Republicans to seek out a presidential nominee who gives voters a “reason to like us” and offers a vision for the future rather than an obsession with the past.

A potential rival for the Republican nomination, Chris Christie, was more forceful: “[Trump] is losing. And if he doesn’t change course, both in terms of the substance of what he is discussing and the way that he approaches the American people, then he will lose.” Even Mike Pence has suggested that he won’t support Trump again, saying “I think we’ll have better choices.”

Just as significantly, big-name Republican donors and fundraisers are looking to back alternatives to Trump. Both the Koch–affiliated Americans For Prosperity and the anti-tax Club for Growth have signalled they are seeking another candidate. “He is a metastasising cancer who if he is not stopped is going to destroy the party,” Republican fundraiser Eric Levine told Politico. “He is the first president since Hoover to lose the House, the Senate and the presidency in a single term. Because of him Chuck Schumer is the Leader Schumer, and the progressive agenda is threatening to take over the country. And he is probably the only Republican in the country, if not the only person in the country, who can’t beat Joe Biden.”

We should note that a Never Trump movement existed in 2016, and at one point a key figure was senator Lindsey Graham, now a fully paid-up member of the suck-up-to-Trump camp. That first anti-Trump drive fell apart when he won the presidency, and today, if its members calculate that Trump could win, the movement may well do so again.

Trump’s ability to raise millions of dollars from his base means he doesn’t care that major donors are looking elsewhere. His campaign says he has raised more than US$34 million for his 2024 run since the start of the year, boosted by a big bump in donations (US$15.4 million) since the announcement of the New York criminal charges.

(It’s worth noting that these are not the figures reported to the Federal Election Commission. Trump’s April filing reports US$14.5 million raised during the first three months of this year, with at least US$2.7 million raised from individual donors in the two weeks after 18 March. This puts him well ahead of his rivals but lags behind the pace set in his earlier campaigns.)

Trump’s campaign is increasingly funded by hundreds of thousands of individual donations, the vast majority under US$200. It is estimated that Trump and his close allies have raised more than US$390 million since election day in 2020 through aggressive fund-raising solicitations to his MAGA crowds. A significant proportion appears to be being spent on the legal expenses of Trump and his cohorts.

Trump’s unwavering campaign formula faces one further set of risk factors: the changing political and demographic landscape of the United States.

Voter support has moved to the left on issues like guns, abortion and race. The rulings of the Supreme Court, dominated by Trump appointees, have gone against public opinion on abortion and guns and will soon encroach on key social policy areas like marriage equality, healthcare and protections for transgender people and immigrants.

For decades, Republicans relied on abortion to rally their conservative base, vowing to undo Roe v Wade and outlaw the procedure. But since last June’s Supreme Court ruling denying the federal right to a surgical abortion, and since a judge in Texas sought to ban the drug used for medical abortions, voters have been galvanised and abortion has emerged as a potent issue.

Although Trump boasted about his anti-abortion Supreme Court nominees and took credit for their Roe v Wade ruling, he has begun to uncharacteristically tiptoe around this issue, even in the face of Florida’s action to deny abortions after six weeks.

But Trump has grasped one issue with both hands, and that’s gun rights, a core issue for his MAGA base that will be a tough sell in a general election. At the recent National Rifle Association convention, he promised that, as president, he would make sure “no one will lay a finger on your firearms.”

A February Gallup poll showed Americans’ dissatisfaction with existing gun laws has risen to 63 per cent, the highest since Gallup started asking the question twenty-three years ago, and an increase of seven points in just a year. Many more mass shootings have occurred since then — thirty in the first seventeen days of April alone — and many more people have died from gun-related causes.

Voter demographics are also changing — a fact that has driven much of the Republican efforts to limit voting rights. The Brookings Institute sees younger voters, with their preference for Democratic candidates, as upending politics. Youthful racial minorities are seen as the primary demographic engine of the nation’s future growth, countering an ageing, slow-growing and soon to be declining white population.

Donald Trump long seemed immune to the rules of political life and the consequences of even the most outrageous conduct and the most obnoxious language. Now, perhaps, that is changing. In recent focus groups, most “persuadable” Republican voters stood by their past support of Trump but some — feeling “overwhelmed” and “fatigued” — are looking beyond Trump for the 2024 primaries.

Their exhaustion with Trump doesn’t mean they are looking for a break with Trumpist policies, of course. They aren’t necessarily seeking more moderate policies, or even more moderate messaging; they are looking for someone less divisive — and perhaps less self-centred.

“I and a lot of other Republicans who were supportive of President Trump are becoming less and less supportive,” said one Republican voter. “Not because I’m a ‘Never Trumper.’ I just don’t believe Trump is the best person to move this party forward.” •