Donald Trump’s future is incredibly uncertain at the moment. Two years from now, he could be sitting behind the Resolute Desk — or, if a group of pesky prosecutors have their way, behind bars.
Through it all, his place atop the Republican Party hasn’t budged a bit. No, it’s not a sure thing yet that he’ll be the party’s presidential nominee for a third consecutive election in 2024 — but this week offered fresh reminders of his command over the GOP, nomination or not.
Instead of distancing themselves as his third indictment looms, Republican leaders hugged Trump closer, offering him private advice and shelving their old law-and-order rhetoric in favor of his preferred anti-prosecutor language. His endorsement remains the most sought-after in Republican politics, displacing the Chamber of Commerce and other dusty relics of the GOP establishment. On policy, we have seen in recent days as votes to end Ukraine aid received significant Republican support, a sign that Trump’s isolationist leanings have spread throughout a party once in thrall to neocons and interventionists.
When did the party of Lincoln, Eisenhower, Bush, and Reagan become the party of Trump? Exactly eight years ago today, in fact.
Take a look at this graph from RealClearPolitics to see what I mean:
Start all the way at the left, and you can watch as Trump — the blue line — comes out of nowhere to overtake the entire Republican field in 2016. As late as May 27, 2015, he doesn’t even appear in the polling average. Then, on May 28, he comes on the scene with 4.5%, enough for ninth place. On June 16, he announces. By July 19, he is tied with Jeb Bush, 15% to 15%.
July 20, 2015 — this exact point in the 2016 cycle — is when Trump inches ahead of Bush and becomes the polling leader, one day after he insulted the war record of John McCain, the party’s 2008 standard-bearer. The GOP would never look back: except for a brief two-day challenge from Ben Carson in November 2015, Trump would never move from the frontrunner spot again. Via that blue line, you can trace Trump’s improbable rise all the way to the nomination and, eventually, the White House.
Now, again locked in a competitive primary battle, Trump remains the party’s dominant force, just as he has been nearly every day since July 20, 2015. While Trump’s position has not changed, the rest of the party has shifted around him.
Many of the leading lights of the 2016-era GOP have receded from the stage: Jeb Bush is rarely heard from, Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio have shelved their national ambitions, Scott Walker runs a group for high school-aged Republicans, John Kasich has a podcast with former “Daily Show” correspondent Jordan Klepper.
In their place, a new generation of Republican stars has emerged, almost all of them Trump loyalists: Josh Hawley, J.D. Vance, Marjorie Taylor Greene, Sarah Huckabee Sanders. They largely parrot Trump’s rhetoric and ideology, as the “three-legged stool” of the Reagan era gives way to a new set of Trump-fueled culture war priorities.
As another crop of Republicans attempts to dislodge Trump from his leadership of the GOP, should the 2016 polling graph above make them feel better or worse?
After all, Trump’s 2016 win is now the archetypal example of a come-from-behind presidential primary victory, of exactly the kind Ron DeSantis and his ilk are hoping to pull off. Anything can happen, this graph could be saying. Things can still change.
Except, it’s worth remembering that Trump’s underdog takeover was actually executed fairly early. At the same point in the cycle, DeSantis is not exactly in prime position to do what Trump did on this day in 2015 — take the lead and never let go — meaning any shift in the 2024 primary will have to come much later in the process, giving Trump added time to fortify his advantage.
You should also take a look at the Y-axis of the graph above. When Trump caught up to Jeb Bush, the then-frontrunner was at 15%. Today, the RealClearPolitics average for the 2024 primary shows Trump at 54%, a lead that isn’t even remotely comparable to Bush’s.
The 2016 graph shows a race that was, up until this point, fairly dynamic, with several candidates crammed together close to the front of the pack. The same graph for 2024, however, tells a very different story, one of a much more static field, with a frontrunner who is much, much farther ahead of his rivals:
This is at least partially because of the changes to the GOP that Trump first set in motion eight years ago today.
Just as the leaders of the GOP are very different than those of eight years ago, so is the Republican voter base.
CNN’s Ron Brownstein noted this in April, drawing on polling from Public Opinion Strategies, a Republican firm which he said maintains “the best long-term data set” on the GOP electorate. Here’s Brownstein:
In 2012, the firm found, those Whites without a college degree constituted 48% of all Republicans, only slightly more than Whites with a college degree, who represented 40%. By 2016, when Trump was first nominated, the gap between the two groups had widened, with the non-college Whites rising to 56% of all Republicans, and the college-educated Whites falling to 33%. In the 2022 results, the Whites without a college degree soared to 62% of all GOP partisans, while the college-educated Whites sagged to 25%. (Looking at all GOP supporters, including the relatively small number who are racial minorities, the group without a college degree rose from 56% in 2012 to 70% in 2022, POS found.)
Voters without a college degree, of course, are exactly the Republican voters most predisposed to Trump. The fact that they now make up 70% of the party will make it all the more difficult for DeSantis to overtake him. College-educated voters are the only demographic among whom DeSantis outpolls Trump, but if they have shrunk to only make up 30% of the GOP electorate, they won’t be too much help to him.
This makes some intuitive sense. Any voter who has remained a Republican for the past eight years is one who has stuck with the party through cycle after cycle of Trump scandal — it stands to reason that the ones who are left are the most hardened Trump supporters.
Back in 2021, after the Capitol riot, there was a burst of reporting indicating that a considerable number of Republicans were changing their party registrations and leaving the GOP. About a year later, as inflation soared, the opposite happened and a surge of voters abandoned the Democratic Party to become Republicans.
In the end, these party switches mostly balance out, giving neither party the electoral advantage they crave. But they do point to changes within each party’s coalitions. On the Republican side, those who have left the party are largely those who were the most turned off by Trump, some of whom are now independents or Biden Democrats when they might have been DeSantis or Christie Republicans. The GOP’s newest voters, meanwhile, are clearly comfortable enough with Trump to join a party so thoroughly identified with him.
Overtaking Trump will require DeSantis or another rival to get past a primary electorate that is even more Trumpy than the one Jeb Bush and others contended with in 2016, both demographically and by behavior: the muscle memory of pulling a lever next to Trump’s name is now firmly embedded for most of today’s Republicans.
If Trump does win the 2024 nomination, his remaking of the Republican Party — its ideology, its leaders, its electorate — in his image will be complete. It was only a project eight years in the making.
More news to know.
A pair of IRS whistleblowers alleged at a House hearing that the investigation into Hunter Biden was “constantly hamstrung” by Justice Department officials.
Henry Kissinger, 100, went to China.
Another Republican Trump critic is leaving office: Chris Sununu, the moderate New Hampshire governor, announced his retirement.
A federal judge said that, even though a jury did not find Donald Trump liable for raping E. Jean Carroll, he did rape her according to “the meaning of that word as it often is used in everyday life.”
Illegal border crossings plunged to their lowest level in two years last month.
What to watch today.
All times Eastern.
In the Senate: The Senate Judiciary Committee will meet at 9:30 a.m. to debate and vote on the Supreme Court Ethics, Recusal, and Transparency Act, a Democratic bill that would require the Supreme Court to adopt a code of ethics.
- The full chamber will hold a vote to confirm David Uhlmann as Assistant Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency and continue working on amendments to the NDAA.
In the House: The House Weaponization Subcommittee will hold a hearing at 9 a.m. on the “federal government’s role in censoring Americans” on tech platforms. Democratic presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy Jr. will testify, at the invitation of the committee’s Republican leadership; Democratic lawmakers have called for Kennedy to be disinvited after his racist and antisemitic comments on Covid, but GOP leaders have said that would be akin to censorship.
- The full chamber will vote on the Securing Growth and Robust Leadership in American Aviation Act, a five-year reauthorization of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).
At the White House: President Biden will visit Philly Shipyard, a shipyard in Philadelphia, and deliver remarks at 1 p.m. on his “Bidenomics” agenda. It will be Biden’s 27th visit to the key battleground state of Pennsylvania; because he is technically traveling on White House business, the trip will be taxpayer-funded.
Before I go...
Three cheers for student journalism! Stanford University president Marc Tessier-Lavigne resigned on Wednesday, after months of allegations that papers he co-authored during his career as a neuroscientist contained manipulated data.
The resignation was largely precipitated by reporting done by rising sophomore Theo Baker of the Stanford Daily, the student newspaper, who examined the allegations in a series of investigative pieces.
Tessier-Lavigne is the second major university figure to step down this month due to reporting in a student publication: Northwestern recently fired their football coach, Pat Fitzgerald, in response to reporting on hazing allegations by Nicole Markus, Alyce Brown, Cole Reynolds, and Divya Bhardwaj of the Daily Northwestern.
“More than anything, to me, this should raise conversations about the value of student journalism,” Baker, who became the youngest-ever Polk Award recipient earlier this year, told the New York Times. “If you love a place, and I really do love Stanford, you want to push it to be more transparent.”
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