No question more perplexes political pundits, the news media, and Democrats than “When will Republicans abandon Trump? The simple answer is that the odds of Republicans–both those in Congress and his base–abandoning Trump is like waiting for Godot. In both cases, one can hope that Godot appears or the Republicans will flee from Trump and impeach him, team up with Democrats, or do something else, but the reality is that it just may not happen.
Now nearly six months into the Trump era the carnage of his presidency persists. This week the Russian connection revelations continued to mount, depicting patterns of illegal or unethical collusion between Trump campaign officials and family and Russian nationals if not the government. Revelations of Trump family conflicts of interest intensify, Trump embarrasses himself and the USA across the world, his travel ban takes another court hit, and his policy agenda including efforts to repeal Obamacare look like one mistake after another. Allegations of obstruction of justice engulf the administration as the FBI probe continues, and to many, Trump tweets and alternative facts simply add to a narrative of a largely failed presidency unable to get anything done. With the Republicans tasting policy victory last fall and only to see it slipping out of the fingers now and facing a potentially fatal 2018 election, why haven’t Republicans abandoned Trump?
Many look to the lessons of Watergate as hope that the GOP will reject Trump. Back when Nixon was president his resignation was the product of not just political pressure by Democrats but also by notable Republicans in the House and Senate calling for his impeachment or resignation. Public opinion support for Nixon also eroded, and he could not count on his base to support him in sufficient numbers to prop up his presidency. Even his own Supreme Court abandoned him in U.S. v. Nixon and the mainstream media was nearly of one voice in going after Nixon. Surely, some assert, this should be Trump’s fate any day. Not necessarily.
The 1970s is a different era from today. Most significantly, the level and strength of partisanship today is far more powerful today than then. Back in the 1970s about one-third of the members of Congress came from swing districts, those which were capable of flipping from one party to another. The percentage of swing voters–those who split tickets voted or switched from one party to another when voting was about 15% of the electorate. The Republican and Democratic parties were ideologically more mixed and straight party-line votes the exception and not the rule.
Today, there are fewer than 20 or so seats in the House of Representatives that are swing. The number of seats where Clinton won the presidency but a Republican in Congress is very small. Party-line voting is the norm and not the exception in Congress and the Republicans and Democrats are so polarized such that the most liberal Republican in Congress still votes more conservatively than the most conservative Democrat in Congress. The percentage of swing voters has dropped to about 5%, with swing meaning now swinging into votes or not voting, and not split ticket voting. Partisan preferences have hardened, especially at the presidential or national level, and political scientists now note how individuals will change their policy preferences to conform with their party identification, and not vice versa.
Why is all this important? Despite all of Trump’s problems, partisanship is more powerful than presidential performance. Republicans have embraced Trump as their president, flaws and all. This was no different from what the Democrats did with Clinton in 2016. Despite all the clear warning signs that Clinton was a flawed candidate, Democrats stuck with her no matter what. Democrats went down with Clinton as the captain of their ship, Republicans may do the same here.
Don’t count on Republicans abandoning Trump. They still support many of his policy objectives and see a better chance of getting what they want if they are with as opposed to him. They still want to repeal Obamacare and may still succeed. Consider some one such as Senator Susan Collins. Depicted as a moderate, yet whenever push comes to shove, she votes the Republican line. The same might be said of John McCain. Right now they oppose the yet again revised version of the Senate health care bill and it looks doomed, but the same was said a few months ago about the House bill.
Moreover, don’t count on fear of what could happen in the 2018 elections as a motivating factor for Republicans. The latest public opinion polls (Gallup) still show that 38% of the voters support Trump. This percentage has not varied much in two months. His core base is still with him. The Democrats are defending 25 Senate seats in 2018 (23 Democrats and two independents) than Republicans at eight, and there does not seem to be too many swing seats for Democrats to pick up in the House. Trump’s core base is concentrated in enough congressional seats such that fleeing him there would invite Republican primary challenges from the right. Finally, Democrats lack a narrative, plan, and strategy for 2018, they are still counting on Trump’s unpopularity to the springboard to victory. This is Clinton’s 2016 mistake all over again. Finally, the news media is not universal in its condemnation of Trump; Fox national news provides alternative facts to the Trump base that reinforces partisan support.
It is possible that the Republicans will abandon Trump, but it is equally possible they will not. Hoping it will happen is simply like waiting for Godot.