The Economist: Donald Trump’s grip on Republican voters is slipping

Reporters were able to crack the Watergate scandal in part because of a trail of cash transfers directed by H.R. Haldeman, Richard Nixon’s chief of staff, to the co-conspirators who broke into the eponymous hotel. “The key was the secret campaign cash,” Bob Woodward recounted in “All The President’s Men”, the book he wrote with Carl Bernstein in 1974 about exposing the affair, “and it should all be traced.” But following campaign contributions can reveal other stories about politics, too. Here, maybe, is one. According to an analysis by the New York Times of candidates’ reports to the Federal Election Commission (FEC), in the last quarter of 2021 all seven House Republicans who voted to impeach Donald Trump and are seeking re-election out-raised their primary opponents.

To follow the money here is to peer into the psychology of Republican voters. Do they still support their former president, or have they soured on him? Public opinion polling confirms the anecdotal FEC data, an analysis by The Economist finds, and suggests Mr Trump is indeed in his worst position since at least early 2019.

For the past two years pollsters working for NBC News have been asking Republican voters if they “consider [themselves] to be more of a supporter of Donald Trump or more of a supporter of the Republican Party”. Their time-series data show a gradual decrease in loyalty to Mr Trump, and a rise in loyalty to the broader party, since the end of 2020. At the end of October 2020, 54% of respondents who said they identified as Republican said they were more a supporter of Mr Trump, whereas 38% said they were more loyal to the party. In their first poll this year, NBC finds a near-complete reversal of those patterns, with 56% proclaiming more support for the party and 36% saying they are more for Mr Trump.

Figures released this week by Echelon Insights, a Republican-aligned polling firm and consultancy, also had troubling news for Mr Trump. Echelon’s pollsters asked Republican voters nationwide if they would prefer the former president or Ron DeSantis, the governor of Florida, as their nominee for president in 2024. Among all Republicans, they found 57% preferred Mr Trump and 32% supported Mr DeSantis—a lead of 25 percentage points. Among Republicans who had heard of both candidates, Mr Trump had a smaller 16-point lead.

Fred Upton, a House Republican from Michigan who last year voted to impeach Mr Trump, said this week that the $726,000 he brought in last quarter showed a “hunger for restoring civility and solving pressing problems” in America. Steve Carra, a state representative challenging Mr Upton and endorsed by Mr Trump, raised only $134,000. The gap between each candidates’ disposable cash was even larger: $1.5m for Mr Upton and $200,000 for Mr Carra.

None of this means Republicans are done with their former president. A 16-point lead for Mr Trump versus Mr DeSantis in the 2024 nomination would translate into a landslide primary victory. The vast majority of Republican voters also still rate Mr Trump as popular, and he is by far the biggest fundraiser on the right. That means he can direct substantial resources to loyal candidates and hold huge rallies for them. The party’s elites also love him. This afternoon the Republican National Committee voted to censure Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger—two of Mr Trump’s chief critics in the House—for participating in the congressional investigation into last year’s attack. The resolution said the representatives are aiding in the “persecution of ordinary citizens engaged in legitimate political discourse.”

But attitudes on the right do appear to be changing, if slowly. The seeds are being sown for the Republican Party to move on from Donald Trump.

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