Politics

New Poll Data Shows Trump Is More Vulnerable to a Primary Challenge Than Ever

May 28, 2019
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Donald Trump at CPAC. (Photo by Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images)

Here’s a note about Republican primary dynamics from the veteran New York political strategist, Bruce Gyory.

He’s given me permission to reproduce. It’s very much worth reading.


Bill,

As promised, here is what I gleaned from the recent Pew Poll, released May 23rd and taken between April 29th and May 13th. It was not a random digit dial phone poll; instead it was conducted via self-administered web surveys. But it had a sample of 10,170: 4,220 Republicans and Republican leaners and 5,675 Democrats and Democratic leaners, so independents were reflected. Given the Pew track record (strong given their painstaking methodology) and the huge size of the sample with a relatively low refusal rate for these times (25 percent), I view this a very reliable poll.

The headlines attending this poll and all but the last few pages (released May 23, 2019) focus on the finding that “Nearly Half of Democrats Say the Best Age for a President Is ‘In Their 50’s’.” But the last page of the poll (page 8 of the full report) yielded some interesting data on the Republican side.

A majority of Republicans and Republican leaners continue to say that they do not want Trump challenged in a primary next year. But 43 percent of Republicans and Republican leaners would like to see Trump get a primary challenge next year. That 43 percent number is up by 6 percent from the 37 percent level right after last year’s midterm elections. This is a high number on the ascent.

There are interesting demarcations along age, partisanship and ideology within the Republican ranks:

  • Just over half of Republicans and leaners under the age of 50 want to see Trump get a primary challenge: 54 percent (only 33 percent of Republicans over 50 agree that he should get a primary challenge).
  • 56 percent of Republican-leaning independents think Trump should get a primary challenge; only 35 percent of Republicans agree.
  • 66 percent of conservative Republicans do not want to see Trump get a primary challenge, but 58 percent of moderate and liberal Republicans do want to see Trump challenged.

If this Pew data is accurate, and I believe that it is, what are the probable implications?

First, this data puts a dent in the conventional wisdom that Trump has overwhelming support from the full range of the GOP coalition.

When Trump is matched against Democrats, especially liberal Democrats, in horse race polling, Trump does hold onto 85-plus percent of the GOP base. But if Trump loses 10 percent to 15 percent of the Republican and Republican-leaning vote to a Democrat or to a Democrat in combination with a third party candidate (say Justin Amash as a Libertarian), that would be significant—particularly because Trump has united over 90 percent (close to 95 percent, actually) of Democrats against his GOP brand.

That was the math that dominated the mid-term results in all but the Ruby Red states: Trump’s GOP candidates got 85-plus percent of the Republican voters, Democrats got over 90 percent of the Democratic voters, and independents broke against Trump’s Republicans by 13 percent. If that equation were to hold for 2020, Trump wouild lose both the popular vote and the Electoral College, the Democrats would hold the House and the Senate would be a jump ball. In the end, this data is but another reminder that just playing to the base is not enough for Trump to prevail.

Second, the data suggests that Trump would prevail in the GOP primaries (the lion’s share of primary voters would be older, conservative Republicans), but that Trump is vulnerable to a primary opponent(s) cracking the 25 percent threshold, especially in primary states where independents can vote in GOP primaries (e.g., New Hampshire).

As Pat Buchanan proved in his 1992 challenge against President George H. W. Bush, the way to hurt an incumbent president is not only a down-to-the-wire challenge (Reagan vs. Ford in 1976; Ted Kennedy vs. Carter in 1980), but also if a challenger can cross the 25 percent threshold of primary opposition in early primaries.

This tends to hurt an incumbent in the general election—especially if a third party challenger has a sponge to soak up that discontent (e.g., Anderson against Carter in 1980 and Perot against Bush in 1992). And that third party challenger doesn’t have to draw huge numbers to be a factor in the Electoral College.

Therefore, this Pew poll tells me that challenging Trump for the nomination is not a fool’s errand. The tactics can be argued various ways, but I think New Hampshire is the key, precisely because independents can vote in either primary and New Hampshire’s conservatism is the flinty, traditional style of conservatism.

New Hampshire is the kind of state where upstarts can shock the world even if they don’t win (McCarthy on the Democratic side in 1968; Buchanan on the Republican side in 1992). If Trump loses the expectations game in New Hampshire, many tactical opportunities could open up. For example, different challengers could focus on regions where Trump is vulnerable: Weld’s melding of fiscal conservatism and libertarian principles could work in New Hampshire, on the West Coast, and in the Rocky Mountain states. A Justin Amash-stye libertarianism could have an effect in the Midwest and Plains states. A Larry Hogan-style moderate could be popular in the Mid-Atlantic states.

A final factor to consider given this opening among the 40-plus percent of Republicans and leaners who want Trump to get a primary challenge is: How do events intervene?

Trump might be more vulnerable to a free trade argument in rural states if the trade war leads to economic troubles. Or more vulnerable to a traditional foreign policy challenge if North Korea or the Middle East flare up. We won’t know until next year, but you have to be in the game this year to benefit next.

Bottom line: as a political strategist, if this data is accurate, and I believe that it is, the mission of a primary challenge to Trump is not a fool’s errand.

—Bruce Gyory

William Kristol

William Kristol, editor-at-large of The Bulwark, is chair of the new Project for the Republican Future.