E.J. Dionne Jr.: Trump's base is smaller than he thinks
The debate over impeaching President Trump reveals an irony: Those who favor it have far more respect for the president’s supporters than those who oppose it.
Critics of impeachment argue that the effort to remove Trump from office over his open invitations of foreign meddling in our elections will only ignite the Trump “base.” Those who say we should let this all go see his backers as an excitable immovable bloc of people closed to reasoned argument or new information.
Thus are roughly 40% of our fellow citizens cast as an unthinking blob that will embrace anything Trump says and turn out in droves in 2020 to beat back the elitist fake newsers and deep staters no matter what the facts are.
Those of us who support impeachment don’t deny that there is a “Trump base,” but insist that mountains of polling evidence show that it amounts to 25% to 30% of voters at most. The rest of the 46% who voted for Trump have real doubts about who he is, how he behaves and what he is doing to our country. Even those of us who disagree with them on a variety issues see this substantial part of Trump’s constituency as made up of rational and engaged citizens open to persuasion.
To begin with, polls conducted throughout Trump’s presidency show that his critics feel far more strongly about their opposition to him than his defenders feel about their support. The latest Reuters/Ipsos poll, conducted between Sept. 30 and Oct. 1, found that only 24% of registered voters strongly approved of Trump’s performance, while 44% strongly disapproved. Significantly, 74% of Democratic registered voters strongly disapproved of Trump, but only 50% of Republican registered voters strongly approved of him. Which base would you rather have going into this fight — and into 2020?
The 24% are the folks you see at the Trump rallies. Trump’s more tepid approvers (17% of registered voters in this survey) tend to stay home, take in the news and ask questions about what’s going on.
The big gap between strong approvers and strong disapprovers was very predictive of the 2018 election turnout that gave Democrats control of the House of Representatives. Those elections showed that many who voted for Trump in 2016 were prepared to vote for Democrats two years later. This was a telling sign that a sizable share of Trump’s voters are not lockstep apologists.
Recall that the three key Trump states of Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin elected Democratic senators and governors last year. In Wisconsin, Sen. Tammy Baldwin picked up 14% of Trump’s 2016 voters, while Sen. Bob Casey won 12% of them in Pennsylvania and Sen. Debby Stabenow got 9% of them in Michigan. If a Democratic presidential nominee can achieve those numbers next year, Trump loses.
Moreover, a stack of surveys show that while Trump has maintained a fairly steady overall approval rating in the low 40s, the proportion of Americans who actually like and trust him is much lower.
An NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll conducted Sept. 13-16, before the White House readout of Trump’s Ukraine call was released, found a relatively high 45% saying they approved of Trump’s performance. But only 30% said they had “very positive” feelings toward him, and only 25% said that they both liked Trump personally and approved of his policies.
A CNN poll conducted Sept. 5-9 found Trump with a 39% approval rating, but only 9% of the same sample said they trusted “almost all” of what they heard in White House communications, while another 19% said they trusted “most of it.” Again, less than 30% has confidence in the stories the White House tells.
The bottom line is that too much political analysis (wrongly) sees this hard core as representing all of those who backed Trump in 2016 because they wanted to send one message or another (or because they loathed Hillary Clinton). In fact, a lot of Trump’s one-time supporters do not believe everything they hear from him or Fox News. A fair number of them don’t like him very much. Economically minded working-class Trump voters will notice that his signature promise to restore manufacturing is being broken before their eyes as new economic numbers point toward a manufacturing recession.
Those advancing the case for impeachment believe that, whether the Senate removes Trump from office or not, it’s important to make clear how corrupt and dangerous his behavior has been. More Trump voters are listening to these arguments than their pretend-friends want us to believe.
E.J. Dionne’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @EJDionne.