The Sweep: Watching the Weathervanes

Reading the tea leaves on where the GOP is heading.

Campaign Quick Hits

Revisiting Hidden Trump Voter Theory: Patrick Ruffini, co-founder at Echelon Insights, lays out his case for why there were no “hidden Trump voters”—the theory that there was support for Trump that wasn’t being reflected in the polls because his voters were uniquely unwilling to talk to pollsters or lying to pollsters when they did—in Georgia in 2020. Looking at actual turnout compared to expected turnout, he argues that “any ‘hidden’ Trump vote would be contained among non-party whites in low-education precincts” and that “their relative turnout score (98.1%) mirrors the state number (98.0%) almost exactly,” which puts the final nail in the coffin for HTV Theory. Ruffini also walks through other demographics that over- or under- performed expectations leading to the shocking red-to-blue transformation of Georgia for the first time since 1992. 

This is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things: As far back as I can remember, people across the political spectrum have thought we should have more viable, robust third (or fourth or fifth) parties. Never-Trump Republicans want to start their own party. Pro-Trump Republicans want to start one too. And yet it never happens. There are lots of reasons for this, including what I’ll call the principle of systems of equilibrium: It’s hard for a third party to get off the ground because one of the major two parties has an incentive to gobble it up before it can grow large enough to fend for itself. See for example Teddy Roosevelt’s Bull Moose Party, which was re-absorbed into the Republican Party after a 1912 election in which it fractured support on the right, allowing Woodrow Wilson to win the presidency with only 40 percent of the popular vote. But that’s not the only issue, as Geoffrey Skelley lays out in his very helpful piece here: There’s a lot that’s baked into the system with winner-take-all elections and the Electoral College. And there’s also quite a bit of incumbent protection going on where, for example, the two parties have pushed for onerous ballot access laws.

The Money Comes Rolling In: There had been some speculation—including in this newsletter—that Sen. Rick Scott, now the head of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, could have trouble raising money for the 2022 cycle. After all, the GOP had just lost two very winnable seats in Georgia after Republicans spent a quarter billion dollars (with a B, folks) on those seats. And then companies like AT&T, Nike, Comcast, Dow, Marriott, Walmart, and Verizon vowed not to donate to any Republican senator who voted to object to the electoral slates on January 6th. But never fear, the NRSC reported bringing in over 50 percent more than they had by this time in 2019. They raised over $8 million in January—$6.8 million of which was donated after the Georgia losses—from 89,000 people. Close to 10,000 of those were first-time donors too, which is always a big sign of health if a campaign committee is bringing in new folks who they can hit up multiple times over the cycle. We’re still waiting on the DSCC’s numbers.


Like this new fad of snacking chocolate that I am totally on board with, Chris Stirewalt will be sending over political snacks for us on a regular basis. And like their chocolate cousins, their size will vary, the quality will be high, and you’ll wonder how you ever did without them.

Without further ado, here’s your Stirewalt tidbit:

Covering politics is kind of like a children’s soccer game: Everybody forms a shrieking clump and then chases the ball until somebody kicks it in their own goal. The secret is to not watch the clump, but instead to watch intently to see when the ball squirts out like a seed from a delicious navel orange slice carefully cut by a loving mother.

Here’s the clump-think these days: The Republican Party remains under the thrall of Donald Trump despite his efforts to steal the 2020 election that led to the sacking of the Capitol. The Senate GOP’s success in sparing him conviction points to an ever-Trump future.

But look, there goes the ball: Elected officials are lagging indicators of popular sentiment, not thought leaders. And popular sentiment toward Trump on the right is cooling.

The most recent survey from the American Enterprise Institute’s Survey Center on American Life made lots of news for the finding that, as one headline put it, “4 in 10 Republicans say political violence may be necessary.” First, that’s a little overcooked. The question asked, “if elected leaders will not protect America, the people must do it themselves, even if it requires violent actions.” It’s possible for one to answer “yes” but not believe that we are in such a moment. Lexington and Concord and all that jazz.

But certainly it’s true that the poll found lots of radical right-wingers. Two thirds of self-identified Republicans declared President Joe Biden’s election illegitimate. A third of all respondents blamed left-wing groups for the violence at the Capitol. Twenty-one percent were either angry or frightened by Biden’s win. And so on … If you are looking for a narrative that says the GOP is permanently stuck in the carnival of Trumpism, the survey has lots to make the case.

How about this one, though? While 46 percent of Democrats said they believed the 2020 election was the most important of their lifetime, only 26 percent of Republicans said the same thing. That’s a pretty chill way to think about an election that most people in the party say was illegitimate. This is an important tell for GOP voters. Plenty of folks who won’t admit Trump’s wrongdoing or may even partly believe his claims don’t buy his central claim that this was the do or die moment for America.

Here’s an even more interesting kick out of the backfield: Republicans are increasingly party-loyal instead of Trump-loyal. The survey replicated a question asked in recent Wall Street Journal/NBC News polls that asked, “Do you consider yourself to be more of a supporter of Donald Trump or more of a supporter of the Republican Party?” In October, 56 percent of Republicans and Republican-leaners said they were more about Trump than the GOP. In early January, it was down to an even split at 46 percent for each. When AEI asked the same question for the new poll, it was 38 percent for Trump and 61 percent for the GOP.

This doesn’t mean that what comes next will be more populist or less populist, nationalist or conservative, angry or optimistic. That will depend on where ever-fickle primary voters go looking for a win next time and which candidates those voters believe can deliver. But it does mean that there will be a “next time,” and that Republicans most of all will be looking to forget about the closing months of the Trump administration. The refusal on the part of many of the former president’s defenders to admit wrongdoing is more about forgetting the past than imagining the future.

If The GOP Is Dead, Why Is No One Fleeing the Sinking Ship?

Headlines about collapsing approval ratings and falling voter registration numbers create more confusion than clarity.  

There are some statesmen left—politicians who do the right thing for the right reasons without regard for the consequences to their careers. But can we agree there aren’t that many of them? And of those more craven elected officials, can we agree that they aren’t all stupid? 

So if that is that case, we should be able to watch these clever, principle-free types to determine which way the party is headed. They will be watching which way the wind is blowing and then heading that direction. There go my voters. I must follow them, for I am their leader.

And so I was left to ponder two headlines that came out last week:

‘There’s Nothing Left’: Why Thousands of Republicans Are Leaving the Party

GOP Image Slides Giving Democrats Strong Advantage

In the first, the New York Times reported that “nearly 140,000 Republicans had quit the party in 25 states that had readily available data.” To start, that is a lot of people, although compared to the 74 million who voted for Donald Trump in November, it’s not that many—less than 0.2 percent. But still! A sign of things to come perhaps? The answer is kinda sorta maybe not really.

First, 33,000 of those voters came from California. If the question is whether there is some shift going on at the national level, California Republicans aren’t exactly bellwethers. Second, according to the Times, the data includes states that “remove inactive voters, deceased voters or those who moved out of state from all parties, and lump those people together with voters who changed their own registrations,” meaning that some real chunk of those voters didn’t intentionally change their registrations after January 6 at all. 

But there is an easy way to determine whether this number is real: look at the equivalent Democratic number. As they reported, around 80,000 Democrats have left the party since January. 

So if we take that as the baseline turbulence level and subtract it, that means that 60,000 more Republicans changed their registration than we would expect. It ain’t nothin’... but it ain’t much. And after Republicans saw huge surges in voter registration in swing states in the months leading up to the 2020 election, the 60,000 number starts looking smaller and smaller. 

As Josh Holmes, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s former top political guy, told the New York Times, “Today’s receding support really pales in comparison to the challenges of a decade ago, however, when Republicans went from absolute irrelevance to a House majority within 18 months.”

Which explains why those non-statesmen just aren’t feeling much breeze on their wetted fingers.  

Ok, but what about the fact that everyone hates the GOP now? 

Gallup consistently tracks the favorability of the two parties. (I find polls that ask the same questions over and over again reliable—not because I think the raw number is probably all that accurate but because the delta in the changes over time almost certainly are.)

And so when Gallup said that “Americans’ opinions of the Republican Party have worsened in recent months,” I pricked up my ears.

This statistic in particular was striking: “the GOP’s image has suffered the most among Republican Party identifiers, from 90% favorable to 78%. Independents’ and Democrats’ opinions are essentially unchanged.” (That’s always something to look for in tracking polls like this: If the change is all with people who already aren’t relevant to your question—what Democrats think about a potential Republican presidential candidate in the 2024 primaries, for example—then it’s pretty useless.) Meanwhile, Democrats’ favorability has edged up largely because of “independents, who show a seven-percentage-point jump in favorability since November, 41% to 48%.”

How can this possibly not be bad news for Republicans, you ask? Well, it’s not good news, but whether it’s bad news is all a matter of perspective. It turns out that lower approval ratings for the Republican Party aren’t new—they aren’t even unusual. Gallup has asked this question for nearly 3 decades, and the lowest GOP favorability in all of that time was 28 percent in October of 2013. And in 2014, Republicans picked up nine Senate seats, 13 House seats, and two governships. Meanwhile, the party’s highest favorability in the last 15 years was in January 2020 at 51 percent. So clearly favorability isn’t everything when it comes to predicting elections.

There’s also an interesting divide between the two parties. The Democratic Party’s favorability tends to hover in the mid- to high- 40s while the Republican Party’s tends to hover in the 30s. In fact, the GOP has only had a net favorability twice in the last 15 years: November 2014 and January 2020. And yet they’ve certainly won plenty of elections up and down the ballot at other times. 

Oh, and if you’re wondering why Democratic favorability can so consistently beat Republicans and not correlate to election outcomes, it’s easy: More Americans identify as Democrats than as Republicans, skewing comparative favorability numbers. That is also why political operatives are always watching independents like the proverbial hawk—the GOP can’t win without them. (Unless they can also drive down turnout, but that’s another newsletter altogether.)

And so we arrive at our point. Headline after headline suggests that the GOP is in serious trouble post-Trump. And maybe it is. The party’s current coalition isn’t a winning one at the presidential level because it’s bleeding independents. But if the party alienates pro-Trump Republicans to win back independents, it will certainly lose more voters in the short term. 

In major league sports, losing teams face two choices: they can keep their lineup and keep losing or they can rebuild, which often means losing a lot more games in the short term in the hopes of putting together a championship team in a few years. But political parties don’t have an all-powerful general manager, and long term strategic thinking is all but impossible because everyone thinks in two- and four- year cycles.

Thus, here we are. The media is treating the GOP as a sort of Monty Python, ‘I’m not dead yet’ political party that is missing both its arms and legs and telling us that it is only a flesh wound. It’s a black and white narrative where everything is going wrong for the losing team and it’s hard to imagine why they haven’t thrown up their hands and begged for mercy in the next election. 

But as I hope I’ve persuaded you, things in politics are rarely so clear cut. The most dire headlines out there actually aren’t all that compelling. And that means our craven non-statesmen aren’t tacking because they don’t see any need to yet. 

And that’s why 43 Republican senators were able to keep a straight face when they voted that Donald Trump did not commit an impeachable offense on January 6.