In the short term, the result of Donald Trump’s impeachment is not in doubt. The Senate will fail to amass the 67 votes needed to convict him. The longer term is another matter, for leading Republicans will still face an essential dilemma: should they keep the former president as their de facto leader, or dump him?
Fresh data throws new light on that dilemma. It also illustrates a truth about politics the world over: voters’ attitudes are invariably more varied than the simple facts conveyed by piles of ballot papers. Elections decide; but they also deceive.
During the week of Joe Biden’s inauguration, YouGov conducted a detailed survey on American attitudes to the country’s leaders and main controversies . One of its most intriguing findings concerned Trump’s refusal to concede that he had lost November’s election. Those who had voted for him divided almost evenly: 44 per cent said he should concede; 56 per cent supported his refusal to do so. At my request, YouGov has analysed the responses of those two groups to all its questions. In the table below, which reports a selection, I have labelled the first group “soft” Trump voters and the second group “hard” Trump voters.
What emerges is that “soft” Trump voters are much more likely than “hard” loyalists to reject the former president’s position on a range of issues: how much he cares “about people like you,”, his legacy, his future, his handling of Covid, and his views on climate change. The figures vary from issue to issue, and a substantial number of “soft” loyalists still back Trump on all these things. But for many “soft” Trump voters, their view that Trump should have conceded the election reflects a broader hostility to his record and his actions. The problem for the Republicans is that they can ill afford to lose this group of serious sceptics.
Let’s convert the percentages into numbers. Trump lost the election, despite winning 74m votes—far more than any previous Republican candidate (including his 2016 tally). That divides into 41m “hard” and 33m “soft” voters. Depending on how one divides up that 33m, something like ten million of them, and arguably more, now reject a substantial part of what Trump says and does. That goes a long way to explaining why more recent polls have reported a sharp dip in Trump’s approval rating.
What, then, should the Republicans do to maximise their chances of regaining Congress and the Senate in 2022, and the White House in 2024? It’s clear that the voters who select their candidates are currently dominated by “hard” Trump loyalists. But to regain power in Washington, they can’t afford to alienate the ten million or so “soft” voters whose disillusion has grown since November.
Not only is that dilemma not new; it is not confined to the United States. Parties despatched to the wilderness of opposition frequently have to work through the tension between hard-line activists and oscillating swing voters. In Britain, Labour took years to tackle that tension in the 1980s and in the past decade—as did the Conservatives after 1997.
In the United States, Republican strategists might hope that keeping Trump as the de facto party leader will compensate for the loss of “soft” voters by wooing more of the blue-collar workers that delivered the key rust-belt states to Trump in 2016. However, just now, as the table shows, that’s a tough challenge: few people who voted for Biden have anything but contempt for the former president.
All this points to a larger truth, one that faces any party in any democracy ejected from office. Implicit in much analysis is the illusion that voters can be divided into clear blocks, each of which is solid and easily measured. In fact, many (sometimes most) voters defy simple classification. They veer to the right on some issues, to the left on others; their interest in politics varies; what worries them today may be different from what worries them tomorrow; some are motivated mainly by pocket-book issues, some by values, some by tribal loyalties such as sex, race or religion; and so on.
Trump’s voters should not be viewed as a homogeneous block but as people with a range of views. Even this simplifies the matter. For example, it does not tell us how many voters wavered in how they would vote, or whether they would vote at all. Nor does it compare the saliency of, say, Trump’s honesty and his handling of the Covid crisis. Making proper sense of how voters make up their minds is a complex task.
Here, though, is a simpler point that parties neglect at their peril. Close elections are decided not by voters who have strong loyalties but by those who don’t. They are apt to switch their vote from one election to the next; they don’t not follow politics closely and don’t watch the news channels; they are concerned with the character of rival leaders more than their policy programmes. They tend to cast their votes with a shrug—but those votes count the same as those cast with passion.
For an opposition party, the most dangerous gap is that between easy-come-easy-go voters and activists with strong views and firm loyalties. Many of today’s Republican activists act as if their main task is to enthuse the 40 per cent of voters who are never likely to vote Democrat, not the next 10-15 per cent who might—and who will make the difference between victory and defeat. The process of candidate-selection reinforces this bias towards the way activists think, rather than the views of the more elusive but more important “soft” voters in the table above.
Which brings us back to the point that elections both decide and deceive. The deception that matters most this time flows from the refusal of many Republicans to accept that Biden really did win by seven million votes, to ask why he did, and to understand how Trump’s behaviour since he lost has cost them further support.
This blog was first published by Prospect