When Donald Trump intensified attacks on Ron DeSantis early this year, the Florida governor snapped at the former president for smearing a fellow Republican rather than targeting the real political enemy: President Joe Biden. Wrong answer. For the Republican Party’s committed voting base, the real political enemy is, in fact, the Republican Party—and no Republican running for president channels that sentiment like Trump.
This underappreciated dynamic is a key factor that explains both why grassroots Republicans have remained loyal to the former president through a cascade of political defeats and criminal indictments, and why his competitors for the 2024 nomination—not just DeSantis, but so many others—are struggling to gain traction in the GOP primary.
“It’s understated how much Republican primary voters hate the political system—including the Republican Party. Anyone who succeeds Trump will also show disdain for the Republican Party, and that’s something that does not come natural to them,” a veteran Republican consultant says.
A GOP pollster tells The Dispatch this phenomenon shows up consistently in his surveys of Republican primary voters, who give their party an abysmal average favorability rating of just 60 percent to 65 percent. The same polls show 15 percent to 20 percent of Republican voters view the GOP unfavorably. The picture is more bleak when taking into account the intensity of the support: Even among those Republican primary voters who hold positive opinions of the party, only 25 percent rate their opinion as “very favorable.”
That leaves 75 percent of GOP voters who either view the party negatively or whose approval is lukewarm at best. “That’s sad,” the pollster says. To contextualize these numbers, he explains that, “if this were a candidate—that’s not great”
From the beginning of his first campaign for the Republican presidential nomination eight years ago, Trump has distinguished himself by the zeal with which he carpet bombs fellow Republicans—even popular Republicans his followers admire, such as Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds.
Some Republican activists and elected officials often recoil, complaining Trump is undermining the party’s prospects in the next election and predicting GOP voters will punish the former president for beating up on a good teammate. That’s how DeSantis and other prominent Republican presidential contenders reacted after Trump lashed out at Reynolds, accusing her of disloyalty for staying neutral in the 2024 race and refusing to endorse him.
Republican voters may disagree with the former president’s assessment of Reynolds. But they appreciate the sentiment.
“The base of our party doesn’t want to just challenge Democrats, they want to challenge Republican leaders. So when you’re criticizing Trump for attacking other Republicans—that’s not where our voters are,” a Republican strategist with ties to the populist Right, says. “It’s a feature, not a bug.”
As Trump was arraigned Thursday in a Washington courtroom after a federal grand jury indicted him a second time, his grip on the Republican primary was rock solid.
In the RealClearPolitics average of national polls, the former president sits just above 53 percent support, with DeSantis trailing in distant second at just above 17.6 percent. Every other Republican candidate is wallowing in the low single digits. These latest federal charges, alleging Trump conspired to overturn the 2020 election, seem as likely to cause the former president political trouble as the previous indictment accusing him of mishandling classified documents. Which is to say, none.
Findings from 30 focus groups across 10 cities, conducted in June and July by the Republican firm On Message Inc., some of which were shared with The Dispatch, explain this phenomenon.
The focus groups included a range of Republican voters, from Trump loyalists to those who might classify themselves as “Never Trump,” and those in between. The GOP voters who support the former president were broadly convinced that “the system” is rigged and that Washington is “corrupted and turned against them.” And not just the Department of Justice and the FBI, but the Pentagon and “all of public education.”
The crucial element of this pervasive attitude is that it is not a function of Biden occupying the White House or Democrats controlling the Senate.
Many Republican voters hold the GOP responsible for a series of crises in the last 25 years, including the Iraq War and the Great Recession of 2008. Others are sour on the party because of broken campaign promises, such as the failure to repeal Obamacare. They aren’t just angry; they feel “betrayed.”
“Now, it’s more like, are you actually wearing the same jersey I am? Are you a double agent? Are you a total phony? Do you not believe what we believe? That’s a different thing,” says a Republican pollster who helped run the focus groups.
Such beliefs benefit Trump in the 2024 primary, especially because most GOP officials, including his primary competitors, are instinctively party loyalists who are uncomfortable condemning fellow Republicans as they would Democrats. This dynamic also is central to the former president’s ability to maintain his standing with grassroots Republicans despite leading the party to three consecutive losses in national elections and facing three criminal indictments, with more likely to come.
“One reason that Donald Trump has a sizable group of Republicans who just adore him through thick and thin is that many Republicans, for a while, felt their own party’s leadership actively disliked them,” says Republican pollster Kristen Soltis Anderson. (She was not involved in the On Message Inc. focus groups.)
The Republican Party has almost always included a faction of grassroots conservatives, often voters on the populist Right, who harbor a mixture of mistrust and disgust for the GOP. But this bloc usually functioned as a junior partner in the GOP’s governing coalition. These voters occasionally caused heartburn for the mainstream Republicans who ran the party, but they lacked the numbers to overturn the ruling status quo.
In 1992, dissatisfied conservatives powered populist Pat Buchanan to a losing but impactful primary challenge against President George H.W. Bush. Earlier this century, conservative populists fueled the Tea Party movement in congressional elections and turned an obscure congressman, now former Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, into a national figure in the 2012 Republican presidential primary. Neither rebellion upset the GOP power structure. Republican voters still largely supported the GOP establishment, limiting their protests to typical complaints about politicians overstaying their welcome in Washington and being too quick to compromise with the Democrats.
Trump changed all of that beginning in 2016, say Republican insiders who have toiled in the party’s vineyards for decades. Now, it’s often the mainstream traditionalists on defense in Republican primaries for governor, Congress and other offices.
That’s certainly how the 2024 race for the Republican nomination is unfolding thus far. That Trump is a former president, the titular leader of the GOP, and therefore the epitome of the Republican establishment, is immaterial. The Republican base still views him as a political outsider who uniquely speaks to the beef they have with their party and Washington.
That’s why one GOP strategist based in a crucial Midwestern battleground state didn’t buy the notion that Trump’s feud with Reynolds would hurt Trump. “It was laughable to think this would happen given his brand,” the strategist says. “It’s part and parcel of his entire brand to criticize these people. ‘No one is above the MAGA cause; no one is above you,’ is what he communicates by beating up these elected leaders.”