The Republican Donor Class Seems Ready to Dump Trump. The Base? Not So Much
After years of devotion to Donald Trump, some top Republicans have had wandering eyes. The donor classes have cast about for new leaders, in the form of Nikki Haley and Tim Scott. Some GOP officials and financiers have convinced themselves that Florida Governor Ron DeSantis is not only a better alternative to Trump, but that he actually has the charisma to beat him in a primary. Some Republican lawmakers, as the Atlantic’s McKay Coppins reported last month, have even fantasized about the prospect of Trump’s death, just so they no longer have to deal with the guy. “I’ve heard from a lot of people who will go onstage and put on the red hat, and then give me a call the next day and say, ‘I can’t wait until this guy dies,’” former Republican Representative Peter Meijer told Coppins.
But it’s not clear that the GOP base is as eager to move on. According to a new Fox News poll, Republican voters still overwhelmingly prefer Trump to his likely challengers, with the former president leading DeSantis by 15 points, 43% to 28%. Haley, who announced her bid earlier this month, and Trump’s former vice president, Mike Pence, each sat at seven percent in the survey, while Texas Governor Greg Abbott and former Wyoming Representative Liz Cheney — perhaps Trump’s most strident GOP critic — polled at just two percent. A single poll can only tell you so much, of course, particularly this far out still from primary season, when several of those figures haven’t even formally entered the race yet. But the numbers do suggest that reports of Trump’s political demise among Republican voters — and DeSantis’s “rock star” appeal to them — may be somewhat exaggerated.
“At 43 percent he’s not invincible,” as Inside Elections’ Jacob Rubashkin observed. “But that’s almost exactly what he won in 2016.”
Trump, who is so despised by the broader electorate that he has weighed his party down in three consecutive elections, has perhaps never been more vulnerable: Republicans have blamed him for their underwhelming midterm performance last year, and he has been under a cloud of legal jeopardy, both for his handling of classified documents and his efforts to overturn his 2020 loss to Joe Biden. His third White House run, announced before the GOP’s midterm wounds had a chance to scab over, has been utterly lifeless — and donors have already been defecting to DeSantis or looking for someone new to back. Even some of his most loyal allies, including House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, have seemed to lament the quality of the candidates Trump has settled them with.
But the party remains in the throes of Trumpism, as my colleague Molly Jong-Fast noted last week, and the poll suggests much of the Republican electorate isn’t particularly interested in an overhaul. The base may be open to a different messenger — one bright spot for DeSantis in the survey is that Trump voters overwhelmingly name him as their second choice — but it seems clear that the message won’t be changing anytime soon, especially when the Republican officials who purportedly despise him can’t find the courage or convictions to actually reclaim their party from him.