What Will It Take For Congressional Republicans To Split From Trump?

According to a new poll from Morning Consult, just around a third of Americans feel Trump is trustworthy, about the same number who say he has the judgement need to be president. 77% of respondents, on the other hand, feel he's arrogant and 60% say he's reckless, unwilling to admit mistakes. Somehow they managed to find enough people who think he's knowledgeable to report that 41% of Americans are still fooled by the most ignorant man to ever be installed in the White House. Overall, his approval numbers are the lowest ever.42% approve and 50% disapprove.

Perhaps more worrying for the president-- and for Republican members of Congress ahead of the 2018 midterm elections-- is a declining strength in support among the voters who elected him. While 84 percent of Trump voters still say they approve of the president’s work, the share of those voters who strongly approve of him is down to 42 percent, another new low. In the previous poll, 49 percent of Trump voters strongly approved of him.

Monmouth University also released a poll today and it shows 53% disapproval and 39% approval for Señor Trumpanzee. Putin-Gate is taking its toll-- in a big way. And its worst in the swing counties that allowed him to slip into the White House despite losing the popular vote 65,853,516 (48.2%) to 62,984,825 (46.1%). Monmouth points to 300 counties with a narrow margin between Trump and Clinton and it is in these counties where Trump's approval ratings have plummeted. Never mind the counties where Trump did really well or the counties where Clinton did really well. This is about counties like Kenosha and Racine in Wisconsin where Trump beat Clinton, respectively, 36,025 (47.5%) to 35,770 (47.2%) and 46,620 (49.8%) to 42,506 (45.4%). Voters there are not just disappointed in Trump, they're ready to dump their local Republican congressman. And their local Republican congressman happens to be Paul Ryan, whose current reelect numbers are just 44% (with 51% looking to replace him). This is about Bucks County in Pennsylvania, where Hillary beat Trump 165,861 (48.4%) to 163,873 (47.8%) and about Erie County in the same state, where Trump beat Clinton 57,168 (48.8%) to 54,820 (46.8%) and about Broome and Dutchess counties in New York, where Trump beat Clinton 49.0-45.3% in the former and 48.4-47.3% in the latter. In Florida we're looking at Duval County, which went 49.0-47.5% for Trump and St. Lucie County, where Trump won 49.9% to 47.5%. These are the kinds of counties that are going to determine the 2018 midterms (and, ultimately, whether or not Congress impeaches Trump). And these are the counties where Trump's approval numbers are falling the fastest.

Overall, in these swingy counties, Trump's approval rating is now a dismal 34%... 5 points lower than the national average. In his NY Times column Thursday, Thomas Edsall points to the plight of Republicans-- presumably Republicans who represent these kinds of counties-- who must figure out what poses a greater risk to their careers-- supporting a potential impeachment or to close ranks behind Señor Trumpanzee? "To defy Trump or to defend him? To provoke anger among the legions of Trump loyalists back home or to run the risk of turning the 2018 midterms into a Democratic wave election?"

Members of Congress, he reminds us are "single-minded seekers of re-election." Keep that in mind along with the fact that "the most important development on the Republican side of the aisle is the rise in recent years of primary challenges from the right. Highly conservative insurgents have repeatedly demonstrated their ability to defeat Congressional incumbents who fail to toe the line."

Seth Masket, a professor of political science at the University of Denver, summarized the quandary facing members of Congress in a polarized nation:
Republicans in particular represent much more conservative districts than they used to, and they risk offending a much more active and ideologically demanding group of activists in primary elections should they be seen working with Democrats or undermining President Trump. Relatedly, the policy differences between the two parties are much greater than they used to be, so doing anything that could lead to the other party being in power is a potentially very costly exercise. Bipartisanship is just riskier and potentially costlier behavior than it used to be.

The success of right-wing challengers to centrist Republican members of the House and Senate stems from a set of mutually reinforcing trends.

These trends include growing ideological consistency in the electorate, geographic sorting, gerrymandered districts, the perception of partisan opponents as mortal enemies and the emotional intensity underpinning issues of race and sex.

For a Republican senator or representative who is considering a break with the Trump administration, these developments in the electorate pose a hazard. Defection risks inflaming primary voters in 2018.

According to American National Election Studies, 45 percent of Republican voters described themselves as conservative in 1974. By 2012, 70 percent said they were conservative.

The Pew Research Center has shown that turnout in Republican primaries tilts even farther to the right. To give one example, in 2012 Pew found that 75 percent of Republican primary voters-- whom Pew describes as “high engagement Republicans”-- described themselves as conservative, more than triple the 23 percent of self-described liberals and moderates.

These voters view the Democratic Party not only as the opposition, but as imperiling the national welfare (a view shared in reverse by “high engagement” Democrats). Under these circumstances, bipartisan cooperation can seem positively dangerous.

The accompanying chart, which is based on data from Pew, shows that 62 percent of engaged Republicans-- those most likely to cast primary votes-- say the Democratic Party makes them feel “afraid,” 58 percent say it makes them “angry” and 58 percent say it makes them “frustrated.”

At the same time, according to Pew, the percentage of Republican voters whose view of the Democratic Party is unfavorable grew from 74 percent in 1994 to 91 percent in 2016. Equally important, the percentage with “very unfavorable” views has nearly tripled, from 21 percent in 1994 to 58 in 2016.

The increase in safe House seats from 1992 to 2012 is the driving force behind the growing significance of primary elections and the declining salience of general elections. For Republicans, safe districts-- where the potential threat to an incumbent is in the primary and not in the general election-- rose from 136 in 1992 to 191 in 2012. For Democrats, the number of safe districts grew from 111 in 1992 to 156 in 2012.

Republicans focused on self-interest-- or self-preservation-- are under pressure from all directions.

Nolan McCarty, a political scientist at Princeton, made the point in an email that, given the current level of polarization, a Republican who challenges his party by taking on President Trump and still survives the primary may not be rewarded in the general election because there is “much less opportunity for offsetting support from Democrats and Independents.”

Another factor elected Republicans must consider in calculating their positions is an upsurge in straight ticket voting since 1992.

Marc Hetherington, a political scientist at Vanderbilt, argues that voting patterns in states and districts are making it increasingly hazardous for a politician to break ranks:

Consider voting behavior in the 2016 election. For the first time in history, every state that voted Democratic voted for a Democrat for Senate. Every state that voted Republican voted for a Republican for Senate. As for congressional districts, the number of split voting districts between the presidential and House elections reached a minimum since such records have been kept, which dates to 1920.

In the current political climate, Hetherington said:

Republicans hate the Democratic Party so much and Democrats hate the Republican Party so much that they do not view the other side as a viable option.

In the past, when the electorate was less partisan,

Republicans would have to worry about what Democrats in the electorate thought because they counted on getting votes from Democrats when they had to face the voters in the fall. Now, they do not.

Along similar lines, Martin Gilens, a political scientist at Princeton, noted:

Compromise and bipartisanship are increasingly viewed as betrayal. In recent years, challenges to party leadership have come only from extremist factions like the Tea Party, not from centrists concerned with maintaining institutional norms or adopting policies with widespread appeal.

...While a great danger facing Republicans-- one with vast consequences going forward-- is that they will wait to act longer than their voters are prepared to tolerate, there are clear signs that Republican willingness to stand behind Trump has begun to fray.

On Wednesday, before Mueller’s appointment was announced, two Republican Senators, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Susan Collins of Maine had already suggested that it might well be time for the appointment of a special prosecutor. Other Republican senators who have publicly criticized Trump include Ben Sasse of Nebraska, John McCain of Arizona, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Jeff Flake of Arizona.

From Trump’s vantage point, support in Washington, and in the electorate as a whole, is falling off. He will continue to try to make a political virtue of this, arguing, as he did in his commencement speech at the Coast Guard Academy on Wednesday, that “the people understand what I’m doing and that’s the most important thing” and that “I didn’t get elected to serve the Washington media-- I got elected to serve the forgotten men and women and that’s exactly what I’m doing.”

The question now is what this reckless president with little regard for the law will do as the challenge to his legitimacy deepens.

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