Why Can’t Trumpers Quit Never Trumpers? We Have Data.

There’s been quite a bit on the merits of the (oversimplified) “Trumpers vs. NeverTumpers fight” beat this week.  The most recent Commentary podcast touched on the armchair psych question of why the supposed NT crowd, simultaneously irrelevant and all-powerful, keeps getting targeted by Trump supporters.  A new poll sheds a little more light on this question in ways that confirm my biases, I mean hypothesis, about the subject.

Granted, it’s a SurveyMonkey poll, so you may have issues with the methodology.  But the poll’s numbers on Trump’s job approval are pretty much the current average and if the poll is anywhere in the ballpark, it suffices for this discussion.

This poll, after asking about Trump’s job approval or disapproval, asked “Why?” as a follow-up, then grouped the responses from Republicans thematically.  The poll then further analyzed why Trump supporters approve of his performance.

The results suggest that Republicans who approve of Trump’s job performance do so because he is: keeping promises; putting America first; trying to get things done; and reversing the past eight years.  In contrast, Republicans tend to disapprove of Trump because he is: childish, unpresidential, using bad tactics; and disappointing.

Among Trump supporters, the reasons for approval tend to vary by education.  College grads approve because he is: reducing regulations; draining the swamp; and is getting blocked by others (both Democrats and Republicans).  Those without college degrees approve because Trump is: putting America first; making America great again; doing his best; and tells it like it is.  Both groups believe Trump has good positions, despite his flawed personality.

At first blush, Trump supporters may look at these results and conclude that they have correctly pegged so-called NeverTrumpers as people who are elevating style over substance.  Indeed, insofar as Trump supporters in the commentariat are likely more educated and focused on policy, it is perhaps not surprising that they are irked in particular by those (again, likely more educated) pundits who are not evaluating Trump’s performance by their formula.

Moreover, while the poll does not speak to this, it is rational for Trump approvers to believe that Trump is being blocked primarily by a dysfunctional GOP Congress, insofar as the Congressional Democrats have been a largely ineffectual minority, except for slowing confirmation of nominees. (Perceived liberal judges would also be a factor here.)  Trump’s fraught relationship with Congress probably reinforces the beliefs of Trump’s approvers and may prime them to lash out at Trump skeptics on the Right.

Nevertheless, I would caution Trump supporters against taking this data as a strong confirmation of their priors.  Unlike the discussion among Republicans in general, the relatively elite level at which the “Trumpers vs. NeverTumpers fight” occurs, the NTers are likely to have policy reasons for their criticism of Trump in addition to their issues with Trump’s character and temperament (which is in part why I confined my analysis to policy earlier this week).

Conversely, Trump disapprovers can rightly ask why the character and temperament issues do not concern the approvers as much as they do the disapprovers.  In the aggregate, Republicans certainly cared about character when Bill Clinton was President.  And I suspect that if Hillary had won in 2016, Republicans in the aggregate likely would be far more concerned with character and temperament issues (albeit different ones) than they are with respect to Trump.

In addition, one need not look far to find examples where Trump’s temperament gets him into trouble.  Also, people with character issues tend to attract scandals.  Plus, the President is both head of government and head of state; if Queen Elizabeth II acted like Trump, people would think she was doing a lousy job as head of state.  So it may not be enough to dismiss these issues with comparisons to King David.

Lastly, another reason to be cautious about reading too much into these poll results is the chicken-egg nature of the partisan political environment.  The reasons proffered by Trump supporters tend to mirror the basic messages Trump puts out on his Twitter feed.  This raises the question (for me, anyway) of whether Trump knows (instinctively or based on internal polling) what drives the more and less educated parts of his base, or whether the base has assimilated those messages and regurgitates them when questioned in a poll.

Conversely, we might ask whether the disapprovers are confirming a prior, visceral dislike of Trump by placing more weight on character and temperament in the face of policy results which, in some cases, might be better than they expected prior to Inauguration Day. (This is in turn complicated because character is likely part of any pre-existing dislike.)

Regardless of these chicken-egg issues, the basic contours of the poll suggest that character and temperament issues play a significant role in whether Republicans approve or disapprove of his job performance.  The poll may also suggest that the strength of the idea of Trump being blocked by both Democrats and Republicans will be key to whether Trump continues to lose support among Republicans.  Those who continue to believe he is being blocked may continue to believe in the other common themes for supporting him.  Those who do not are likely to slide into the disappointed category.

And it may be ironic that the continuing skepticism of Trump from some conservatives itself partially fuels and reinforces support for Trump from those who believe he is being blocked, occasionally erupting in this seemingly cyclical Trumpers vs. NeverTumpers fight.

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