There is little doubt in the minds of Republican voters that President Donald Trump has changed their party, according to new Morning Consult data and analysis, but questions linger on whether his specific brand of Republicanism is good for its health, or whether it is permanent.
That brand is embodied in his defiance of the neoconservative orthodoxy on trade, immigration, foreign policy and the size and scope of government, and his rebukes of established political leaders on both sides of the aisle. It’s also expressed in his demand for loyalty, which critics say has created a cult of personality in the party.
“I think for our party to survive, it has to be bigger than any one person. And right now, it’s very closely identified with President Trump,” said former Sen. John Danforth (R-Mo.), a critic of Trump’s political style whose congressional career overlapped with the presidencies of Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush.
The questions facing the Republican Party are existential in nature, and lines have been drawn in the sand: Trump’s critics contend that the divisiveness of the president’s approach is detrimental to the party as the nation continues to diversify, while Trump’s most ardent supporters argue that his political philosophy is directly in line with the white working-class base that proved crucial to his historic victory three years ago.
“Donald Trump has undoubtedly changed the Republican Party. But he didn’t change it into something that it wasn’t previously,” said Andrew Surabian, a Republican strategist who worked in the Trump administration in 2017. “He forced the GOP to actually reflect the views of its voters.”
According to the latest edition of Morning Consult’s State of the Parties poll, roughly half of the 79 percent of GOP voters who believe Trump has changed the Republican Party view his changes as temporary, compared with 36 percent who said they were permanent. The Oct. 14-17 poll surveyed 1,218 Republican registered voters, with a margin of error of 3 percentage points.
Differences in views on how Trump has changed the GOP and what the future holds for the party was largely contingent on whether voters identified Trump (33 percent) or Ronald Reagan (41 percent) as their favorite Republican.
Most Reagan Republicans (56 percent) believe the 45th president’s changes to the GOP are temporary, while 52 percent of Trump Republicans said they were permanent. Plus, 4 in 5 Trump Republicans said Trump’s changes to the GOP were “definitely for the better,” more than double the share of Reagan Republicans (35 percent) who said the same.
Demographically, these groups look fairly similar but with a few important differences. Reagan Republicans are wealthier than Trump Republicans, more highly educated and are more likely to identify as Christian. They’re also more likely to name the economy as their top voting issue, while Trump Republicans prioritize security issues such as border security, terrorism and foreign policy. And while a majority of Reagan Republicans live in the suburbs, Trump Republicans are almost evenly divided between suburbs and rural areas, with 1 in 5 living in a city.
Trump Republicans were far more likely than Reagan Republicans or the party’s voters overall to say that both Trump and the Republican Party “represents my views” and is “capable of governing,” and more than any other issue tested, they were most likely to say it is “very important” for the GOP to support Trump’s re-election.
Those who idolize the 40th president are more likely to say it’s gotten harder, as opposed to easier, to be a Republican nowadays. Trump Republicans, on the other hand, are twice as likely to say it’s gotten easier to be a member of the GOP.
Similarly, while the lion’s share of Reagan Republicans said people around them were “positively energized” by the Republican Party rather than “losing faith” with it, Trump Republicans were 30 points more likely to agree with that sentiment.
Nathan Rogers, a senior adviser for political affairs for Heritage Action for America, the conservative policy advocacy organization, said the divides were largely influenced by perceptions of Trump’s personality.
Rogers was part of a team that analyzed Republicans who have felt disaffected by their party in the Trump era and played a role in the 2018 midterm elections’ so-called “blue wave.” Those voters were more likely to be white, hold a college degree and live in the suburbs — similar to the demographic makeup of Morning Consult’s Reagan Republicans.
He pointed to a March poll from his organization showing that 52 percent of Republicans sided with this statement: “I am bothered by some of President Trump’s policies and character, but I support him because I agree with many of the things he stands for, and because I don’t want the Democrats and the media to defeat him.” (Another 40 percent were “enthusiastic” supporters of the president.)
Personality qualms alone aren’t going to drive anyone away, Rogers said. If support for his policies but not his personality was lower than the 52 percent figure, he said, there might be a need for concern among GOP leadership.
Some of the biggest divides between Trump Republicans and Reagan Republicans appeared on the issue of immigration. Trump Republicans were 30 points more likely than Reagan Republicans to say it’s “very important” for the GOP to support the construction of a U.S.-Mexico border wall, and 23 points more likely to say it’s “very important” for the GOP to oppose allowing immigrants into the country.
Immigration was the issue that got Trump elected, said former Rep. Joe Walsh (R-Ill.), a conservative radio host who is running a long-shot campaign challenging Trump for the Republican presidential nomination next year. “The people who listened to me on the radio — they voted for Trump — and all they wanted to talk about is people going into our country illegally.”
Walsh said he expects Trump’s political style to be emulated in the coming years to attract the white, working-class coalition the president has built, which he views as an unsustainable approach for a party that needs broader appeal with women, young people and voters who live in America’s suburbs. But Walsh doesn’t see the old guard taking an active role in reversing trend.
“The Republican Party establishment — they’re all sitting in a room waiting for Trump to go away,” he said.
Though Surabian does not expect any one Republican to step up and assume the Trump mantle, the Republican strategist said he was confident the GOP won’t shift back to the “country club” mold of recent decades.
“You can only force that genie in the bottle for so long,” he said.
While Republicans may debate the merit and permanence of Trump’s impact on the party, it helped produce a winning coalition in 2016.
Dan Cox, a research fellow in polling and public opinion at the American Enterprise Institute, said Trump has changed the makeup of the party with his status as a political outsider, something that resonated with those who have long looked the other way when a politician takes the stage.
“It’s suggestive in your data that he’s brought in folks that were either apathetic about politics or possibly disaffected Democrats,” Cox said.
Nearly one quarter (24 percent) of Trump Republicans said they didn’t vote in 2012, double the share of Reagan Republicans who said the same. By the same token, Reagan Republicans were 12 points less likely to say they’re “very motivated” to vote in the 2020 election, 90 percent to 78 percent.
Cox agreed that the country is too polarized overall to see much defection on either side.
“You might see more nose-holding” among Reagan types when it comes to voting for Trump, but he said the data doesn’t signal that Republicans are going to leave the party in swaths.