Ever since Donald Trump managed to get 74 million votes last November, congressional Republicans have been obsessed with recreating that type of inflated turnout in subsequent election cycles despite the fact that Joe Biden beat Trump by 7 million votes. In fact, finding a way to lock in all those Trump voters has become somewhat of a white whale for the GOP.
As never-Trump Republican and The Bulwark founder Sarah Longwell told Markos and me on The Brief, Republicans are absolutely transfixed by that level of GOP turnout. "It’s 74 million—they always say 75 million, but the reason they keep saying it over like it’s a mantra is they can’t believe that many people turned out for them," she explained.
But Republicans now face a vexing problem: How can they possibly recreate 2020 turnout levels when Trump—the guy who lured a new slice of blue-collar voters into the party—is increasingly disengaged, and the corporatists running the party have no idea how to connect with his voters? That disconnect seems to have rendered congressional Republicans politically impotent in the past couple months—unsure about exactly what they stand for, who their constituency is, and how to reach that constituency. That disorientation, for instance, resulted in a dazzling failure by party leaders to mount any response whatsoever to Joe Biden's first major victory as president—passage of the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan. Sure, every GOP lawmaker voted “no” on the bill, but they were neither able to settle on one line of attack against the package nor translate that uniformed opposition into any meaningful gains with voters. In fact, if anything, Biden's massive rescue plan only grew in popularity the longer it was litigated in Congress—an almost unheard of phenomenon by legislative standards.
While it's hard to quantify just how adrift congressional Republicans are right now, examining the trend lines in Civiqs polling sheds some light on the topic.
As I noted in my column this weekend, ever since Joe Biden took office, the Republican Party's unfavorability rating has been registering at close to all-time highs compared to the past handful of years. Just after Biden's inauguration, the GOP’s unpopularity peaked at 65% unfavorable and now rests at 62% unfavorable, with just 25% of Americans holding a favorable view of the party. By comparison, the Democratic Party is underwater by just 6 points nationally, with 50% viewing it unfavorably to 44% who hold a favorable view.
But what really sets the GOP apart is its lack of popularity among its own voters. While 88% of Democratic voters view their own party favorably, just 63% of Republicans hold a favorable view of the GOP while 19% view it unfavorably. The party's favorability rating among Republicans plunged some 20 points following Election Day last November, when its favorables stood at about 83% among GOP voters. To some extent that fall from grace is a natural byproduct of losing a big election. The party also saw its favorabilities plummet following the midterm elections, when Democrats flipped a historic 41 House seats to regain control of the lower chamber.
The difference now is that the party's leadership is entirely divided amongst itself at a time when the makeup of the GOP base is still a bit of an enigma. Party leaders seem to realize that Trump attracted a new cohort of blue-collar voters, but they have no idea exactly how to appeal to them. So even as Democrats passed a bill that was largely popular among lower-income Republicans—63% of whom supported it—GOP lawmakers uniformly rejected the bill while railing about the great Seuss-Potato Head scandal of 2021.
The party also has no real leader to rally around who can steer it out of its current slump. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell is epically unpopular among the GOP base, with just 22% of Republicans holding a favorable view of him. Former Vice President Mike Pence registers better than McConnell (because who wouldn't?), but even he garners just a 61% favorability rating among Republicans. It's perhaps telling that both McConnell and Pence took a major hit in popularity among the Republican base following the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol. In other words, in the view of self-identified Republicans, they were the people who failed the party, not Trump. Here are Pence's favorables among Republicans.
And while Trump remains the most popular figure in the party among Republicans voters at 88%, even his favorables have started to fall off a bit ever since Election Day. It's not earth-shattering fallout by any means, but one could imagine Trump's popularity among Republicans just continuing to slowly wane over time.
Perhaps more importantly in this moment, Trump seems to be a lot less interested in helping the GOP regain control of Congress than he is in punishing anyone who has proven disloyal to him. So while he's publicly made a show of cooperating with the GOP point people trying to win back the House and Senate, his most passionate pronouncements have been daggers targeting leaders like McConnell and Wyoming Congresswoman Liz Cheney, the No. 3 House Republican. Predictably, Trump is also still entirely consumed by his 2020 loss, so much so that he's now stealing microphones at Mar-a-Lago-based weddings and grousing about it to attendees.
The bottom line for the GOP is this—the only guy who still holds enough juice with base voters to perhaps improve their opinion of the party has no real interest in the party whatsoever.
This isn't a declaration that the Republican Party is dead (so please spare us those complaints in the comments). But it does mean the GOP finds itself with a very unique, if not unprecedented, set of circumstances heading into 2022: It has no real leader, no real message, and a fluid electorate.
So while GOP lawmakers are tickled silly over the 74 million people who cast a vote for Trump last fall, they are basically playing a blindfolded electoral version of Pin the Tail on the Donkey as they head into 2022.