Republican lawmakers who are trying to turn the page on former President Trump say voters are turned off by what they describe as his negativity, but polls show Republican primary voters aren’t all that hungry for good vibes.
Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) launched his campaign for president this week declaring Americans “hunger for something positive” and voters are “thrilled to have a conversation about optimism.”
Sen. Mike Rounds (R-S.D.), who endorsed Scott last week and wants to move past Trump, says “we have to have a consensus candidate if we’re going to win” and thinks Scott “can bring our country together.
Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said after the 2022 midterms that “too much chaos” and “too much negativity” associated with Trump’s influence on the GOP had “turned off a lot of these centrist voters.”
But polls show many Republican primary voters love Trump’s appetite for political combat and applaud when he takes shots at his enemies, either on the political left or within the Republican establishment in Washington.
A Harvard-Harris poll of 2,004 voters nationwide conducted May 17-18 showed Trump dominating the Republican primary field with 58 percent support, well ahead of his nearest rival — Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who had 16 percent support. Scott garnered just 1 percent support in the poll.
Trump’s dominance is reflected in other polls. He leads by an average of nearly 37 percentage points in recent national surveys.
A different Republican Party
Political experts and Republican strategists say the Republican Party has transformed dramatically since George H.W. Bush won the presidency in 1988 by calling for a “kinder, gentler nation” and since George W. Bush captured the White House on a platform of “compassionate conservatism” in 2000.
Trump instead rallied his supporters in 2016 with chants of “lock her up” directed at Hillary Clinton and then delivered what became known as his “American carnage” speech at his 2017 inauguration.
Ross K. Baker, a professor of political science at Rutgers University, said Republican primary voters are more “hungering for revenge” than a positive message after two years of President Biden in office.
“Tim Scott is not the message carrier of revenge. His is a very upbeat message, when he talks about the reconciliation, when he talks about the possibility of America based on his own experience. It’s a very lofty message,” he said.
“The largest number of Republican primary voters want the restoration of the Trump presidency,” he said, adding the Republican electorate “has become much less on policy than it is on personality” over the past decade.
He said Trump’s base “finds him entertaining” and “he appeals to the feelings of rejection and marginalization they experienced” even though Trump, a billionaire, is a member of the nation’s elite.
Trump’s ‘no holds barred’ appeal
Baker said Trump’s core group of supporters feel resentful and angry about the direction of the country, and “some of them feel hard done by, and others feel that he’s protecting from, shielding them from having to give away the goods that they’ve accumulated.”
Republican strategists say while Trump is running a more professional campaign ahead of the 2024 presidential election, he — at his core as a candidate — hasn’t changed, and they point out that he is dominating the national polls.
“If you look at the CNN town hall and how that played with Trump’s energy and his combativeness with Kaitlan Collins, who was moderating, if you just look at the reaction he had, his numbers went up by about anywhere from 8 to 12 points in the primary field right after that town hall,” said John Ullyot, a Republican strategist and former National Security Council spokesman.
“It showed that he’s ‘no holds barred,’ he’s the Trump that everyone remembers who came in and shook things up, and he was put in office back in 2016 because he was going to be a forceful fighter, and that’s what people wanted,” he said.
“He really shifted the party from being a country club establishment party that had nominated Romney” for president, Ullyot noted, referring to Utah Sen. Mitt Romney (R), who was the GOP nominee for president in 2012.
“President Trump is the only candidate in the field who gives the GOP base and GOP primary voters exactly what they’re looking for, which is someone who will shake up the establishment, someone who will not accept the status quo, someone who is not ‘go along to get along,’” he said.
Trump only added to his lead in national polls after ripping CNN’s Collins as “a nasty person,” called the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol a “beautiful day” and disparaged writer E. Jean Carroll, who won a $5 million jury award from him for sexual abuse and defamation, as a “whack job.”
DeSantis, Scott aren’t Trump
DeSantis has tried to adopt Trump’s pugilistic style.
He regularly clashes with members of the media and accuses them of pushing a liberal agenda.
He is battling with Disney, Florida’s second-largest employer, over the company’s opposition to his Parental Rights in Education Act.
He declared “we will never surrender to the woke mob” and “Florida is where woke goes to die.”
But Trump allies dismiss the Florida governor as “Trump lite.”
“I don’t think anyone can deliver a political punch as effectively as Trump. He’s rewritten the rule book of politics when it comes to how to go after opponents,” said Brian Darling, a GOP strategist and former Senate aide.
Darling noted none of Trump’s top rivals for the Republican presidential nomination in 2016 — Sens. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and former Ohio Gov. John Kasich — opted to run against him again this cycle.
Trump on Monday applauded Scott’s entry into the presidential race and suggested it would further split up the anti-Trump Republican primary vote.
“Good luck to Senator Tim Scott in entering the Republican Presidential Primary Race,” Trump posted on Truth Social. “It is rapidly loading up with lots of people, and Tim is a big step up from Ron DeSanctimonious, who is totally unelectable.”
Jim McLaughlin, a GOP pollster who worked for Trump’s 2020 campaign, said Republican voters are flocking to Trump because they like what he accomplished in the White House, and they view him as a fighter.
“They reason they stay with Trump is because his stuff worked; he had a successful presidency,” he said, citing the strength of the economy, Trump’s relationship with foreign leaders and his focus on border security.
But he said Republican voters also love Trump because “they want someone who is going to be fighting for that forgotten middle class.”
“A lot of Biden voters who say they prefer Trump now or are considering Trump, the issue that they bring up is immigration,” he said. “The voters will tell you Donald Trump solved this issue with no help from Congress.”