The Trump Train Goes off a Cliff
An exploration of whether post-presidency Trump is gaining or losing steam
We are now awaiting what happens as the Trump Train hurtles across the post-presidency chasm. It is flying through the air, and people are wondering if it is going to land on the tracks and steam forward toward a 2024 Presidential run or crash in a heap at the bottom of the ravine. In recent memory, there has not been a former President who seemingly was so dedicated to remaining at the forefront of his party.
Certainly, a lot of Republicans are jumping on board, banking that Trump’s influence will stay strong: They have flocked down to Mar-a-Lago to curry his favor; they continue to propagate lies that the election was stolen from Trump. Most observers view Trump’s recent speech at a North Carolina GOP convention and his resumption of holding rallies as signals that he plans to run for President in 2024. He even talks—albeit somewhat fancifully—about being reinstated by the end of the summer.
Yet, he’s been relatively absent from mass media, and recently John Bolton declared on Anderson Cooper 360 that the strength of his support is exaggerated and his influence is diminishing.
So what are the facts? Let’s take a deeper look.
A GOP Cover-Up?
The pro-Trumpers have been busy chastising anyone who opposes Trump. This includes censuring Rep. Ben Sasse, Sen. Susan Collins, and others who voted to impeach Trump. They most famously removed Rep. Liz Cheney from her House leadership position for continuing to stand up for the truth.
Presumably, they are taking these actions because they believe supporting Trump is the best path for the party going forward. Yet, while Liz Cheney was being ousted from her position, she also made an interesting allegation—that Republicans may be covering up Trump’s declining support with his base. For example, during planning meetings this spring, she alleged that they failed to disclose key information.
When staff from the National Republican Congressional Committee rose to explain the party’s latest polling in core battleground districts, they left out a key finding about Trump’s weakness, declining to divulge the information even when directly questioned about Trump’s support by a member of Congress, according to two people familiar with what transpired.
Trump’s unfavorable ratings were 15 points higher than his favorable ones in the core districts, according to the full polling results…
Cheney was alarmed, she later told others, in part because Republican campaign officials had also left out bad Trump polling news at a March retreat for ranking committee chairs. Both instances, she concluded, demonstrated that party leadership was willing to hide information from their own members to avoid the truth about Trump and the possible damage he could do to Republican House members.
So what’s happening here?
The National Polling Perspective
From a national polling perspective, Trump’s approval is about the same as always. While there have been some brief dips (which news organizations quickly pounced on) the overall conclusion is that he hovers around a 54% disapproval level. See the chart below from Real Clear Politics.
Without really having access to the studies referenced by Ms. Cheney, it’s hard to know how significant they were. It could be argued that GOP leadership only considered the dips to be random variations, which in fact they turned out to be.
Similarly, if we look at national polls from Quinnipiac University and Reuters/Ipsos, we can see that in general Trump’s support remains strong with Republicans, who generally believe the election was stolen from him and who are interested in having him run for President again.
The Effectivity of Trump’s Support
Still, national polls do not necessarily tell the whole story. Another way to look at the value of Trump’s endorsement is his track record of getting fellow Republicans elected. In this case, there is some research from the 538 blog that candidates endorsed by Trump do overwhelmingly win in the primaries. But, congresspeople are not elected in the primaries.
Research published in Legislative Studies Quarterly shows when it comes to the general election, Trump’s support often hurts the candidate by inspiring greater Democratic fundraising against them. Thus, Republicans had a net loss in Congressional seats during the Trump era.
So—that being the case—one might wonder why Republican candidates would seek Trump’s support, especially those candidates who are already heavily favored to win their primary. In fact, the large majority of Trump’s endorsements are for candidates who are already expected to overwhelmingly win. But, while the endorsement doesn’t help them win, it does bring more funding. So in most cases, Trump endorses the obvious winner and thus pads his record while the candidate gets a funding boost. Win win!
In fairness, we must note that Trump does sometimes endorse candidates in close races, and those candidates tend to win. Perhaps they are willing to take the risk of backlash in the general election to get the funding.
Interestingly, while Trump’s endorsement is muchly discussed, his endorsements are actually not is not as effective as some other political figures. A Brookings Institute study of the 2018 election found:
Trump endorsed 75 House and Senate candidates, of whom 42 or 55 percent won. With this rate, Trump performed better than Vice President Mike Pence, for whom nearly 50 percent won, but fell behind Obama’s and Biden’s endorsees. Sanders does the best, as his endorsees won 70 percent of the time.
So if you want to get endorsed by someone and win, it might be better to ring up Bernie Sanders.
In the News
Another way to assess Trump’s influence is how much he dominates the news. As is well known, over the years leading up to and during his presidency, Trump was all over the news and social media.
Yet, since leaving the White House, Trump’s presence on virtually all major media has declined precipitously. Oliver Darcy at CNN comments:
The former president has started sending bombastic Twitter-like statements from the "45 Office" straight into the inboxes of reporters. But most of those statements are outright ignored. I don't think I've seen a single one of them show up in a cable news chyron like his early morning tweets once did. Trump's statements simply fail to drive the narrative nowadays.
Even when he phones up his favorite propaganda channels, no one seems to pay attention. When he calls into Fox shows, the programs barely see a ratings bump the next day. No one seems to really care about what he has to say.
To corroborate this, I checked Fox News today, and there was only one obscure mention of Trump, buried down in the misc headlines at the bottom of the page. (Warning: Reading Fox News is dangerous and for trained professionals only. Don’t try it at home.)
Of course, where Trump was once the King of Twitter and made skilled use of Facebook, he is now banned on both. While a drop is expected for a former President, it is still an indicator of his influence.
Data compiled by Vox shows the effect on both. First, on Twitter, we can see a precipitous drop in Trump mentions after the ban.
Similarly, Facebook has shown a significant decline Trump-related activity since he left office.
Trump keywords have also declined in Google searches. I took the snapshot below of Trump searches compared against Biden. As you can see, historically there were a lot more searches for Trump (the blue line) but now he is more or less tied Biden. While that’s probably still pretty danged good for the average politician, it’s far less than Trump’s vaunted domination of the media over the last few years.
With the mainstream news having reduced interest in him and having been kicked off the major social media platforms, Trump recently tried to start his own “platform,” which was really just a blog. But that got little interest and was canceled after less than a month. As noted by MSNBC’s Ari Melber,
“As a matter of metrics, audience, readers, every single way they measure blogs—it’s a failure,” with lower traffic than sites like Petfinder and Eat This, Not That.
The Net Effect
Of course, there is no definitive way of knowing whether Trump’s influence is going to be sustained. The observations and data above suggest that he is at best maintaining his influence, if not somewhat decreasing.
Sure, there are probably actions Trump could take that would revive what appears to be declining interest. How likely is that? Given Trump’s age, baggage (like the Capitol Riots, numerous lawsuits, and two impeachments), recent track record of failure, and overall lack of official power, it seems doubtful he can increase his influence to the level it was while he was President. And Democrats have had years to adapt to his unconventional style, so he is no longer has the surprise factor.
In the end, it may be that people are just growing tired of the spectacle. At his recent Ohio rally, he again covered for a few thousand people the familiar themes of election fraud and Democrats ruining the country He’s becoming like a once-popular rock band that tours around the country reprising the old hits for an aging fan base.
I think your final analogy about the rock band is a perfect explanation. There will always be that aging fan base, but hopefully it dwindles as time goes by and the message doesn't change.