By historical standards, former President Donald Trump did not achieve much on the policy front. Most of his legislative efforts failed, and many of his executive actions were easily reversed the moment he left office. But a striking chart from FiveThirtyEight tracking approval ratings within the Republican Party since the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol illustrates the enormous impact he’s had on the direction of his party and on our national culture.
According to the chart, which draws from Civiqs' daily tracking polls, Trump’s net favorability rating among Republican voters has declined ever so slightly in the past year and remains above 75 percent. Notably there is no valley, nor even a discernible dent, in his favorability among Republicans in the wake of the riot at the U.S. Capitol, which he incited with false claims that the 2020 election was fraudulent.
What’s more eye-catching, though, is the fate of two other leaders in his party. Former Vice President Mike Pence and Sen. Mitch McConnell, who was majority leader at the time of the riot, saw huge plunges in favorability after Jan. 6. Pence went from an approval rating among Republicans that was similar to Trump’s — somewhere in the low 80s or upper 70s — and dropped by some 30 points. McConnell already saw a steep drop after the 2020 election, but then his approval nose-dived by what appears to be significantly more than 30 points. While both politicians have seen ups and downs since then, neither has recovered to anywhere close to his pre-Jan. 6 standing, and McConnell remains deeply underwater.
The chart suggests that Trump has successfully convinced Republican voters of the lie that the election was rigged against him — and that members of his own party who diverged from him are not just wrong but untrustworthy.
As Michael Tesler, a political scientist at the University of California, Irvine who wrote about the survey data for FiveThirtyEight, noted, McConnell’s net favorability among a majority of Republicans “plummeted after he officially recognized Biden as the president-elect in mid-December, but his net favorability nosedived even further after he sharply rebuked Trump’s baseless ‘conspiracy theories’ during his Jan. 6 address to Congress.” And Pence saw a post-Jan. 6 nosedive as Trump relentlessly bashed him for certifying the results of the 2020 election in defiance of Trump’s demands. In other words, Republicans continue to adore Trump and take his lead on who should be a persona non grata within the party.
A Washington Post-University of Maryland poll conducted in December found that 72 percent of Republicans say Trump bears “just some” responsibility or “none at all” for the Capitol riot. While the poll found that 68 percent of Americans say there is no solid evidence of widespread fraud, 62 percent of Republicans say such evidence does exist. Remarkably, as the Post noted, those Republican numbers on evidence of fraud are “almost identical” to what polls found a week after Jan. 6 — which suggests that even with time to cool off, reconsider the meaning of the insurrection and do research, a huge chunk of the Republican Party has fully bought into the lie about 2020.
The mechanism for a lot of this may be Trump’s strong popularity among Republicans before the 2020 election. It's possible that to maintain their allegiance to him, many Republicans have decided to rationalize their preference for his leadership style and worldview by downplaying his role in the insurrection.
What we do know is that Trump is adept at maintaining an almost cult-like following.
Republican pollster Tony Fabrizio found in a post-Jan. 6 survey that there was a correlation between people who described themselves as the most committed Republicans and those most likely to say they were supportive of Trump. According to The New York Times, “Feelings about the former president, [Fabrizio] explained in his analysis, were so intertwined with the understanding many voters had about what it meant to be a strong Republican that 'Trumpism and party fidelity' were becoming one and the same.” That suggests that Trump has managed to wrest control of the meaning and image of the party in a remarkably short period of time — and that McConnell's and Pence's commitments to trust in the electoral system are out of sync with what the party is about.
Trump also seems to have survived the blow to his popularity that might have accompanied a traditional acknowledgement of losing a race. In an email, Tesler told me, “There is some evidence to suggest that voters who support losing candidates grow less favorable toward them after the election.” Tesler pointed out that the last two losing candidates, Hillary Clinton and Mitt Romney, saw such declines in favorability post-loss.
We don’t have a counterfactual — maybe Trump has developed such a loyal following that even a more typical concession wouldn’t have delivered a significant blow to his popularity. What we do know is that Trump is adept at maintaining an almost cult-like following.