The latest national CNN poll found that most Republican voters still want Donald Trump to lead their party, which is notable in its own right. But just as important is how this belief shapes what it means to be a Republican in 2021:
Most Republicans also consider support for Trump – and his false claim to have won the 2020 election – to be an important part of their own partisan identity alongside support for conservative principles.
According to the poll's internal data, a combined 61 percent of the party's voters believe supporting the former president is either very or somewhat important in defining what it means to be a Republican. A combined 59 percent said the same thing about believing that Trump won the 2020 election, which he lost in reality.
An even higher percentage of Republican voters – 63 percent – said Trump should remain the GOP's principal leader.
At face value, there's something rather extraordinary about so many voters from a major party standing by a failed former president who was impeached twice, and whose brief political career is defined by scandal, corruption, mismanagement, incompetence, and multiple criminal investigations.
But there's another dimension to this that's likely to remain relevant for quite a while. The Washington Post reported yesterday on the three Democratic-led states — California, New Jersey, and Virginia — holding statewide elections this year:
In each state, party leaders acknowledge that in past elections Trump polarized and motivated voters that they had never won before his presidency. Democrats worried that his absence from the ballot, along with their party's historic difficulties in turning voters out in nonpresidential elections, would threaten their chances. Yet in all three, Democrats say they think that the ex-president, who has hinted at a third run in 2024, still has power to mobilize liberal voters and keep suburban moderates in the Democratic tent, even if he is no longer on the ballot or in office.
Historical models would ordinarily suggest this is foolish. Once a former president exits the stage, parties generally don't invest too much effort into electoral strategies based on opposition to the former Oval Office occupants.
The qualitative differences in the post-Trump era, however, are dramatic. Most modern presidents, after leaving the White House, actually go away. They don't try to run their political parties; they don't demand fealty from rank-and-file voters; they don't orchestrate misinformation campaigns; they don't set out to destroy the careers of intra-party detractors; and they don't openly discuss the possibility of seeking national office again.
In other words, Democrats can continue to run against Trump because he and his GOP loyalists have made it so easy to do so.