It’s politicians worried about losing their jobs, for the most part.
By Seth Masket
Donald Trump speaks to voters on February 17, 2016, in Bluffton, South Carolina. (Photo: Win McNamee/Getty Images)
Since Donald Trump became the presumptive Republican presidential nominee last week, various officeholders, opinion-leaders, and party insiders have been put on the spot to announce whether they support or oppose him. It’s still early in this process, but there are some interesting patterns emerging.
I’m drawing on David Graham’s listing at The Atlantic for this analysis. This is probably not a complete record of every influential Republican and his or her preferences regarding Trump, but it seems a pretty detailed compendium of the endorsements that have emerged over the past week. The list so far contains 62 party insiders, officeholders, opinion-leaders, and others. Of these 62, 38 have said that they are supporting Trump in November. The other 24 are either flatly opposing Trump, are claiming neutrality, or, like Speaker Paul Ryan, are saying they haven’t supported Trump just yet. (I’m treating all those stances as an opposition to Trump for now; for any party leader to offer less than full support for her party’s presumptive nominee is notable and sends a signal to confused Republican voters that the party is not unified.)
Graham’s list includes nine people who ran for president against Trump this past year. (I’ve added Ben Carson to that group.) This group is notably split, with six endorsing Trump and four not.
The people in the list can also be grouped into six other categories: clergy, party elders, governors, members of Congress, major donors, and opinion-leaders. Of those, governors appear to be the most supportive, with six of eight backing Trump. The least supportive are the major donors — only one (Sheldon Adelson) of the four is backing him.
Backing Trump now likely makes political sense in that it avoids making early enemies of party fundraisers and activists, while opposing him will likely yield few payoffs.
The members of Congress are an interesting lot. Of the 18 members listed, 12 (67 percent) are backing Trump. But which 12? It’s not an ideological split. Trump’s congressional backers include relative moderates like Mark Kirk and John McCain as well as conservatives like Rand Paul and Ron Johnson. But his list of opponents also includes moderates like Susan Collins and conservatives like Ted Cruz. Ideal points do a poor job predicting Trump support.
What does a much better job predicting a Trump endorsement is whether the member of Congress is facing re-election this year. There are seven United States senators in the data set who are not facing re-election this year; three are backing Trump. All nine senators facing re-election, however, are backing Trump.
This strikes me as the important takeaway so far. These endorsers are, after all, strategic politicians, and they want to keep their jobs. They’ve watched this year as Trump has repeatedly surprised pundits and produced large voter turnout in support of his candidacy. Regardless of whether they like Trump personally or think he’d be good for the party or the country, they want to keep that substantial chunk of the electorate happy, or at least not specifically antagonize it.
Now, there may be a down side to this come fall. McCain, for example, has expressed concern that Trump’s presence on the ballot will drive up Democratic and Latino turnout, potentially dooming McCain’s re-election in Arizona. But that die is largely cast, and there’s little McCain can do to affect it. Trump will be at the top of the ballot whether McCain endorses him or opposes him, and the voters who show up to stop Trump will likely not spare other Republicans who have tried to distance themselves from him. Backing Trump now likely makes political sense in that it avoids making early enemies of party fundraisers and activists, while opposing him will likely yield few payoffs. It’s an understandable strategic calculation, even for McCain, who was very specifically and publicly insulted by Trump last year.
But so long as these divisions remain in the Republican ranks, they will send a message to Republican voters that the party is less than unified, and if they feel they cannot vote for Trump this fall, that won’t make them bad Republicans. It’s a very loud message, and one that parties don’t often broadcast.