Whatever his origins outside the GOP establishment, Donald Trump has taken his place in the eyes of Texas Republican voters as the figurehead of their party. The June 2017 University of Texas/Texas Tribune Poll reveals direct signs of the Texas Republican voters’ embrace of Trump as well as signs of his indirect influence on the attitudes of Republican voters. This pattern of attitudes suggests a secure position among Texas voters and also means that, for better or for worse, Trump and Texas Republicans fates, for the present, are tightly intertwined.
The strongest evidence of Texas Republican voters’ embrace of the president who both defied their party’s leadership and defeated a handful of Texas-based candidates in the 2016 presidential primary is the sustained approval of the job he is doing as president. In the June poll, 80 percent of Texas Republicans approved of the job Trump is doing as president; that number was statistically indistinguishable from the 81 percent of GOP voters who approved of Trump’s performance in the February 2017 UT/TT Poll — which in turn was an increase from Trump’s pre-election favorability rating (not exactly the same thing, but roughly comparable) of 60 percent.
Some signs of waning enthusiasm, though not outright defection, are evident in the most recent approval numbers. The percentage of Republicans who strongly approved of Trump’s presidential performance decreased 12 points, from 60 percent in February to 48 points in June. This seems likely a result of the settling of the post-election enthusiasm that buoyed Republican perceptions in the immediate wake of Trump’s election and inauguration.
Democrats and other Trump detractors might expect mounting evidence of Trump’s failings to disillusion his supporters, but there are few signs of erosion among Trump’s base — even on subjects that might lead to alienation.
Take the tangled matter of Russia, for example, where something like the opposite seems to be taking place: attitudes among his supporters suggest they are taking cues from their president.
In the June poll, only 15 percent of Republicans had a favorable view of Russia, while 45 percent had an unfavorable view. But 40 percent of Republicans chose a non-judgment (either “don’t know” or “neither favorable or unfavorable”). To be sure, Texas Republicans have not embraced a rapprochement with Russia to the extent that Trump appears to be pursuing. But given their post-war history of bullish views toward Russia, the attitudes of Texas Republicans show a marked willingness not to rush to judgment of the former Evil Empire. Among the Republicans who have an unfavorable view of Russia, 20 percent have a very unfavorable view, compared to 53 percent of Democrats whose views are very unfavorable — a remarkable reversal of the attitudes toward Russia expressed in American politics in the post-World War II era.
When asked about Russia’s impact on the 2016 election, only 8 percent of Republicans thought interference influenced the outcome, and only 9 percent of the same group thought that the Trump campaign and Russia colluded in an effort to affect the campaign.
The other source of potential weakening support for Trump, which stretches back to the presidential campaign, are his personal qualities. During the campaign, many of his competitors and critics expected that his supporters would eventually render negative judgments of his volatile temperament, his lack of concern for consistency and truthfulness and his questionable competence.
The failure of those expectations during the campaign are now fully in evidence. He won. Nonetheless, these expectations continued as Trump’s presidency has replicated the characteristics of his campaign. These expectations have also proven wrong, at least so far, as Republican attitudes registered in the latest poll illustrate: 68 percent of Texas Republicans said Trump has the temperament to be president and 66 percent said he was honest and trustworthy. A higher share, 80 percent, said he was competent.
Given the mutually reinforcing effects of partisan polarization in the electorate and the intensity of both positive and negative feelings toward Trump, it is no surprise that the poll reveals that Democratic attitudes are the opposite, with the qualification that they are slightly more negative than the Republicans are positive. This no doubt informs many Democrats’ astonishment that Trump supporters don’t see him as they do.
Democrats’ astonishment notwithstanding, the success of Donald Trump’s usurpation of the Republican Party leadership is clearly in evidence in the attitudes of Texas voters, making any expectations that Republican elected officials can abandon him without penalty ill-advised. For example, as long as Trump maintains 80 percent job approval among Texas Republicans, it is inconceivable that Republicans in the Texas congressional delegation will entertain any idea of impeachment proceedings.
Yet the situation is a precarious one for Republican elected officials, who have been delivered to the brink of political disaster by continuing storm of suspicions, investigations and intransigent responses defining Trump’s presidency thus far. Until and unless their voters shift their attitudes toward him, the Republican elected officials who have acceded to his leadership remain bound to a president who almost daily calls into question their ability to trust in any of the qualities his voters seem to think he possesses.
Disclosure: The University of Texas has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.