The Tufts Public Opinion Lab is dedicated to studying contemporary controversies in American public opinion using quantitative data analysis. Three researchers— Scott Blatte, Danielle Piccoli and Matt Zachem— postulated that the GOP should dump Trump before it’s too late for candidates up and down the ballot— and their presented the evidence. Thedy began by noting that “Given the Republican Party’s recent weakness in federal elections, some members of the party are wondering aloud whether they should drop their power-hitting, trash-talking star player from the lineup: former President Trump. Some want him to take his place on the bench because after all, according to ex-Governor Larry Hogan, “It’s basically the third election in a row that Donald Trump has cost us the race, and it’s like, three strikes, you’re out.” Others remain committed to their leader, with Governor Henry McMaster (R-SC) proclaiming a Trump reelection would “see a burst of freedom and prosperity unlike any we have ever seen before.” Both of these views were expressed after the midterms, an election cycle in which Republicans performance fell short of expectations. Many, like Hogan, put the blame squarely on Trump’s shoulders. But Governor McMaster’s comments make clear that there is no consensus on the issue. So, the question remains: is Trump still worth building the Republican Party’s franchise around?” What to see the quantitative analysis? They began with the kiss of death phenomenon.
Multiple news outlets have retrospectively estimated the “Trump effect” in the 2022 elections. According to an estimate from The Economist, Republican candidates who were endorsed by former President Trump in their primary performed about five percentage points worse in the general election than they would have if they had not received his endorsement. Similarly, when comparing the performance-above-baseline for contested races, the Washington Post finds that candidates who did not receive a Trump endorsement over-performed expectations by 2.2 percentage points more than their endorsed colleagues. Association with former President Trump appears to be a liability for Republican candidates, suggesting that Trump’s vision for the Republican Party lacks appeal for a critical mass of swing voters. But to our knowledge, no one has tried to test these theories in an experiment. Just before the 2022 midterm elections, we did just that and found evidence that Trump hurts down-ballot Republicans in general elections.
To collect our data, we conducted an experiment on a nationally representative online survey of 1,346 American adults fielded just before the 2022 midterm elections. All respondents saw a preface about a Republican nominee for a Congressional seat in their state named Terry Mitchell. Respondents either viewed “conventional” Republican viewpoints (lowering taxes, limiting government’s role in healthcare, and opposing citizenship for undocumented immigrants) or “unconventional” Republican viewpoints (increasing taxes, expanding government’s role in healthcare, and supporting citizenship for undocumented immigrants). Respondents then received one of three Trump endorsement conditions: Trump’s support for Mitchell, Trump’s disapproval of Mitchell, or no mention of Trump.
Our findings provide strong evidence that Trump hurts Republican candidates in general election contests. Among respondents who saw the condition where Trump was not mentioned, the average favorability rating was 52 points. When participants were shown a scenario with a Trump endorsement, Mitchell’s favorability decreased by 7 points on average, a penalty of a similar magnitude to what The Economist found. This result can be seen in our first graph.
This effect was due to differing reactions from Republicans and Democrats. For Republicans who saw a condition where there was no mention of Trump, the average favorability rating was 56 points. For Republican respondents who were told that Trump had endorsed Mitchell, the average favorability rating did not change by a statistically significant amount… When Trump told voters not to vote for Mitchell, Republican respondents’ ratings decreased by 7 points. From these results, it is evident that Trump’s “cult of personality” was unable to galvanize support among Republican respondents. However, Trump’s disapproval depressed Mitchell’s favorability ratings, showing that losing the support of Trump can still have a notable impact among Republican voters.
In essence, the Trump “effect” is asymmetrical both within and across parties. Within parties, when presented with a Trump endorsement, Democrats express far lower favorability for candidates. The effect of Trump’s disapproval is smaller than the effect of a Trump endorsement, suggesting that Democrats are more motivated by antipathy towards Trump rather than support for those against him. The reverse is true for Republicans, with Trump’s disapproval depressing favorability but an endorsement leaving favorability unaffected. The second asymmetry is across parties: a Trump endorsement led to a negative change in favorability among Democrats but no change among Republicans in their rating of Mitchell. Therefore we can conclude that a Trump endorsement hurts Republican candidates’ perceptions on balance.
We also looked into how these effects impact voters by asking two additional questions to understand how respondents interpret a Trump endorsement and policy stances. First, we asked whether the respondent thinks that our generic candidate believes there were irregularities in the 2020 presidential election. Second, we asked about perceptions of our candidate’s tariff policy, an issue Trump has diverged from the traditional Republican Party orthodoxy. We found no evidence that the Trump effect flows through election denialism or tariffs. We suspect that most respondents may automatically associate election denialism with the Republican Party independent of the former President’s endorsement, but we are unable to conclude that with certainty. The change in favorability caused by a Trump endorsement for both parties stems from an unobserved phenomenon. We speculate that this is likely former President Trump’s cult of personality; however, we lack the causal evidence to support this notion.
Since Trump’s ascension to the Presidency and even since his departure, Republicans have diagnosed leading Democrats with “Trump Derangement Syndrome,” a condition that they argue leads those afflicted to view all action by Trump as inherently negative. Our results show that Republicans may be reading the political tea leaves correctly: Democrats are indeed turned off by Trump. If the Republican Party wants to tip the electoral scales back in their favor, our results suggest that they would be better off with Trump on the bench than leading the charge out of the dugout. It may be their best chance to avoid a four-cycle sweep by Democrats.
My guess is that Chuck Schumer didn’t read this study. But he did read this deranged Trump tweet above and he’s a savvy enough politician to have made the same conclusions himself— and he and other Democrats are doing all they can to make sure the voting public associates Republican candidates with Trump. He’s forcing every Senate Republican to vote aye or nay on Trump’s demand that the FBI be defunded. Next week, when the Senate returns to work, they have to either vote with MAGA and against law enforcement or against MAGA and for law enforcement. In his “Dear Colleagues” letter, Schumer wrote that “Trump’s call for defunding federal law enforcement agencies is a baseless, self-serving broadside against the men and women who keep our nation safe. The good work of the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Department of Justice sends criminals to prison for bank robbery, sex trafficking, child pornography, hate crimes, terrorism, fraud, and so much more. The former President and his allies in Congress must not subjugate justice and public safety because of their own personal grievances.”
His letter continued that “The Senate must recommit that the United States is a nation of laws. As free people, we rely on the necessary and professional work of our federal law enforcement agencies to promote the safety and general welfare of our country.” Here’s the resolution he’ll be introducing next week:
(1) recognizes and appreciates the dedication and devotion demonstrated by the men and women of Federal law enforcement agencies who keep the communities of the United States and the United States safe;
(2) condemns calls to “defund” the Department of Justice and Federal Bureau of Investigation; and
(3) rejects partisan attempts by former President Donald J. Trump and his allies to degrade public trust in Federal law enforcement agencies for attempted political or legal benefit.