March 1, 2024

GOP senators say there is less enthusiasm for former President Trump among Republican-leaning voters compared to 2016, a drop in voter energy that was apparent when only 15 percent of Iowa’s registered Republicans showed up for Monday’s caucuses.

Lawmakers acknowledge the weather was a factor behind the low turnout in Iowa but point to other signs of diminished enthusiasm for Trump, something that could hurt down-ballot Republican candidates in swing states. 

Senate Republicans hope that Trump’s problems will be balanced by lower enthusiasm among Democrats for President Biden, though they expect Trump being atop the ticket will drive Democratic voters to the polls in large numbers.  

Another concern among GOP senators is that Biden will have a big fundraising advantage over Trump, who is pouring his resources into his legal defense in the face of four criminal trials and two civil cases. 

Republicans are looking ahead to Tuesday’s New Hampshire primary to get another look at voter turnout and what it signals for this year’s general election. 

“I don’t think he has the same enthusiasm he did in 2016 but I think he has plenty to become the nominee,” said Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah), who ran for president in 2008 and 2012 and won the GOP nomination in 2012.  

Romney, a Trump critic, thinks Trump would beat Biden if the election were held today but doesn’t know whether he’ll keep his polling lead as his legal problems play out in court and Democrats build what Republicans expect to be a major fundraising advantage.  

“There’s going to be a lot that happens over the coming year — almost a year — so I’d say it’s still a toss-up,” he said.  

Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.) said voters are fatigued with Trump but argued they’re also tired of Biden.

“The turnout models have to be adjusted on both ends of the spectrum because I do think that you’ve got some of the ‘I’m not excited about either option’ dimension,” he said.  

One Republican senator who requested anonymity to discuss voter enthusiasm for Trump compared to 2016 said: “It seems less to me.”  

The lawmaker also expressed concern Trump is burning through “a lot of money” because of his court battles.  

“It’s a distraction financially and of time and mental [energy,]” the source said.  

Questions about voter enthusiasm for Trump were raised anew after the Iowa caucuses, in which just more than 110,000 voters participated — representing only 15 percent of the state’s registered Republicans.  

By contrast, 187,000 Republican voters showed up at the Iowa caucuses when Trump first ran for president in 2016.  

In 2012, when Romney was the front-runner, 122,000 voters showed up in Iowa. 

Other factors could have contributed to the lower turnout.

The weather was horrendous, even by Iowa in January standards, with temperatures hovering around zero. Trump was also the runaway favorite in Iowa and won the caucuses handily. That status may have kept some of his supporters home, as they may have felt they weren’t needed.

Still, there are reasons for Republicans to be concerned given a steady stream of signs that many voters are not enthused about a Biden-Trump rematch.  

A Colby College poll released Friday, for example, showed rural voters, one of Trump’s core constituencies, aren’t that excited about his candidacy. Nearly a third of rural voters said their vote for Trump was really a vote against Biden and just more than half of them said they are “very happy” with him as the GOP nominee.  

A Gallup poll conducted from Dec. 1 to Dec. 20 showed Trump and Biden both have low approval ratings. 

The survey found Trump’s approval rating among American adults at 42 percent — a few points lower than he had in a Gallup survey a month before the 2020 election, which Trump lost to Biden.  

Gallup found that Biden is viewed favorably by only 41 percent of U.S. adults. 

More troubling for Republican lawmakers, a CNN entrance poll for the Iowa GOP caucuses found that 31 percent of participants said Trump would not be fit for the presidency if convicted of a crime.  

Many of those voters who said Trump would not be fit for office if convicted voted for former United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. But 10 percent of those who said Trump would not be fit to serve as president if convicted voted for him in Iowa. 

GOP lawmakers are keeping a close eye on voter turnout numbers in the primary because Trump’s 2016 victory was largely credited to his ability to energize the Republican Party base and drive new voters to the polls.  

Senate GOP leaders have agonized for months — or years, even — over Trump’s lack of appeal with independent and swing voters — especially suburban and college-educated women. They view his ability to energize rural voters and non-college-educated voters as key to his success. 

Jim McLaughlin, Trump’s pollster, pushed back on Republicans concerned about voter turnout in the wake of Iowa.  

He said that subzero temperatures kept Iowa voters at home. 

“The weather was brutal out there. … Even dangerous. That’s people weren’t going out,” he said. “Minus 30 [degrees] with the wind chill factor? That’s why it was what it was.” 

He pointed out that, unlike a regular primary where voters cast their ballot and leave the polling place, the Iowa caucuses require voters to hang around the caucus site for a few hours to vote. 

McLaughlin also pointed to a recent Suffolk University/Boston Globe/NBC 10 poll of New Hampshire voters showing that Trump’s base is solidly behind him. 

The survey of 500 likely Republican voters conducted Wednesday and Thursday found Trump leading Haley 52 percent to 35 percent, and it showed 93 percent of Trump supporters view their ballot more as a vote for Trump than a vote against someone else.  

“I don’t know if we’ve ever seen anyone in my lifetime with a more intense base of support than Donald Trump,” he said. “He’s not just a leader of the Republican Party, not just a leader of the conservative movement — he’s the leader of a movement and a lot of his supporters are not even Republicans. This is the guy fighting for the forgotten middle class in a way that nobody else can do.” 

Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.), a close Biden ally, said political experts will be watching the New Hampshire results closely to see if the depressed turnout in Iowa was an aberration.  

“New Hampshire will give a stronger message to the country about the path forward,” he said. 

The other concern weighing on GOP lawmakers is what they expect will be Biden’s huge fundraising advantage over Trump, something that will be made worse by Trump having to pour tens of millions of dollars into his legal defense teams. 

Trump told supporters in Sioux City, Iowa, in October that he had more than $100 million in legal fees. 

Reuters estimated in September that Trump’s legal fees connected to the four criminal prosecutions he faces could exceed $50 million.  

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and other Trump allies are hoping he wins New Hampshire by a large margin, which would likely knock Haley out of the race, so Republicans can begin coalescing behind a nominee sooner rather than later.  

“The longer it goes, the less time they have to rally the troops around the nominee and raise money because only God knows how much [Democrats] are going to raise,” he said. 

Sen. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.), who endorsed Trump last month, said Democratic fundraising for the presidential campaign will be “immense.” 

“And they’ll have an enthusiasm because it’s Donald Trump [as the GOP nominee,]” he said.  

Nevertheless, Cramer said weak voter enthusiasm for Biden will be more decisive.  

“But that enthusiasm wanes as soon as they realize whom they’re supporting,” he said, predicting that Biden won’t turn out Democrats to the polls.  

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