The Republican Party is imploding, but Trump’s base isn’t
Since an 11-year-old video emerged on Friday of Donald Trump bragging about his ability to sexually assault women because he is a “star,” dozens of members of the Republican establishment have abandoned the GOP presidential nominee and called for him to step down.
More than three-dozen sitting governors, senators, and members of Congress have publicly announced that they will not vote for their party’s nominee. They called Trump’s comments “disgusting,” “demeaning,” “repulsive,” and “abhorrent” and said the “country deserves better.”
Yet some of these politicians have been met with hostility from their own base. House Speaker Paul Ryan, who was scheduled to appear with Trump at an event in Wisconsin Saturday before disinviting the candidate, was greeted with boos and cries of “shame on you” as he took the stage. Drudge Report pushed Ryan’s reception as its top story, with the headline “Pussy Whipped.”
Trump’s campaign and his supporters have a clear message for the Republican leaders ditching their nominee: We don’t need you.
While many members of the media and the political establishment have declared that Trump’s campaign is imploding, it appears that the party, not its candidate, is the object of implosion. Trump is the catalyst for an intra-party division less than a month before Election Day and it’s unclear whether he or the Republicans rejecting him will pay a bigger price on Nov. 8.
On Saturday, Trump was defiant, tweeting, “The media and establishment want me out of the race so badly – I WILL NEVER DROP OUT OF THE RACE, WILL NEVER LET MY SUPPORTERS DOWN! #MAGA.” (#MAGA is shorthand for his slogan, “Make America Great Again.”)
On Sunday morning, hours before the second presidential debate with Hillary Clinton, Trump gave his blessing to a populist backlash. Again taking to Twitter, Trump said there were “so many self-righteous hypocrites. Watch their poll numbers — and elections — go down.”
So many self-righteous hypocrites. Watch their poll numbers – and elections – go down!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 9, 2016
Some early poll results show just that. CBS News contacted earlier poll respondents in the swing states of Ohio and Pennsylvania after the Trump tape emerged and found that 91 percent of Trump supporters in Ohio and 90 percent in Pennsylvania said the recording didn’t change their view of him.
A Politico/Morning Consult poll found a similar steadiness among the Republican base, with just 13 percent of Republicans saying the party shouldn’t support Trump. Donald Trump, Jr., gleefully brandished the poll numbers Sunday morning, tweeting that they show “how out of touch Elite are” — something, he added, his father’s campaign “has always been about.”
Trump also consolidated support within his own team. Trump’s vice presidential pick, Mike Pence, had issued a statement midday on Saturday saying he “could not defend” Trump’s remarks and had declined to join Ryan in Wisconsin to stand in for Trump; Pence’s events were scrubbed from the campaign schedule. By Saturday night, however, a robust campaign schedule for Pence was restored, and the VP nominee told a group of donors he was fully committed to Trump, according to the Wall Street Journal.
Some conservative media stalwarts pushed back against party regulars breaking ranks. Radio host and Trump supporter Laura Ingraham tweeted, “the more GOPers fight each other, the more they help the Dems. Dems NEVER turn on each other mid-scandal bc they like to win.”
Without a party establishment to hold him back during Sunday night’s debate, Trump has suggested that he will retaliate by indulging his desire to attack Clinton on her husband’s well-documented infidelity. After his widely panned performance in the first debate, Trump claimed he was planning to bring up Bill Clinton’s sex scandals but decided not to because Chelsea Clinton was in the audience.
Similar restraint appears unlikely Sunday evening at Washington University in St. Louis. In a video apologizing for his 2005 comments, Trump quickly justified his actions by claiming that Bill Clinton “has actually abused women, and Hillary has bullied, attacked, shamed and intimidated his victims.”
Trump followed up this statement on Saturday evening by retweeting Juanita Broaddrick, who has long accused Bill Clinton of raping her in 1978 when he was the attorney general of Arkansas. “Hillary calls Trump’s remarks ‘horrific’ while she lives with and protects a ‘Rapist’,” Broaddrick wrote.
Broaddrick has never supplied definitive evidence to support her accusations, but she has forced Democratic partisans to choose between refusing to believe a woman who says she was raped or to ignore her. Hillary Clinton had to walk back her own statement that “every survivor of sexual assault” has the “right to be believed” when Broadrrick became a favorite talking point in right-wing circles. “Well, I would say that everybody should be believed at first until they are disbelieved based on evidence,” Clinton said at a December town hall event.
Wading into Bill Clinton’s sexual history is a risky tactic for Trump and is likely to blow this campaign into further unchartered waters. Past Republican attacks on Clinton backfired. In the 1998 midterm elections, voters punished the Republican-led Congress for their endless investigation and impeachment of the president over the Monica Lewinsky scandal.
In a Politico/Morning Consult poll the other week, 56 percent of respondents said it was inappropriate for Trump to bring up Bill Clinton’s affairs and the allegation that Hillary Clinton “tried to silence women who accused her husband of infidelity or sexual misconduct.”
But if there’s one lesson Trump has demonstrated this election year, it’s that poll numbers are malleable and he is willing to attack ferociously to win. He’s signaling that he will grab this third rail with both hands in Sunday’s debate — what happens next is guesswork.