Exclusive: Defeated and impeached, Trump still commands the loyalty of the GOP's voters
If there's a civil war in the Republican Party, the voters who backed Donald Trump in November's election are ready to choose sides.
An exclusive Suffolk University/USA TODAY Poll finds Trump's support largely unshaken after his second impeachment trial in the Senate, this time on a charge of inciting an insurrection in the deadly assault on the Capitol Jan. 6.
By double digits, 46%-27%, those surveyed say they would abandon the GOP and join the Trump party if the former president decided to create one. The rest are undecided.
"We feel like Republicans don't fight enough for us, and we all see Donald Trump fighting for us as hard as he can, every single day," Brandon Keidl, 27, a Republican and small-business owner from Milwaukee, says in an interview after being polled. "But then you have establishment Republicans who just agree with establishment Democrats and everything, and they don't ever push back."
Half of those polled say the GOP should become "more loyal to Trump," even at the cost of losing support among establishment Republicans. One in five, 19%, say the party should become less loyal to Trump and more aligned with establishment Republicans.
The survey of 1,000 Trump voters, identified from 2020 polls, was taken by landline and cellphone last Monday through Friday. The margin of error is plus or minus 3.1 percentage points.
They express stronger loyalty to Trump the person (54%) than they did to the Republican Party that twice nominated him for the White House (34%).
A post-Trump era? Not so fast
Those will presumably be distressing findings for Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell and other senior GOP figures who had hoped Trump's decisive defeat for reelection and his subsequent impeachment might mean a post-Trump era was poised to begin.
The overwhelming allegiance the former president commands among the party's voters gives him the standing to weigh in on GOP primaries and seek retribution on those officeholders who voted to impeach and convict him. He is scheduled to make his first major address since leaving the White House at the influential Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) next Sunday in Orlando, Florida.
Though a majority of the Senate voted to convict Trump in his second impeachment trial, by 57-43, lawmakers failed to reach the two-thirds threshold required for conviction. He was acquitted Feb. 13.
Trump voters are prepared to punish those who crossed him. Eight in 10 say they would be less likely to vote for a Republican candidate who supported Trump's impeachment, as 10 representatives did in the House. An equal portion, 80%, say the seven Republican senators who voted to convict Trump were motivated by political calculations, not their consciences.
Trump doesn't need to form a third party, says Francis Zovko, 63, a Republican from Jefferson Hills, Pennsylvania. "I think he's just going to, you know, take over the Republican Party, much as he did in 2016," the systems analyst says. "They all kind of thought he was a big joke, and by the end, they weren't laughing anymore."
Only 4% say the impeachment trial made them less supportive of Trump; 42% say it made them more supportive. Fifty-four percent say it didn't affect their support.
Paleologos on the Poll: Move over Fox News, Trump voters are shifting toward Newsmax, OANN
Embracing an untruth: antifa's role
Most Trump voters embrace a version of events on Jan. 6 that has been debunked by independent fact checkers and law enforcement agencies.
Asked to describe what happened during the assault on the Capitol, 58% of Trump voters call it "mostly an antifa-inspired attack that only involved a few Trump supporters." That's more than double the 28% who call it "a rally of Trump supporters, some of whom attacked the Capitol." Four percent call it "an attempted coup inspired by President Trump."
Law enforcement investigations found no evidence of a role by antifa, a loose alliance of leftist, anti-fascist groups that have staged demonstrations in some cities, particularly on the West Coast. Most of those arrested in the assault Jan. 6 identified themselves as Trump supporters.
"It looked horrendous, but how are we to know who was actually taking part?" asks Christine Rodriguez, 79, a Republican from Galveston, Texas, who was among those surveyed. "You could have somebody planted there from the left ... pretending to be a real Trump supporter."
"There were a variety of people who were there," says William Case, 40, an electrician and independent voter from Vacaville, California. "I mean, outside there was a bunch of Trump supporters that didn't go in, but there's video proof of other groups that did, antifa being one of them. There were also reporters that broke in and followed everybody."
Though credentialed journalists covered the attack, some after being trapped in the Capitol, none has been charged with wrongdoing. No one known to be affiliated with antifa has been among those arrested.
In the poll, more than nine of 10 Trump voters say the former president isn't guilty of inciting an insurrection. Almost 8 in 10 say the crowd would have stormed the Capitol even if Trump hadn't urged them to "fight like hell" at a rally outside the White House that day.
Calling Trump responsible for the attack is "insane," protests Jane Wiles, 76, a retired insurance manager from Treasure Island, Florida. "Was he there? No. Unless he was there leading the pack, he is not responsible."
By 2-1, 59%-29%, Trump voters say they want him to run for president again in 2024. If he ran, three of four, 76%, would support him for the nomination; 85% would vote for him in a general election.
"I think he's probably exhausted," says Peter St. Ong, 47, an independent voter from Berlin, New Hampshire. Trump might decide not to run again, he says, then reconsiders: "He seems to be more or less addicted to being the center of conversation, so I would honestly be pretty shocked" if he didn't run again in 2024.
Even so, St. Ong suggests it's possible that in four years, the Republican Party would be ready to turn to a fresh face. "I do like the populist ideas that he has brought into the party," he says of Trump. On the other hand, "his mouth kind of got away with him sometimes, and I think some of these other people have a little bit more discipline, so they might be more successful, more able to reach across the aisle."
No honeymoon for Biden
Trump voters aren't ready to acknowledge Joe Biden as president despite his margin of victory of 7 million votes nationwide.
Three of four, 73%, say Biden wasn't legitimately elected. Most don't want their representatives to cooperate with him, even if that means gridlock in Washington.
Six in 10, 62%, say congressional Republicans "should do their best to stand up to Biden on major policies, even if it means little gets passed." That's more than double the 26% who say congressional Republicans "should do their best to work with Biden on major policies, even if it means making compromises."
There are disquieting findings in the poll for Fox News, which has prospered as the dominant news source for conservatives. In a USA TODAY/Suffolk Poll in October 2016, 58% of Trump voters said Fox was their most trusted source of news. In the new poll, that drops to 34%.
Trust has risen in two relatively new outlets that have made their reputations by championing Trump. Newsmax is the most trusted among 17% of Trump voters, followed by 9% for One American News Network, or OANN.
David Paleologos, director of the Suffolk University Political Research Center, says the findings could reflect "a seismic shift in the landscape of trusted news sources for conservatives in the country."