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Trump’s Near Unanimous Approval Among GOP Rank-And-File Leaves Little Room For Primary Challenge

Trump's Near Unanimous Approval Among GOP Rank-And-File Leaves Little Room For Primary Challenge

As if right on cue, the media began the 2020 presidential primary chatter before the final votes were even counted in November’s midterm election – and indeed, they’re still counting. With virtually every registered Democrat in the country considering a 2020 presidential bid, most of the chatter has revolved around the party out of power. Plenty of likely Democratic players are already making big moves – rendering the so-called “invisible primary” perfectly visible. But Democrats aren’t hogging all of the attention. More than a few have considered the possibility that Trump, a historically unpopular president, could face a challenge within his party. An ex-state party chairwoman for the New Hampshire GOP recently went so far as to say it was “inevitable” that Trump will be primaried. But what does history tell us about these odds? The verdict is pretty resounding: Trump is unlikely to face a “serious” primary challenge and is even less likely to lose against a challenger if he does.

Of the eleven presidents to face re-election in the modern polling era, only four experienced serious primary challenges – George H. W. Bush in 1992, Jimmy Carter in 1980, Gerald Ford in 1976, and Lyndon Johnson in 1968. None of them were successful (LBJ never officially announced a re-election campaign, and famously stated “I shall not seek, and I will not accept, the nomination of my party for another term as your president” following the first primary contest). Compounding the problem for any would-be GOP challengers to Trump is his standing with the Republican rank-and-file. As of this writing, he boasts an 89% approval rating among members of his own party, according to the long-standing presidential approval tracker, Gallup. The consistency of his high level of support over the last two years is remarkable, never exceeding his current 89% rating, never falling below 79%, and averaging 85%. The four incumbents who faced serious primary challenges for re-election all saw lower approval ratings among members of their party at similar points in their presidencies. Only one president in the last 70+ years saw an approval rating higher than Trump’s among his own party at a similar point in his presidency – George W. Bush, just over a year after the 9/11 attacks.

Trump's Near Unanimous Approval Among GOP Rank-And-File Leaves Little Room For Primary Challenge

Source: Gallup Presidential Job Approval Center

Looking at the most recent time a sitting president faced a serious intraparty challenge, the 1992 Republican primary battle between George H.W. Bush and Pat Buchanan is inarguably the least “serious” of the four. Buchanan only captured 23% of the vote, to Bush’s 73%. Still, Buchanan had an unexpectedly strong finish in New Hampshire and captured nearly three million votes overall, to the president’s nine million. An average of November 1990 Gallup polling found President Bush with a 79% approval rating among Republicans. By the time Pat Buchanan officially launched his campaign on December 10, 1991, the president’s approval rating among Republicans had fallen to 73%. After Buchanan’s strong New Hampshire finish, it had fallen to 63%. At its lowest, the president’s approval rating among Republicans bottomed out at 57% just a few weeks before the Republican National Convention. His average approval rating among Republicans from the first primary contest to the conclusion of the RNC was 68%. These ratings allowed President Bush to win every primary contest and three-quarters of the popular vote.

In 1980, Sen. Ted Kennedy came even closer than Buchanan to toppling an incumbent president in the primary. During the month of the 1978 midterms, Gallup found Carter’s average approval rating among Democrats at 66%. Mired by inflation and an energy crisis, his rating had dropped to 40% just before Kennedy’s official November 7, 1979 entry in the race. Carter ultimately defeated Kennedy 51-38%, winning twenty-six contests to Kennedy’s twelve. He averaged a 50% job approval rating among members of his own party from the time of the New Hampshire primary to the end of the Democratic National Convention in August 1980, on par with his 51% share of the primary popular vote.

In 1976, then ex-Gov. Ronald Reagan came even closer than Buchanan or Kennedy to upsetting a sitting president of his own party. With the start of the primary season over a year away, newly-seated President Gerald Ford’s job approval rating among Republicans averaged 70% in November 1974. It had dropped to 60% when Reagan entered the presidential race on Nov. 20, 1975. By the time of the New Hampshire primary three months later, his rating among Republicans was at 69%, which was also his average rating from the time of the New Hampshire primary through the Republican National Convention (though this may not be entirely accurate, as Gallup conducted no polling on Ford’s approval rating following the final primary contest in June 1976 to the end of his presidency). In the end, Ford captured 53.3% of the primary vote, to Reagan’s 45.9%. Ford won seventeen contests, to Reagan’s eleven.

I’ll also mention LBJ, because he did face a serious primary challenge before ultimately opting not to run for re-election. In a November Gallup survey following the 1966 midterm, President Johnson had a 66% approval rating among Democrats. It dropped to 62% when his first challenger – Eugene McCarthy – announced his intent to run on Nov. 30, 1967. By the time of his narrow 49-42% victory over McCarthy in the New Hampshire primary on March 12, 1968, and Bobby Kennedy’s entry into the race on March 16, Johnson’s approval among Democrats had dropped to 52%. On March 31, he announced in a televised address that he would not be a candidate for president again.

In the end, Donald Trump may very well face a primary challenge in his quest for re-election. And there’s no shortage of Republicans interested in the uphill battle. But history suggests that Trump’s current level of support from the rank-and-file would make it nearly impossible for Jeff Flake, John Kasich, or Larry Hogan to gain any traction. At this point in the 2020 cycle, Trump has the approval of 9 in 10 members of his own party. No president to face a serious primary challenge in the modern polling era saw such lofty numbers at a similar point in their re-election bid. The closest comparison would be George H.W. Bush, who was at 79% approval among Republicans in November of his second year in office. But even his “serious” challenger only managed to attract 23% of the vote, and won zero contests. If Republican approval of President Trump does not drop, and drop significantly, he’s a shoo-in for re-nomination. But that won’t stop the media from angling for a competitive GOP primary, even though there likely won’t be one.


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Brandon Allen is an attorney in Charlotte who writes and tweets about polls and elections.

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30 thoughts on “Trump’s Near Unanimous Approval Among GOP Rank-And-File Leaves Little Room For Primary Challenge

  1. The partisan differential in Trump’s approval rating interests me. I can’t say that I can definitively explain it, but I have a theory.

    Some conservative friends have boasted about how intellectually diverse Republican Party is. I tend to agree with him, but the question then arises, what holds them together? Why don’t they fragment. The glib answer is that they are more authoritarian, but that seems more of an insult than an answer to me.

    What I do observe is that what holds conservatives together, the thing they share in common, is animosity toward liberals. By this metric, if someone is doing something that upsets liberals/Democrats, they must be doing something right. This idea – “he pisses off the right people” – has been with Trump from the beginning. I have a friend that goes on conservative discussion boards all the time. He says, “I can say anything I want as long as I insult liberals first”.

    I think this is a terrible basis for forming a group or a political party. But it’s right in Trump’s wheelhouse. He is extraordinarily adept at mobilizing other peoples anger, hatred, and resentment in directions that benefit himself.

    For a time, my own political life was given over to “things I hate”. This was not good for me, for my health, or for the country. Fortunately, nobody came to me to make policy. The media, especially internet media, continues to merchandise hatred and outrage at a prodigious rate.

    So, no. There will be no primary challenge. Trump is the guy. The Republican Party has ceased to be about any particular ideas and is wholly given over to “whatever makes liberals mad”.

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    • What I do observe is that what holds conservatives together, the thing they share in common, is animosity toward liberals. By this metric, if someone is doing something that upsets liberals/Democrats, they must be doing something right. This idea – “he pisses off the right people” – has been with Trump from the beginning. I have a friend that goes on conservative discussion boards all the time. He says, “I can say anything I want as long as I insult liberals first”.

      This is part of a bigger picture, where conservatives think of libs like the Borg from the Star Trek movies, a nasty soulless creature that’s going to assimilate away everything good in the world. This is why I don’t take those approval numbers too seriously, they are statement of solidarity against the Borg and nothing else. The same with trashing libs on right-wing message boards.

      As far as a primary challenge goes, this points to the strategy that every plausible primary opponent is missing: the point isn’t to repudiate Trump, but rather transcend him. Ie, “Trump was or might have been the right answer to the choices available for us in 2016, but we’re not in 2016 any more.”

      This holds both politically and substantively. I don’t think either of the Clintons are going to be a significant factor for 2020, and whoever would replace them are going to be fresh enough in the voters’ minds so that they are not going to be associated with the Clintons or the things the voters hated about Clinton-style politics. And, there is less necessity for Trump policy-wise among Republicans. Whatever it’s worth to oppose immigration, and to stand for parochial American interests in trade policy or foreign policy, etc it’s much more plausible now that some other Republican could uphold those things than it was before the Trump era.

      The good news for the GOP, as such, is that I think the Democrats are in for a rude awakening as it pertains to stickiness of Trump, or the unpopularity through association. I think that’s a very powerful force in American politics as long as Trump is the President and de facto party leader, and will dissipate to nearly nothing just as soon as he is gone.

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  2. My explanation for Trump’s approval rating in the GOP is twofold:

    1) The economy is doing well. Carter, Bush and Ford were all presiding over weak economies.

    2) Evaporative cooling. Those who don’t like Trump have stopped identifying themselves as Republicans, leaving the hardcore Trumpists to dominate the party.

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  3. I think there’s been a long-trending change in how people respond to pollsters. It probably reflects our “like/dislike” Manichaean culture. I don’t think it reflects how people think so much as how they signal. Then again, the more you signal a certain way, the more likely you are to develop thinking in that way. And if the ultimate question is how people respond in a binary vote, then it doesn’t much matter whether people’s thinking is more shaded than their poll responses. I don’t know – I don’t like that implication, but I think it’s correct.

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  4. The George HW Bush trend I think is instructive, in that he started with high enough favorables in-party, but the surprising semi-success of Buchanan eroded them and then it became a self-fulfilling downward spiral.

    That said, what’s also notable is that every primary challenger has been from the wings, not the center. The wings are getting what they want, so nobody’s going to primary Trump from that angle. ‘Centrist’ intraparty insurgencies are as pointless and useless as John Anderson’s 1980 run (or McMuffin’s 2016 one).

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  5. Yeah, this is an odd one for me. The reason to have a new candidate is so strategically overwhelming for me that it’s odd that there hasn’t been any movement in that direction so far.

    Basically there’s two reasons for it as best as I can tell. First, we’re in a stalemate in terms of factions within the party. The Never Trump people would like to support another candidate, but they are held in very low esteem within the party and don’t necessarily want to be Republicans very bad anyway. The rest of the party think of itself in opposition to Never Trumpers and Democrats, so its first instinct is to get behind Trump. So it’s hard to find a place to come from as a candidate.

    The other one is that GOP voters are feeling very defensive and beleaguered and motivated to hold on to what they have, and a primary challenge feels like it’s giving something up.

    It’s really a shame. I won’t say that there’s no chance Trump could be reelected by I find it doubtful. As a scientific wild-ass guess, if the 2020 general election comes down to Trump vs one of the Democrats you’d guess, I’d favor the D’s somewhere between 80-20 and 90-10. If it’s any other Republican, I’d say the GOP is a 60-40 favorite.

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    • I’m usually loathe to agree with you, but yeah, if Rubio or Jeb had somehow won (my odd opinion is Trump is the only person that could’ve beat Hillary or Bernie because he activated certain voters that others candidates wouldn’t have ), and they’d done all the things Trump did that I dislike, but are normal GOP things, and didn’t do all the dumb overreaching things he’s done, they’d be hovering around 60-ish% approval.

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      • Yeah it’s circular. Jeb or Rubio wouldn’t have won PA, MI or WI so it’s moot; the voters Trump drew there came because of the same conservatiarian heresies that Rubio and Jes eschewed. But if they were somehow in office now they’d probably be polling better and looking much stronger for the next election.

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      • I don’t know. I didn’t correctly guess what the voters would do in 2016 – I hardly ever do. But in retrospect, it’s hard to believe that Clinton could have beaten anyone. She ran a horrible campaign. If that campaign was a movie, her staff was a beloved cop who was retiring at the end of the week and a teenage girl who left the cabin to go find a missing axe. She was off-putting, ill, and under FBI investigation. She had one selling point, and it wasn’t nearly enough. I suspect that the only person she could have beaten was another woman, because it would have forced her off the “I’m with HER” thing and made her run an actual campaign.

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        • But in retrospect, it’s hard to believe that Clinton could have beaten anyone.

          If the Democratic Leadership cannot reach the point where they understand why Clinton lost, I worry that they won’t be able to beat Trump in 2020.

          If they comfort themselves with thoughts of Russians and gerrymandering and the popular vote, then I’ll conclude that they care more about comfort than about winning in 2020.

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        • She was off-putting, ill, and under FBI investigation.

          But…as has now been conclusively proven…

          Those were the qualities that won the hearts of Trump voters.

          Maybe she just wasn’t off-putting enough, ill enough, and under a sufficient number of FBI investigations to win over that choice demographic.

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          • I understand the joke that you were going for, but you’re wrong on all three points, so I have to assume that your thinking is being clouded by partisanship here. I’m not making any ideological observation here, and I’m no fan of Trump. But he was healthy, he wasn’t known to be under investigation, and – this is something I didn’t realize at the time – he was more likable than Clinton. People looked at Donald Trump and said, now there’s an honest, decent person who can relate to my day-to-day life. Think about that. Outside of a group of Hollywood high-donation bundlers, she was either barely tolerated or hated. And this was against Donald Trump. I have to figure that in a hypothetical race against a non-detestable person she would have gotten trounced.

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            • This needs proper punctuation:

              …he was more likable than Clinton.

              *video of Trump mocking the disabled reporter*
              *rimshot*

              People looked at Donald Trump and said, now there’s an honest, decent person who can relate to my day-to-day life.

              *Photo of Trump in his gilded mansion, with audio of him bragging of grabbing women by the pussy because he’s an untouchable star*

              Heyoooh!

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  6. Koz: Yeah,thisisanoddoneforme.Thereasontohaveanewcandidateissostrategicallyoverwhelmingformethatit’soddthattherehasn’tbeenanymovementinthatdirectionsofar.

    Um no its really simple – Republicans have power in the Senate and WH, and considering the losses in state houses and governorships this year they don’t want to loose more power. You hold that power by keeping the current guy in office. This si not rocket surgery.

    TheotheroneisthatGOPvotersarefeelingverydefensiveandbeleagueredandmotivatedtoholdontowhattheyhave,andaprimarychallengefeelslikeit’sgivingsomethingup.

    While I can see how Trump supporters reach this conclusion, part of the reason these folks are besieged by the left is, frankly, they are supporting politicians who are advocating for policies that are not good (at best) for most of the country. Trickle Down Economics – and its concomitant tax cuts – aren’t doing any good for “normal” people, and neither are the rollbacks of environmental regulations, or educational directives or financial regulations. The ACA canard is almost played out – House Democrats will likely introduce legislation to actually fix its issues (many of which were caused by Republican intransigence in the first place).

    It’sreallyashame.Iwon’tsaythatthere’snochanceTrumpcouldbereelectedbyIfinditdoubtful.Asascientificwild-assguess,ifthe2020generalelectioncomesdowntoTrumpvsoneoftheDemocratsyou’dguess,I’dfavortheD’ssomewherebetween80-20and90-10.Ifit’sanyotherRepublican,I’dsaytheGOPisa60-40favorite.

    Well, considering No One thought Mr. Trump would win in the first place – including a lot of Republicans – I’m not sure I’d make that bet

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