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Mellman: The GOP's continuing Donald Trump problem

Mellman: The GOP's continuing Donald Trump problem
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Donald Trump isn’t finished inflicting pain on the Republican Party. Republicans’ unwillingness to deal with their Trump problem, as late as his second impeachment, could well cost them dearly in 2022 and beyond.

My Republican colleague, and Trump pollster, Tony Fabrizio, racks up the data that should be scaring the daylights out his fellow travelers.

For reasons we’ve discussed, most Republican office holders are more worried about primary challenges than about general election defeats — and that concern attaches them to Trump’s hip.

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Fabrizio’s data demonstrates the former president’s formidable grip on the party he cares not a whit about. Over half would support him in 2024 presidential primary; 88 percent liked the job he did as president; 49 percent consider themselves more Trump supporters than Republicans; offered a choice among a Trump Republican, a Bush Republican, and Reagan Republican, 51 percent opt for the Trump Republican; 57 percent want him continuing to lead the GOP.

To cross him is to take a very serious risk in a party primary. Indeed, nine of the 10 House Republicans who voted for impeachment have already drawn primary challengers.

Fabrizio uses combinations of these questions to dissect his party into five tribes based on their assessments of Trump.

He identified 27 percent of Republicans as “Diehard Trumpers” who idolize the man and another 10 percent as “InfoWars” Republicans because they share those feelings about Trump, while also embracing QAnon conspiracy theories.

That’s 37 percent of Republicans who are really “always Trumpers.”

He classifies another 28 percent as “Trump boosters,” who unanimously approve of him, but “only” 75 percent of whom think he should continue to lead the party and “just” 57 percent would support a Trump Republican over a Reagan or Bush Republican.

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A clear majority of Republicans solidly back the ex-president and we haven’t even gotten to the segment of Republicans who like him but think it’s time for someone else to lead.

In short, if you’re a Republican who wants to win a primary, the low-risk route is a pilgrimage to Mar-a-Lago on bended knee, to kiss his ring, if not his hindquarters.

But here’s the problem for the GOP — if you’re one of the relatively few who face a tough general election you could hardly pick a worse strategy.

Non-Republicans have already made known their antipathy to Trump. That’s why the GOP lost the White House, the Senate and the House. It’s why 203 congressional districts gave President BidenJoe BidenBiden announces picks to lead oceans, lands agencies Overnight Defense: Top general concerned about Afghan forces after US troops leave | Pentagon chief: Climate crisis 'existential' threat to US national security | Army conducts review after 4 Black soldiers harassed at Virginia IHOP Feds expect to charge scores more in connection to Capitol riot MORE a margin of 5 points or more.

2020 was close only because Republicans turned out and stuck together. Depending on which exit poll you look at, 91 to 94 percent of Republicans voted for Trump and GOP House candidates.

Post-Trump and post-Jan. 6 insurrection, the Republican party is not evenly divided, but it is divided.

According to Fabrizio, 18 percent of Republicans have an unfavorable view of Trump. Fifteen percent say he was a bad president and should no longer lead the party, while another 28 percent say he may have done a good job, but the GOP needs someone new.

All told, Fabrizio classed 15 percent of Republicans as “Never Trump” and another 20 percent as ”post-Trump” — partisans who thought he may have done a good job, but don’t want him leading the party and don’t want to vote for him again.

Let’s say you’re a House Republican who won by a comfortable 10-point margin, but half of those Republicans hostile to Trump, defected to the Democrat in 2022 or just stay home. At best you’d tie and those with lesser margins would lose.

Now I’m not suggesting it’s that simple or that voters will behave just that way. But while the GOP may not be split, it is fractured, and those fractures are significant enough to have real electoral consequences.

Fealty to Trump that may be necessary to win a primary could be politically deadly in a general election.

Republicans have no one to blame for this conundrum but themselves — and their leaders.

Mellman is president of The Mellman Group and has helped elect 30 U.S. Senators, 12 governors and dozens of House members. Mellman served as pollster to Senate Democratic leaders for over 20 years, as president of the American Association of Political Consultants, and is president of Democratic Majority for Israel.