Shortly before the 2016 presidential primaries began, the influential conservative outlet the National Review devoted an entire edition of its biweekly magazine to making the ideological case “against Trump.”
The issue featured essays from over 20 prominent conservatives explaining why Donald Trump’s campaign was “a menace to conservatism.” It also included a scathing editorial from the National Review’s editors, which disparaged the Republican Party’s then-presidential frontrunner as “a philosophically unmoored political opportunist who would trash the broad conservative ideological consensus within the GOP in favor of a free-floating populism with strong-man overtones.”
With Trump’s campaign rhetoric rejecting the party’s “broad conservative ideological consensus” in favor of heterodox positions on issues from government spending to restricting free markets to isolationist foreign policies, it’s not surprising that he performed relatively poorly with “very conservative” voters in the 2016 Republican primaries.
But that prior pattern has now completely reversed itself in early polling on the 2024 Republican primaries.
In a February 2016 poll from Quinnipiac University, Trump received only 27 percent support among Republican and Republican-leaning registered voters who described themselves as “very conservative” — 18 percentage points worse than he did with “somewhat conservative” GOP primary voters. Quinnipiac’s March 2023 poll, however, suggests that Trump now has the support of 61 percent of “very conservative” Republican primary voters — 18 points higher than his support among the “somewhat conservatives.”
Trump’s strong showing among the most conservative voters shows up in other early polling on the 2024 primaries as well. A late April SurveyUSA Poll of likely primary voters in North Carolina had him winning 72 percent of “very conservative” Republicans, compared with less than half of other Republican voters. Likewise, another late April survey from Echelon Insights showed Trump polling 27 percentage points better among “very conservative” Republicans in head-to-head nationwide primary matchups against Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis than he did with “somewhat conservative” Republicans (77 percent to 50 percent).
These results raise the question of why the ideology of Trump’s base has changed so dramatically from 2016 to 2023.
There are undoubtedly multiple factors at play here, but perhaps the biggest are the profound ways in which Trump’s presidency shifted the meaning of conservatism in U.S. politics. As political scientists Dan Hopkins and Hans Noel documented in a previous piece for FiveThirtyEight, Trump has come to define who and what Republican Party activists — that is, people who volunteer for political campaigns, donate money, work for politicians, etc. — think of as conservative. Their research, for instance, found that GOP activists viewed Trump critics like former Sens. Ben Sasse and Patrick Toomey as much less conservative than their voting records in Congress indicated. Meanwhile, GOP activists viewed Trump boosters as the most reliably conservative politicians.
But Trump has also powerfully redefined what constitutes conservatism for rank-and-file Republican voters, according to my analyses of data from the Cooperative Election Survey — a massive academic survey administered by YouGov that asks over 50,000 respondents every two years to, among other things, rate politicians’ ideologies on a seven-point scale from “very liberal” to “very conservative.”
According to CES data, Republicans nationwide now view Trump as more conservative than they did immediately before the 2016 general election. On the other hand, Utah Republicans perceived Sen. Mitt Romney as a lot less conservative after his February 2020 vote to convict Trump during his first impeachment trial. But that decline pales in comparison to the utter evaporation of former Rep. Liz Cheney’s conservative credentials. Wyoming Republicans repeatedly rated Cheney as a solid conservative in 2016, 2018 and 2020. Yet her reputation as a stalwart conservative vanished entirely after she voted to impeach Trump in January 2021 and subsequently became one of the former president’s most vocal critics in Congress as vice chair of the House committee investigating the Jan. 6 insurrection — so much so, that Wyoming Republicans placed her all the way on the liberal side of the ideological spectrum in the 2022 CES.
Romney and Cheney are not the only politicians whose conservative bona fides have been questioned after criticizing Trump. The seven Republican senators who voted to convict the former president during his second impeachment trial were all rated as much less conservative than we would otherwise expect from their Senate voting records, as measured by the first dimension of DW-NOMINATE — a political science metric that scores congressional voting records from -1 (most liberal) to 1 (most conservative). Even after we control for those voting records, Republican CES respondents, on average, rated the GOP senators who convicted Trump a full category (i.e., “middle of the road” instead of “somewhat conservative” or “conservative” instead of “very conservative”) more liberal than the senators who acquitted him on the CES’s seven-point ideological scale.
It certainly seems from these results, then, that Trump has not only reshaped the Republican Party in his own image; he has also redefined what it means to be a conservative. So, while an awful lot can change over the course of the primary campaign, it appears that Trump will garner disproportionate support from self-described “very conservative” Republicans in the 2024 primaries. Conservatism, after all, is becoming increasingly synonymous with Trumpism in the minds of GOP voters.
Author: Michael Tesler