It’s still unclear how Donald Trump’s boasts of sexually assaulting women will affect his standing in the presidential race. An NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll conducted over the weekend, after a recording of Trump’s vulgarities surfaced, showed him dropping precipitously. But a Politico/Morning Consult poll conducted Saturday showed Trump’s support holding steady.
Both polls show that large majorities of Republicans are sticking with Trump. Sixty-seven percent of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents said congressional candidates should still support Trump, according to the NBC/Wall Street Journal poll. In the Politico/Morning Consult poll, 74 percent of Republicans agreed that party leaders should continue to back the embattled nominee.
How can we explain such high levels of support for Trump from the Republican electorate when so many party elites have withdrawn their support?
Let’s start with the fact that Trump isn’t Hillary Clinton. More importantly, he’s not a Democrat.
Republicans who don’t want to support Trump face an unpleasant decision: Vote for Trump, or allow Clinton to become president. No third-party candidate has a chance at winning a single electoral vote, much less the presidency. Writing in Mike Pence isn’t going to work. Trump isn’t going to walk away from the race. So the choices are: 1. Vote for Trump, or, 2. Vote for someone else and help elect a Democrat.
For many Republicans (and Democrats), the idea of aiding the other party is anathema. In an April HuffPost/YouGov survey, 76 percent of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents agreed that “the worst Republican candidate for president is still better than the Democratic candidates.” The same proportion of Democrats said the same thing about their party. More than half of Republicans, and just under half of Democrats, strongly agreed with the statement. Less than 10 percent of each group strongly disagreed.
None of these numbers are surprising. Party identification is by far the strongest predictor of vote choice in American elections, and has been for decades. The first empirical political science studies of why people vote the way they do came to one firm conclusion: Party identification drives vote choice. That’s as true today as it was in the 1940s and 1950s.
Those who aren’t committed to a party, or who are only weakly committed, don’t see the party choice as one between competing ways of life. They are more likely to be swayed by personalities and candidates. These are likely the people whose support Trump lost in the NBC/WSJ poll since his lewd tape was published ― although the poll doesn’t break down the results by party. Given Republicans’ strong preference that GOP candidates continue to support Trump, it’s likely voters’ support didn’t wane much.
Perhaps the most perplexing aspect of this continued support for Trump is that a substantial Republican Party pillar in recent years has been morality. Even before the recording became public, Trump was never a strong example of conservative Christian values.
There’s plenty of precedent for Republicans’ willingness to ignore a candidate’s derogatory comments that may appear to challenge their support on moral grounds: Trump’s racist and bigoted remarks haven’t seemed to damage his support within the party. A HuffPost/YouGov poll shed some light on this, finding that most people were unwilling to say that racism and bigotry makes someone a bad person.
But this latest revelation seems to be a stronger challenge to Republicans’ sense of morality, given that Trump was caught saying he sexually assaulted women and got away with it because of his celebrity. Trump dismisses his boasts as merely “locker-room banter,” and Republicans seem willing to accept that. Sixty-six percent of Republicans agree with Trump’s characterization in the Politico/Morning Consult poll.
A 2005 study sheds light on why Republicans are willing to overlook these moral issues. Again, the answer is party identification. Paul Goren, professor of political science at the University of Minnesota, found that party identification can be more important to Americans’ political decisions than how they feel about “core political values,” such as equal opportunity, limited government and moral tolerance.
The strength of party identification explains why Republicans seem likely to stand by their man. Continuing to support Trump is incomprehensible to Democrats and many independents. But Republicans see it’s either stick with Trump or help elect someone from a party they so strongly oppose.
Some Republican Party elites are choosing morality and decency over party loyalty. It remains to be seen what the electorate will do.
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Editor’s note: Donald Trump regularly incites political violence and is a serial liar, rampant xenophobe, racist, misogynist and birther who has repeatedly pledged to ban all Muslims — 1.6 billion members of an entire religion — from entering the U.S.