Two weeks ago, in an interview on Fox News, Sen. Lindsey Graham explained why House Republicans had to purge Rep. Liz Cheney from their leadership. “She’s made a determination that the Republican Party can’t grow with President Trump,” Graham told Sean Hannity. “I’ve determined we can’t grow without him.” Graham framed this as a choice, as though either he or Cheney had to be wrong. But what if they’re both right? What if the GOP, by becoming the Trump party, has trapped itself in a fatal dilemma? Polls suggest that this is precisely what has happened. The GOP can’t afford to alienate its Trumpist base, but it can’t afford to lose anti-Trump Republicans either. By ousting Cheney, the party is risking electoral disaster.
In the fight between Trump and Cheney over the 2020 election and the Jan. 6 insurrection, most Republicans are on Trump’s side. Seventy percent agree (wrongly) that rampant fraud affected the election’s outcome, that Joe Biden didn’t get enough legal votes to win, and that his victory was therefore illegitimate. Fewer than 30 percent of Republicans concede that the Jan. 6 attack was a rebellion or uprising, and only 17 percent call it an insurrection. Thirty-seven percent hold Biden or the Democratic Party primarily responsible for the attack; only 11 percent hold Trump or the GOP primarily responsible. In fact, 35 percent of Republicans insist that “the participants who took part in the events on January 6, 2021 at the U.S. Capitol” were “patriots.”
Cheney wants the Jan. 6 violence to be thoroughly investigated and prosecuted, but most Republicans don’t. In a Pew survey conducted in March, a majority of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents said too much attention had “been paid to the riot at the Capitol and its impacts.” Only half said it was very important “for federal law enforcement agencies to find and prosecute those who broke into the U.S. Capitol,” and 37 percent worried that the offenders would be punished too harshly. In April, in a UMass Amherst/WCVB poll, only 44 percent of Republicans supported “continuing the federal effort to identify, arrest, and charge individuals who participated” in “the events at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6.” Thirty-three percent opposed that effort. In a third survey, taken last week by Civiqs, 75 percent of Republicans opposed “a bipartisan, independent commission to investigate the attack on the U.S. Capitol.”
That’s why Cheney’s colleagues fired her as chair of the House GOP conference: Truth and principle were on her side, but most Republicans weren’t. In polls taken last week, Republican respondents agreed by ratios of 4-to-1 that her colleagues were right to remove her.
But that doesn’t mean the ouster was cost-free. In three polls taken this month, 17 percent to 20 percent of Republicans opposed Cheney’s removal. Independents, by a net margin of 12 to 14 percentage points, were more likely to oppose than support her demotion. A Morning Consult poll found that on balance, registered voters who chose third-party candidates in 2020, or who didn’t vote at all that year, also thought the GOP should have kept her in leadership. In a close election, alienating all these people can be fatal.
Pollsters are just beginning to examine the Cheney sympathizers. In last week’s CBS News survey of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents, most of the 20 percent who opposed her ouster cited among their reasons “There’s room in the party for different views” or “Not everyone should support Donald Trump.” But many gave reasons that will be harder to reconcile with the party’s ongoing campaign to whitewash the insurrection and the lies party leaders told about the election. Thirty-nine percent of respondents who sided with Cheney said “she’s right about the election,” and 37 percent said “she’s right about rule of law.” This core pro-Cheney faction, roughly 35 to 40 percent of 20 percent, adds up to 7 or 8 percent of the Republican-leaning electorate.
House Republicans figure that by the time the 2022 election rolls around, these people will have forgotten a party leadership vote that took place in May 2021. But purging Cheney didn’t solve the GOP’s underlying problem: Trump. In an Echelon Insights poll taken in April, 15 percent of Republican voters said they preferred a GOP “free of Donald Trump’s influence.” In a Navigator survey, when Republicans and Republican leaners were asked whether the party “should continue on the path laid out by Donald Trump” or “make some changes and move in a new direction,” 22 percent chose a new direction. These numbers closely resemble the percentage who have opposed Cheney’s removal in more recent surveys.
And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. The Echelon Insights poll found that beyond the 15 percent of Republicans who wanted to cleanse the party of Trump, another 21 percent preferred a GOP that “supports Donald Trump’s America First agenda but is not led by him,” and a further 23 percent preferred a GOP that “builds on Donald Trump’s successes and moves on from his failures.” Polls continue to show that Trump is an abrasive factor within the party, particularly in his treatment of liberals and racial issues. He’s also an albatross among independents: The Echelon Insights survey found that 57 percent of them would prefer a GOP free of his influence.
On average, Cheney sympathizers and Trump critics are more likely than other Republicans to be moderate, nonwhite, highly educated, and young. In the CBS News survey of Republicans and Republican leaners, one-third of respondents under age 45 who were asked about Cheney’s ouster opposed it. While only one-quarter of respondents age 65 or older acknowledged that Biden had legitimately won the election, half of those under 45 did. And while nearly half of respondents 65 or older said it was very important “for Republicans to be loyal to Donald Trump,” fewer than 30 percent of respondents younger than 45 felt that way. On race, opposition to Trump correlated directly with age: 19 percent of respondents age 65 or older, 33 percent of the 30-to-44 age group, and 43 percent of respondents younger than 30 rejected Trump as a model. The more Trump talks, and the more GOP leaders rally around him, the more they antagonize the rising cohort of younger voters.
House Republicans think they’ll win control next year because it’s a midterm election and they’re the party out of power. But an Economist/YouGov poll taken this week shows how even a small defection by anti-Trump, pro-Cheney Republicans could upend those plans. When respondents were given a choice between three congressional candidates—“the Democratic Party candidate,” “a Republican candidate who supports Donald Trump,” and “a Republican candidate who does not support Donald Trump,” 10 percent of Republicans chose the GOP candidate who didn’t support Trump. If supporters of the two Republican candidates were to unite against the Democratic candidate, the result would be a tie. But without help from voters who preferred the anti-Trump Republican, the pro-Trump Republican would lose to the Democrat by 7 points.*
We’ve already seen how costly such defections can be. Last year, after Trump and his allies attacked and ostracized Republican Sens. John McCain and Jeff Flake of Arizona, McCain’s widow and Flake endorsed Biden and campaigned against Trump. They brought 9 percent of the state’s Republican voters with them, tipping its 11 electoral votes to Biden. Instead of learning from that debacle, Trumpist Republicans decided to inspect Arizona’s ballots for bamboo fibers, as though China were to blame. They’d be better off thinking about how many more states and districts anti-Trump defectors could cost them in 2022.
Correction, May 20, 2021: This article originally misstated that in the Economist/YouGov poll, the pro-Trump Republican candidate, without help from dissenting Republican voters, would lose to the Democratic candidate by 7 points. Dissenting Republican voters would account for only part of that deficit. The full 7-point gap would be the result of losing all voters—Republicans, Democrats, and independents—who had supported the anti-Trump Republican candidate.