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When Trump Should Start Worrying About A 2020 Primary Challenger

Welcome to Pollapalooza, our weekly polling roundup.

Poll of the week

Thirty-eight percent of Republicans believe President Trump should face a GOP primary challenger in the 2020 election, according to a Morning Consult/Politico poll released this week. Fifty percent said he should not; the other 12 percent did not express an opinion.

Other polls have also shown that a significant bloc of Republicans would like to see someone challenge Trump. But it’s hard to know what to make of that 38 percent number. We found a few polls that asked somewhat similar questions about past presidents,1 and there’s a bit more intraparty opposition to Trump than some others, but not much.

Support for a primary challenger to incumbent presidents

Among members of the president’s party

Primary Challenge
President Pollster Date Support Don’t Support
Trump Morning Consult May 2018 38% 50%
CNN March 2018 20 75
YouGov Jan. 2018 31 48
YouGov Jan. 2018 25 57
Obama Marist Nov. 2010 45 46
AP/GFK Nov. 2010 38 58
CNN March 2010 20 76
Clinton CNN Nov. 1994 32 57
Time/CNN/Yankelovich Partners March 1994 32 48

Note: The question wording in these polls varied somewhat, but all tested support for a primary challenger without naming any potential challenge candidate. We limited our search for such polls to each president’s first midterm year and the year after that for presidents since Gerald Ford.

So let’s unpack these numbers in two ways.

Trump’s re-election: The last three incumbent presidents who were defeated (Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter and George H.W. Bush) all have one thing in common: They faced a fairly serious primary challenger.2 In contrast, the other modern presidents who won second terms — Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama — did not draw major primary challengers.3 It’s not totally clear which way the causation runs here — did the primary challenge weaken Ford, Carter and H.W. Bush ahead of the general election, or was it simply a symptom of a weakness that already existed? I tend to believe the second theory.

Either way, Trump should be hoping he is not challenged in a primary. But will it happen anyway?

Is Trump so weak that of course another Republican should challenge him? I’m not sure. As the table above shows, about a third of Democrats wanted someone to challenge Bill Clinton according to a CNN poll conducted in late 1994, but no one ever did, and Clinton cruised to re-election.4 In a March 2010 CNN poll, 20 percent of Democrats wanted a candidate other than Barack Obama. He too never received a serious primary challenge and won re-election. (Somewhat annoyingly, we weren’t able to find similarly phrased questions for Ford, Carter or the elder Bush. )

Overall, the numbers suggest it’s perfectly reasonable for 20 percent of your party to be interested in replacing you with some unnamed alternative, and that’s where a CNN poll had Trump, but nearly 40 percent (Trump’s number in the Politico/Morning Consult poll) is high. And if that’s where this number is in 2019, Trump may be in some trouble. But remember, Obama was in this territory too, in late 2010, before regaining cruising to re-nomination.

Trump’s standing in the party now: When congressional Republicans defend controversial things Trump does or says, political analysts (myself included) often explain the logic behind the officials’ actions by noting that Trump has rock-solid support among self-identified Republican voters, close to 90 percent in some surveys. Many congressional Republicans, particularly those who are seeking re-election, have every incentive not to criticize the president, at least according to his raw approval ratings in the party.

But these numbers, particularly the Morning Consult/Politico survey, suggest a diversity of GOP opinion about the president that is perhaps not captured by the approval question. If a third of Republicans want someone else to run in the primary against the president, that’s less-than-ironclad backing.

Similarly, a Pew Research Center poll released this week found that 63 percent of Republicans who live in urban areas have warm views of Trump, compared to 25 percent who have cold views. (Respondents were asked to rate him on a “feelings thermometer.”) But in rural areas, 71 percent of Republicans had warm views of Trump, compared to 18 percent with cold views. So that data reinforces the idea that there is some weakness in Trump’s backing among Republicans and helps locate where it is — cities. SurveyMonkey polls put Trump’s approval rating at above 90 percent among self-described conservative Republicans, but below 80 among moderate and liberal Republicans. And Trump is more popular among older Republicans than younger ones.

I’m always wary of emphasizing the GOP opposition to Trump, since it had much more bark than bite in 2016 (Trump won the overwhelming majority of Republican voters despite the media attention given to the “Never Trump” bloc in the party). Even this data suggests that Trump is the heavy, heavy favorite to be the GOP nominee. But we should be watching carefully to see if Trump draws a Republican opponent next year — it’s the telltale sign of a weak incumbent president.

Other Polling Nuggets

  • A YouGov poll found that 37 percent of Americans approved of the Supreme Court’s decision to invalidate a federal law prohibiting state legislatures from legalizing sports betting. Twenty percent disapproved, and 43 percent weren’t sure.
  • Morning Consult found that support for net neutrality (the idea that an internet service provide can’t block, throttle or prioritize certain content) increased from 49 percent in December 2017 to 60 percent this month after the Senate voted to restore net neutrality rules that the Federal Communications Commission voted last year to repeal.
  • A new report from Pew Research Center took a deep dive into the differences between urban, suburban and rural communities. The survey found that 58 percent of rural residents said the values of most people in urban areas are different from their own. Fifty-three percent of urban residents said the same of people who live in rural areas.
  • Texas Sen. Ted Cruz is ahead of his Democratic challenger, Beto O’Rourke, 47 percent to 40 percent, according to a poll from JMC Analytics.
  • An online survey by Gravis Marketing found incumbent Democratic Sen. Joe Donnelly of Indiana essentially tied with Republican challenger Mike Braun 46 percent to 47 percent.
  • A YouGov/HuffPost poll found that after the school shooting in Santa Fe, Texas, Americans are no more convinced that gun control is politically possible.
  • Approval for same-sex marriage has reached a new high in the Gallup poll, with 67 percent of Americans saying they should be legally valid. That includes 83 percent of Democrats and 44 percent of Republicans.
  • Yanny or Laurel? HuffPost commissioned a YouGov poll to answer the question after an ambiguous audio recording went viral. The poll found that 35 percent heard “Yanny,” while 31 percent heard “Laurel.” Younger people were more likely to hear “Yanny,” and older people were more likely to hear Laurel.
  • Pew Research Center conducted a survey of attitudes toward news media in eight Western European countries. The poll found larger gaps in trust in news media between people with populist views and those with non-populist views than between people on the political left and those on the political right.

Trump approval

The president’s approval rating (42 percent) and disapproval rating (53 percent) are just slightly better than what they were at this time last month, when about 41 percent of Americans approved of him and 54 percent disapproved.

Generic congressional ballot

The Democrats’ 45 percent to 40 percent lead over the Republicans is narrower than it was this time last month, when they led 47 percent to 40 percent.

Footnotes

  1. Specifically, we looked for polls with similarly phrased questions — did party members want to see the president from their party challenged (without naming any particular potential challenger) — that were asked in each president’s first midterm year and the year after that for presidents since Gerald Ford.

  2. Ronald Reagan for Ford, Ted Kennedy for Carter, Pat Buchanan for Bush.

  3. Defining a “major” primary challenger is tricky and somewhat subjective, as tons of people run for president in both parties every year. We’ve used various complicated criteria to define “serious” candidates in the past. For our purposes here, though, suffice it to say that the re-nominations of Reagan, Clinton, Bush and Obama were never really in doubt.

  4. Not coincidentally, that poll was conducted right after Democrats had lost control of both houses of Congress in the midterms.

Perry Bacon Jr. is a senior writer for FiveThirtyEight.

Dhrumil Mehta is a database journalist at FiveThirtyEight focusing on politics.

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