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Is Trump’s Influence Starting to Fade?

Is Trump’s Influence Starting to Fade?

Thursday, 29 July, 2021 - 04:15

Republicans who have been hoping that former President Donald Trump will somehow just fade away got a glimmer of hope Tuesday. In a House special election in Texas with two Republicans competing in a runoff, the Trump-endorsed candidate was defeated.

Now, measuring the effects of endorsements across a full election cycle is difficult, and assessing the effect on a single contest is basically impossible. (That’s true of almost everything, whether it’s endorsements or campaign ads or speeches or debates.) There are too many possible factors, and only one outcome. However, the result in Texas does suggest that some of the more exaggerated expectations about Trump’s endorsement were overstated. If he can’t deliver in a low-interest contest without an incumbent on the ballot — and we can at least say that he failed to generate any kind of turnout surge for Susan Wright, his preferred candidate — then it seems less likely that he can bump off otherwise safe incumbent Republicans in primary elections with little effort.

But what matters isn’t how important Trump’s endorsement actually was. It’s how his endorsements are perceived by Republican party actors, especially politicians. And thus as soon as state Representative Jake Ellzey was declared the winner, everyone immediately started speculating that, as CNN’s Manu Raju said about Trump, “This loss will undoubtedly be interpreted as a sign of the waning influence of his endorsement.”

How much of a sign is still to be seen. But these kinds of perceptions can change rapidly, based on relatively flimsy evidence.

Political scientist David Karol notes that Trump himself can affect his reputation, and suspects he’ll take action to “endorse more selectively” going forward. Perhaps. Endorsements have been one of the few areas in which Trump has, at times, appeared to behave as a normal, incentive-driven politician, although he’s made some seemingly random picks as well. It’s quite possible that Trump will instead place the blame elsewhere and decide he got it right after all. It’s also unclear if Trump has the capacity to choose well at this point. He doesn’t seem to have much of a political shop surrounding him, and his endorsements may well be based on which candidates are good at flattering him.

Still, Trump’s influence isn’t entirely dependent on the perception that he can swing primary elections. It’s also based on the (almost certainly accurate) belief that Trump has no fundamental long-term loyalty to the Republican Party, and that at any point he could turn against its candidates and take enough voters with him that the party would be in terrible shape. After all, he wouldn’t have to convince very many voters to stay home to have a devastating impact on the midterms in 2022 or the 2024 presidential-year elections. That’s not going to change, no matter how many of his endorsed candidates lose.

So while congressional Republicans may now be a little less worried about Trump’s ability to unseat them, we’ll just have to watch how they act to see if they think the former president’s influence is really fading.


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