Skip to content

Internal RNC Poll: Complacent Trump Voters May Cost GOP Control of Congress

A private survey shows many Republican voters “don’t believe there is anything at stake” in the midterm elections.

Photographer: Nicholas Kamm
Photographer: Nicholas Kamm

A private survey conducted for the Republican National Committee and obtained by Bloomberg Businessweek contains alarming news for Republicans hoping to hold on to control of Congress in November: Most Trump supporters don’t believe there’s a threat that Democrats will win back the House. President Trump’s boasts that a “red wave” could increase Republican majorities appear to have lulled GOP voters into complacency, raising the question of whether they’ll turn up at the polls.

While most election forecasters, as well as strategists in both parties, believe Democrats are likely to win the 23 seats necessary to take control of the House of Representatives, Republican voters aren’t convinced, the survey shows.

According to the RNC study, completed on Sept. 2 by the polling firm Public Opinion Strategies, most voters believe Democrats will win back the House—just not Republican voters. Fully half of self-identified Republicans don’t believe Democrats are likely to win back the House. And within that group, 57 percent of people who describe themselves as strong Trump supporters don’t believe Democrats have a chance (37 percent believe they do).

If overconfident Republican voters stay home, Democrats could win a landslide. The report urges GOP officials to yank their voters back to reality: “We need to make real the threat that Democrats have a good shot of winning control of Congress.”

The president instead has delivered the opposite message. At rallies and on Twitter, Trump has claimed that—contrary to conventional wisdom and polling—Republicans might actually increase their margin in November.

The internal RNC study finds that complacency among GOP voters is tied directly to their trust in the president—and their distrust of traditional polling. “While a significant part of that lack of intensity is undoubtedly due to these voters’ sentiments toward the President, it may also be partly because they don’t believe there is anything at stake in this election,” the authors write. “Put simply, they don’t believe that Democrats will win the House. (Why should they believe the same prognosticators who told them that Hillary was going to be elected President?)”

RNC Dem Takeover Chart - Likelihood of DEM Control
Most voters believe the Democrats will win back the House, but Republicans—and especially Trump supporters—do not.

Overall, 71 percent of respondents said it was “extremely” or “somewhat likely” that Democrats would prevail in November, vs. 25 percent who disagreed.

The RNC didn’t respond to requests for comment.

RNC Dem Takeover Methodology

The poll contains more worrisome news for Republicans: A generic congressional ballot shows the Democratic candidate leading the Republican by 9 points. Historically, generic ballot surveys have correlated closely with election outcomes. The RNC study also finds “a wide gender gap and generation gap,” with the Democrat favored by women of all ages and also by men aged 18-44. Only men older than 45 preferred the Republican candidate, by a 15-point margin. The study notes, “the Democrat(ic) party holds an image advantage over the GOP.”

The internal survey wasn’t all bad news for President Trump and the GOP. The national mood is more positive than in recent midterm elections, with 40 percent of voters saying the country is moving in the “right direction” (vs. 26 percent in the 2014 election, and 32 percent in 2010). Those positive feelings extend beyond the president’s largely white base—at least on economic matters. A majority of black and Hispanic voters reported that they’re satisfied with the economy.

In addition, President Trump’s diligent efforts to maintain the loyalty of his most ardent fans has succeeded. “Republicans don’t have a ‘base problem,’ ” the report concludes. “Those voters who strongly approve of the President and those who support both his policies and leadership style are genuinely passionate about voting in the election and are voting GOP lock, stock and barrel.”

RNC Dem Takeover -- Take-Aways 1
The study concludes that Republicans unhappy with Trump’s leadership style may not show up to vote.

The problem for party leaders is that these voters constitute only a quarter of the electorate and are “dwarfed by the 44% of voters who strongly disapprove of the President and are just as committed to DEM candidates and voting in November.”

The study says GOP fortunes will hinge on the party’s ability to activate “soft” supporters: “Those voters who ‘somewhat approve’ of Trump and those who support the President’s policies but not his leadership style are the ones posing a challenge to the party.” Motivating these voters could be tricky. One hurdle is Trump’s chaotic style, which shows no sign of changing. Another is that the issues soft Republicans care about most are ones involving government spending and are typically associated with Democrats. The survey found that increasing funding for veterans’ mental health services, strengthening and preserving Medicare and Social Security, and reforming the student loan system all scored higher than Trump’s favored subjects of tax cuts, border security, and preserving the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency.

RNC Dem Takeover -- Take-Aways 2
GOP strategists believe they must convince their own voters Democrats could prevail in November.

“Special attention should be paid to the messaging regarding Social Security and Medicare,” the study notes. “[T]he challenge for GOP candidates is that most voters believe that the GOP wants to cut back on these programs in order to provide tax breaks for corporations and the wealthy.”

In the end, however, any effort to calibrate policy positions to appeal to uninterested voters may well be dwarfed by another issue that the GOP is all but helpless to change. The authors write, in a conclusion few would challenge, “The research indicates the determining factor in this election is how voters feel about President Trump.”

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal. LEARN MORE