Last night on The Last Word, host Lawrence O’Donnell interviewed one William Weld, who just announced that he is going to be mounting a Republican party primary challenge to Donald Trump in 2020. If the name sounds familiar, it’s probably because he was Gary Johnson’s running mate on the Libertarian party ticket in 2016.
O’Donnell was almost giddy in his set up for the interview when he explained how having a primary challenger is almost a fatal would for a sitting President. No primary challenger in the modern era has toppled a sitting President, but they fatally weaken them in the process. McCarthy, followed by Robert Kennedy jumped in against Lyndon Johnson in 1968, and Johnson dropped out rather than face the bruising process. Hubert Humphrey, the eventual nominee, lost to Nixon. In 1976, Ronald Reagan ran a primary challenge against incumbent Gerald Ford. Ford narrowly won the primary on the floor, but lost to Jimmy Carter in the general election. And in 1992, Pat Robertson challenged George HW Bush in the primary unsuccessfully, but Bush went on to lose to Bill Clinton.
In the interview, Weld, a former two term GOP Governor of Massachusetts, came across as a potentially very serious candidate. He even has a battle plan, noting that California will barely let Air Force One land, making it ripe territory for Weld. He also mentioned Massachusetts, where he was Governor, as well as Wisconsin and Michigan, places Trump barely squeaked out as fertile ground.
O’Donnell cited the results of a very recent national poll of registered Republican voters, which showed that at this early date, Weld was already running higher in the poll than Trump did in a similar poll in 2015. Here are the results of the poll he showed last night. 54% said that they would definitely vote for Trump, while another 20% said that they were leaning towards Trump, but could be swayed to vote for Weld. 8% said that they were firmly planning to vote for Weld.
The 8% that plan to vote for Weld isn’t what immediately caught my eye, and made me sit up straight on the sofa, and it shouldn’t be what worries Trump and the RNC either. What I caught is much more subtle than that. The fact that an incumbent President, less than 3 years into his first time only has 54% of strong support in a primary is a little odd. But what should be alarming to Trump and his minions is that even if you give him all 20% of the voters who say that they could be swung, that still only takes him to 74%.
This is a potentially crushing blow for Trump if true. Since day one, Trump ran exclusively for his rabid base. He has continued to do so up to this day, eschewing any effort that past Presidents have made to moderate himself to expand his electorate for his reelection. Trump lives and dies, both mentally and politically by his base. Polls over the last 2 years have been stubbornly consistent, showing Trump with anywhere from an 84-88% approval rating among Republicans, while he scuba dives with everybody else.
Trump’s optimum popularity rating of 74% in this poll is 10-14 points from his established average among GOP voters. I would like to see more polling like this, over a longer period of time, but if it holds true, or deteriorates any further, that can only mean one thing in my mind. And that thing is that Trump’s enormous support among GOP voters is a false front. Trump’s 84-88% approval rating in those polls is mainly because Trump is the only game in town in those polls, and they’re uprely popularity based. But according to this poll, when GOP voters are presented with an alternative to Trump, especially a qualified one with at least moderate name recognition, Trump’s support drops like a stone.
Now, granted, if you add up all of the numbers in that poll, that still leaves 28% unaccounted for. But if they’re lumped under “unsure,” or “don’t know,” or “mo opinion,” then they sure as hell aren’t rabid Trump supporters. And Donald Trump only squeaked out his electoral college win by 77,000 votes scattered across three states. Trump can’t afford to lose even 1% of “soft” support, and this poll indicates that he is well below that.
Here’s the real reason why Weld’s challenge is so harmful to Trump if he pursues it vigorously. Back in 2016, for whatever reason or reasons, there were a number of Bernie Sanders supporters who would not support Hillary Clinton in the general election, they either stayed home, or switched over to Trump. If Bill Weld pussl any kind of “real” support in a 2020 GOP primary, it could be setting up an identical dynamic for Trump heading into the general election. If Weld runs a serious campaign, and generates any kind of lasting support, then the 2020 GOP primary could be the stone that pops out that eventually breaks the dam wide open. Don’t touch that dial.