How Big Is Trump’s True-Believer Base?

Washington Post photo by Jabin Botsford
Former president Donald Trump arrives for a campaign rally at Waco Regional Airport in Waco, Tex., on Saturday.

As Donald Trump seeks to mobilize his base against a potential indictment, a big question is: Just how big is Trump’s true-believer base? How many people are willing to stand by Trump no matter what?

This matters both when it comes to any backlash against an indictment – around which Trump has increasingly alluded to the prospect of violence – and for Trump’s 2024 presidential prospects.

The answer: Die-hard support remains substantial. But the number has clearly shrunk. And it’s apparently not a majority of the Republican Party.

This is a somewhat subjective exercise, but there are a number of measures we can isolate.

One of the best ways to look at the question is to focus on how many Republicans view Trump not just favorably but “very” or “strongly” favorably.

And by this measure, Trump’s support has declined significantly since his 2020 defeat. While Fox News polling in October 2020 showed that 7 in 10 Republicans had a “strongly” favorable opinion of him, by December 2022, that 69 percent had dropped to 43 percent.

Unfavorable views of Trump have increased from around 1 in 10 Republicans to around 2 in 10 over that span, but nearly as significant is the movement from “strongly” favorable to merely “somewhat” favorable.

And the movement has been steady.

While few pollsters have regularly broken down perceptions of Trump in this way, data from those who have done so echoes Fox’s data.

An AP-NORC poll from January showed just 14 percent of Americans overall viewed Trump “very favorably.” That was Trump’s lowest number on record – and it was half what it was in 2019.

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Similarly, the Pew Research Center has employed something it calls a “feeling thermometer” on Trump – basically asking people to assign a number to how they view the former president. The percentage of Republican-leaning voters who gave him a “very warm” number (between 76 and 100) was 41 percent. That was his lowest mark since the 2016 campaign, and it was down from 61 percent in April 2020.

Another telling measure is how many Republicans view themselves as Trump-first rather than party-first. NBC News has asked this question frequently, gauging whether GOP-leaning voters view themselves more as supporters of Trump or supporters of the party.

NBC’s most recent poll, in January, showed 33 percent viewed themselves as Trump-first. That’s compared to a majority who often said so while he was in office.

Related to the above is the percentage to profess to be 2024 dead-enders – that is, those who would want Trump to run as an independent if he was denied the GOP nomination. This is an instructive measure, because it represents a scenario that would in all likelihood cost the GOP the presidency (whether its advocates realize that or not). It would effectively be a protest vote.

In a Monmouth University poll last month, 27 percent of Republican-leaning voters said they would want Trump to run as an independent (vs. 67 percent who wouldn’t). In another poll, 28 percent said they would actually vote for Trump in that scenario, even if Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis was the GOP nominee.

Which brings us to the possible indictment.

Marist came out with a new poll Monday that also sheds some light. What’s perhaps most interesting about it is that it shows a majority of Republicans acknowledging that Trump has done something unethical related to the various investigations of him.

The percentage who think he’s done “nothing wrong,” by contrast: 45 percent.

So 45 percent say he’s done nothing wrong, 41 to 43 percent have a strongly favorable opinion of him, 33 percent view themselves as Trump-first rather than party-first, and nearly 3 in 10 at least profess a willingness to back him as an independent.

These are all different measures suggesting varying degrees of true devotion, but none are approaching a majority right now. And most used to be majority views in the GOP.

That doesn’t mean there couldn’t be a rallying effect among GOP-leaning voters if Trump is indicted; Trump retains substantial goodwill among Republicans, and perhaps enough Republicans will buy into his claims of persecution that it will resolidify his base. In addition, we’re still talking about significant numbers – even in their depressed state – that could just about be enough to deliver him the nomination again, or cause major problems if we see the unrest Trump is clearly toying with.

But Trump has also been harping on these themes for a long time, and he’s continued to see his base erode despite that.