With the end of the Republican primary race, opinion polls are all telling the same story: This might be a competitive race after all. Trump plus 3 points; Clinton plus 6; Trump plus 5; Clinton plus 3, et cetera. You can choose your own adventure, but the conclusion is the same: Hillary Clinton’s double-digit lead is gone, and she is by no means the sure thing she seemed a month ago. For the first time in the history of the Real Clear Politics average of 2016’s head-to-head polling, Trump now has a tiny lead over his Democratic opponent. It’s reasonable to be cautious about how the race will unfold over the summer and autumn.
Some polling does indicate, however, that the Republican Party’s very public identity crisis has not yet entirely sorted itself out. For the GOP, there may be even more surprises in store. When self-identified Republican voters were asked in the latest ABC News/Washington Post poll whether Trump represents the “core values” of the GOP, 46 percent said he did while another 46 percent said he did not. It’s certainly true that this is a remarkable jump from July of 2015 when just 29 percent of GOP respondents said Trump represented the GOP’s values while 56 percent disagreed. But for a figure who has been the de facto GOP nominee for nearly three weeks, it’s far less impressive. These numbers results suggest a lingering resistance to Trump’s efforts to redefine the GOP. Eighty-five percent of self-identified Republicans express their intention to support Trump over Clinton in the fall, but even so, nearly half of the party’s voters still believe Trump’s views are antithetical to the conventional Republican agenda. Republicans might be rallying around Trump, but that doesn’t mean they see him as anything other than a Republican of convenience.
For ideological conservatives who continue to cling to hope that Trump will not succeed in jettisoning them from the only vehicle through which their comrades achieve political power, this is both good news and bad news. It means the fight is not lost within the party when it comes to ideas. Nearly half of its voters realize that Trump’s anti-trade and anti-immigrant stances are a rejection of Reaganism. They see that his quasi-isolationism is a repudiation of a “peace through strength” doctrinal approach to maintaining American hegemony and the peace in Europe and East Asia associated with this period of prohibitive American military power. They see that his instincts are to support heavy-handed, progressive, top-down solutions to nearly every social ill, from access to health insurance, to abortion rights, to transgender bathroom access. They have seen all the instances in which Trump has revealed that his predisposition is toward liberal interventionism in public affairs, only to read the hastily written statement he releases an hour or so later professing that he didn’t really mean it. Conservatives are desperate for confirmation that their ideal of a restrained and limited government has not been rejected by conservative voters, and they can take some solace here.
The bad news for conservatives is that many of their leaders are lending Trump the legitimacy he needs. Trump-backing Republicans often betray their confusion over the nature of conservative opposition to Trump by contending that any right-wing resistance to his candidacy is primarily or even solely based on the assumption that he will lose to Clinton. “Anyone who thinks Donald Trump can’t win, just watch,” declared former House Speaker and self-described Trump “texting buddy,” John Boehner. It is true that for some anti-Trump conservatives, the reality star’s weakness in polls and his historically low approval ratings among key demographics was and remains a worry. But that is only true for some. More conservatives who oppose Trump aren’t so much concerned about whether Trump could lose in November but about what would happen if he actually were to win. For now, the real estate developer’s vision for the future of the party is to remold it in his own image. What that finished product will resemble is anyone’s guess, but it is a safe bet that it will not look like American conservatism as preached by generations of thinkers, activists, and politicians. What’s more, if Trump is successful at the polls, it will demonstrate to the nation’s GOP officeholders that conservatism, as it was previously understood, is a millstone weighing down their prospects for career advancement. Many have perhaps already come to that conclusion.
The problem for Republicans who fall in line with Trump is that adopting the latest Trump position is a fraught prospect, considering that any such position is subject to revision based on his whim. His mercurial nature is a feature of his personality and of his appeal. To maintain fealty to Trump is therefore to defer to him personally even at the cost of coherence and consistency. That’s not an ideological movement; it’s a cult of personality.
Trump may be consolidating the Republican vote, but he is doing so in a way that is itself subject to revision. If 46 percent still do not think he represents the party’s “core values,” those people can and might easily jump off the Trump Train if his actions do not reassure them but redouble their concerns.