Kevin McCarthy’s seven-year-plus dream to become House speaker finally became reality early Saturday morning. The California Republican’s tumultuous journey concluded after six Republican holdouts voted “present,” allowing him to win on the 15th ballot with a lower majority threshold.
Make no mistake, though: McCarthy’s struggle to win the speaker’s gavel is only the latest indication that Trump’s brand among Republicans has been significantly weakened. Trump is no doubt still a powerful presence in the GOP, but he’s very vulnerable in his bid to win the Republican presidential nomination for a third time.
Let’s state the facts of what unfolded. McCarthy was backed by Trump from the beginning in his speakership campaign. McCarthy trumpeted Trump’s endorsement, and Trump, in turn, made his preference well known.
It would be difficult to imagine Republicans defying Trump at the height of his power. But that’s exactly what happened this time around. Despite the many appeals from Trump, this year’s speakership process was the longest in over 150 years. It was the first time in a century that more than one ballot had been needed to elect the speaker.
To the point of Trump’s waning power, just look at the Republicans who delayed McCarthy from becoming speaker on January 3. They were almost all hardcore Trump believers. Of those who were serving in the last Congress, just one (Rep. Chip Roy) had voted to certify Joe Biden’s presidential win.
The lawmakers in this group who had voting records are from the very conservative part of the GOP. This is where Trump’s strength among Republicans had been most evident at the end of his presidency. Yet, Trump’s expressed support for McCarthy wasn’t enough to keep these hardcore conservatives in line.
These Republicans, it seems, didn’t fear Trump like they once might have. And when you look at the polling, that lack of trepidation makes sense.
Right now, Trump isn’t beloved by Republican voters. We see this in the percentage of Republicans who hold a strongly favorable (or very favorable) rating of him. Strongly favorable means you don’t merely like a politician, you love him.
Trump’s strongly favorable rating in a Fox News poll last month was 43% among Republican voters. That’s good, but it’s not great for a universally known politician. Ron DeSantis’ strongly favorable rating in the same poll was 40%, even though 16% of Republicans had no opinion of the Florida governor.
Trump’s strongly favorable rating is way down from where it was at the time of the 2020 election. In a late October 2020 Fox News poll, his strongly favorable rating was 68%. He’s dropped 25 points on this measure since then.
It’s not that Republicans don’t like Trump. His overall favorable rating among Republicans in the same Fox News poll from last month was 77%. (Other polls put his favorable rating with Republicans in the 60s.) It’s more that they don’t love the former president. At least not enough to scare Republican politicians into following his every word.
When we zoom in on very conservative Republicans (i.e., like the holdouts against McCarthy), the difference from where we were and where we are is quite stark. Our CNN/SSRS poll asked GOP voters (including independents who lean Republican) both at the beginning and the end of 2022 whether they wanted Trump or someone else to be the 2024 Republican nominee.
Trump started 2022 with 65% of very conservative Republican voters saying they wanted him to be the Republican nominee. This was way higher than Republicans overall (50%). He ended the year with 42% of very conservative Republican voters believing he should be the GOP nominee, not too different from the 38% of Republicans overall who felt the same.
A Monmouth University poll from December found very conservative Republicans preferring DeSantis to Trump on the 2024 ballot test.
The bottom line is that what happened to McCarthy and Trump’s inability to prevent a once-in-a-generation speaker ballot saga is a manifestation of what is going on among Republicans at large. Trump is no longer the dominant figure, untouchable by GOP voters. He isn’t even holding on to those Republicans who essentially thought he could walk on water.
This leaves the answer to the question of who wins the 2024 Republican nomination very much unclear at this point.