KEY POINTS FROM THIS ARTICLE
— A recurring theme during Donald Trump’s presidency was the emergence of seemingly very negative and very damaging stories that ultimately did not appear to do him long-term harm.
— It may be that Jan. 6, when Trump’s unsubstantiated allegations of fraud in the 2020 election galvanized a crowd of his supporters to storm the U.S. Capitol, is another such story.
— Donald Trump’s position among the American public is largely unchanged from right before the events of Jan. 6, 2021. His position among Republicans remains strong, and the position of his detractors within the party appears weak. And Republicans’ political position in the context of 2022 also appears strong.
The electoral impact of Jan. 6
One of the recurring questions of Donald Trump’s presidential candidacy and then presidency was some variation on the following:
“Will this <outrageous statement, damaging revelation, or other development> have a lasting, negative impact on <Trump and/or the Republican Party>?”
There are all sorts of examples: the various revelations from Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election, including his final report; Trump’s phone call with the Ukrainian president, which sparked the first impeachment of Trump roughly 2 years ago; the pandemic itself; countless controversial utterances by the former president; and more.
The usual pattern in the aftermath of these events was that either 1. Trump’s approval rating wouldn’t change or 2. It would change, but not permanently.
This is not to say Republicans were not ultimately hurt by aspects of Trump’s presidency. Trump did, after all, lose reelection, and Republicans also lost the House (in 2018) and Senate (in 2020) during his presidency. But there always seemed to be some sort of development that raised the possibility of the bottom dropping out for Trump. But the bottom never did drop out: Trump remained competitive in the 2020 election, and the majorities Democrats won in the House and Senate were narrow.
As we mark the first anniversary of the events of Jan. 6, 2021, it may be worth looking at Jan. 6, at least from a political perspective, as another example, albeit an outrageous one, of this familiar story: a development that ultimately did not change the preexisting political environment in a lasting way.
Let’s look at some of the indicators we would normally use to measure changes in the environment and the public’s perception of Trump and his Republican Party.
It is true that, in the immediate aftermath of Jan. 6, Trump’s numbers did decline. His approval rating on New Year’s Day 2021 was 43% approve/53% disapprove in the FiveThirtyEight national polling tracker. Trump spent much of his presidency with similar numbers, or at least his last 3 years in office (his approval was generally worse in 2017 — you can see the full trend here). But by the end of Trump’s term, Jan. 20 (just a few weeks later), Trump’s average disapproval. 58%, was the highest of his presidency, and his approval, a little under 39%, was the lowest of his last 3 years in office.
Because Trump is no longer in office, pollsters do not ask about his job approval anymore. But some ask about his personal favorability. RealClearPolitics tracks these polls; looking at their ongoing tracking, one can see a change in early January of last year that is almost identical to FiveThirtyEight’s change in approval: Trump’s net favorability got markedly worse. But since Trump left office, something familiar happened to Trump’s favorability: It regenerated. As of now, Trump is at 41% favorable/52% unfavorable, or very similar to his favorability throughout much of his presidency. Again, these numbers are not good, but they are not as bad as they were in immediate aftermath of Jan. 6. So it’s hard to argue that Jan. 6 did permanent damage to Trump’s image.
Trump’s sway over the Republican Party
Following Jan. 6, the House of Representatives voted to impeach Trump on a charge of inciting an insurrection. All House Democrats and 10 House Republicans voted in favor of impeachment. Following a Senate trial, all 50 Senate Democrats and 7 Republicans voted to convict, falling 10 votes short of the 67 votes required to convict. Had enough Republican senators voted to convict, a simple majority of senators could then have voted to bar Trump from running for office in the future — in other words, that would have guaranteed the GOP would have a new standard-bearer in the 2024 election.
Two of the 7 Republicans who voted to convict, Sens. Richard Burr (R-NC) and Pat Toomey (R-PA), are retiring. Another, Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), is on the ballot this year and faces, among others, a Trump-backed alternative in Alaska’s unique new “top 4” election format. Sens. Bill Cassidy (R-LA), Susan Collins (R-ME), Ben Sasse (R-NE), and Mitt Romney (R-UT) are not on the ballot this cycle.
Of the 10 House Republicans who voted to impeach, 2 have already announced that they won’t be running for another term: Reps. Adam Kinzinger (R, IL-16) and Anthony Gonzalez (R, OH-16). Trump released a statement after Kinzinger’s announcement that he wouldn’t be running again: “2 down, 8 to go.” Others could lose renomination.
The point here is that even at a low point for the former president, the vast majority of Republicans declined to back impeaching Trump. And with Jan. 6 further in the rearview mirror, the number of Trump opponents in the GOP congressional ranks will be reduced come 2023.
Trump’s standing in the party will be tested in 2022 by the power of his many endorsements, including against some sitting GOP incumbents that backed his impeachment, such as Rep. Liz Cheney (R, WY-AL), as well as usually loyal Republicans who have nonetheless upset him, such as Gov. Brian Kemp (R-GA). Beyond this year’s midterm, Trump may very well run again in 2024 (he certainly is acting like someone who wants to run). He continues to lead recent hypothetical primary polls, though with varying support: Yahoo News/YouGov had him at 44% against a splintered field of other Republicans, Reuters/Ipsos had him at 54%, and Harvard/Harris had him at 67%. There’s plenty of time to speculate about 2024: The narrow question here is whether Jan. 6 markedly diminished Trump’s standing in the GOP and elevated the standing of his opponents in the party. The answer appears to be no.
The Republicans’ overall political position
If the events of Jan. 6 had changed American politics and done significant damage to the Republican brand, we might expect to see some odd election results: Namely, we might expect to see Democrats doing better than the numbers and the history suggest that they would. It’s common for the presidential party to struggle in off-year/midterm elections, and President Biden has seen his approval erode since late summer (his approval rating now isn’t all that different than Trump’s was right before Jan. 6). Democrats did have some notable and interesting electoral successes in 2021: Gov. Gavin Newsom (D-CA) did about as well in his September recall election as he did in his regular election during the Democratic wave year of 2018. Democrats also won a June special House election in New Mexico, NM-1, by a little more than Joe Biden’s 2020 margin in the district.
But Republicans had much more electoral success. According to CNN’s Harry Enten and as of early December, Republicans ran on average about 5 points better in terms of margin in an average of nearly 60 special state and federal legislative elections last year. That wasn’t as strong as Democrats performed in 2017, but it still suggests a better political environment for Republicans than 2020, which one would expect for the opposition party in an off-year environment. Less than a year after Jan. 6, voters in Virginia — just across the Potomac River from the Capitol — gave Republicans the governorship and control of the state House. Republicans also came much closer than expected in New Jersey’s gubernatorial race.
In the immediate aftermath of Jan. 6, there was some thought that disgruntled Republicans would leave the GOP over Jan. 6. Surely some did, but over the course of 2021, the overall registration trends in some key states were better for Republicans than Democrats.
Writing in late October, Pennsylvania analyst Nick Field noted that the Democratic voter registration advantage in the Keystone State had fallen from about 700,000 in October 2020 to 600,000 this October. Now, we know in Pennsylvania that party registration is not predictive of outcomes — if it was, Pennsylvania would not be the swing state that it clearly is in reality — but the trends merit some attention, and collectively they clearly do not point to some sort of registration problem for the GOP. The same is true in Nevada, where Silver State expert Jon Ralston noted that more Democrats have been switching to Republican or nonpartisan than Republicans are switching to Democratic or nonpartisan, although the overall changes are fairly small. However, Ralston writes, “if this pattern continues well into 2022, it could well be the canary in the coal mine for a red wave.” In Florida, the number of registered Republicans recently surpassed that of registered Democrats for the first time in modern history. The same thing happened nearly a year ago in West Virginia, which had long before turned very red in practice if not yet in registration.
A year after Jan. 6 and nearly a year into Joe Biden’s presidency, the Republican political position appears strong — just as one might expect heading into a midterm with an unpopular president in the White House, and arguably unhampered by Jan. 6.
None of what’s written above should be taken as downplaying the importance of the events of Jan. 6, nor as a prescription about how someone should feel about what happened. Rather, we wanted to assess the political impact of Jan. 6. What the numbers suggest to us is that, like so many other events over the course of Donald Trump’s presidency, the political effect appears to be fleeting.
Trump’s overall standing with the public, though not strong, is roughly the same now as it was right before Jan. 6, 2021. Trump remains a force within the Republican Party, probably the favorite for the party’s 2024 presidential nomination if he decides to seek it, and the Republican members of Congress who backed his impeachment are vulnerable within their own party. Retaking the House and the Senate are very much on the table for Republicans later this year, and indicators such as 2021’s election results and voter registration trends are broadly positive for them.
Now, it may be that the electoral environment for Republicans would be even better had Jan. 6 not happened — although it is also possible that the outrage over the 2020 election that Trump has manufactured is actually helping Republican motivation. We also do not know what new revelations about Trump, either through the House’s investigation of Jan. 6 or otherwise, may emerge, and whether those revelations will be the thing that fatally undermines Trump’s position in a way that previous revelations have not.
But as of now, it does not appear as though there have been lasting, negative political consequences for Trump and Republicans because of Jan. 6.