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CA120: In 2020, don’t forget California’s GOP primary

Donald Trump at a 2016 political rally in Costa Mesa, Orange County. (Photo: mikeledray, via Shutterstock)

With the coming 2020 Presidential primary, all eyes are on the plethora of Democratic candidates joining the fray, and the big possibility that an early California contest could catapult one or more contenders past Super Tuesday.

With all this activity on the left, few are looking at what could be going on with the Republican side of the ticket. Could there be something in California for a Republican challenger to President Donald Trump?

We have seen one announced challenge from former Massachusetts Gov. William Weld and there could be others lining up, particularly if the pending Mueller report has anything that could cripple President Trump’s 2020 prospects.

The names that keep percolating up include former U.S. Sen. Bob Corker, Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan and former Ohio Gov. John Kasich. One could even see a return of U.S. Sen. Mitt Romney to the presidential stage if things got bad enough for the President.

But how hospitable would Republican primary voters be to a Trump challenger?  And what about the California primary process on the Republican side — could it help or hamper their prospects?

In 2016 we conducted several polls of Republican voters, generating a list of over 11,000 supporters of President Trump over the course of the primary and general elections. Following the elections we re-surveyed these voters and found, despite a lot of controversy with the new president, his support was still exceedingly high– with a massive 88% approval rating. Click here for summaries of the surveys.

  2017 SURVEYS
  Resurvey of 2016 Republican Primary Trump Supporters   Resurvey of 2016 Republican General Trump Supporters
N = 597 N = 456
Do you approve or disapprove of the way President Donald Trump is doing his job?
Approve a great deal 69% 69%
Approve a little 19% 19%
Neither approve nor disapprove 5% 6%
Disapprove a little 5% 4%
Disapprove a great deal 3% 3%

This is consistent with what we have seen nationally, with a general understanding that the president has been successful in appealing to his base, even at the potential expense of offending voters he many need in a 2020 general election.

Now, heading into the 2020 primary season, we see that support among these known Trump supporters from 2016 has actually increased, with “Approve a great deal” increasing to 77% and total approval at 92%.

The only glimmer of hope for a Republican challenger in these numbers would be the 14% disapproval number among all Republicans, and the extremely strong disapproval number among those Republicans who say they didn’t vote for Trump in 2016.

  2019 SURVEYS
  2016 Resurvey   Republican Trump Supporters All Republicans Republicans who say they didn’t vote for Trump      
N = 352 N = 580 N = 135
Do you approve or disapprove of the way President Donald Trump is doing his job?
Approve a great deal 77% 66% 19%
Approve a little 15% 16% 18%
Neither approve nor disapprove 4% 5% 13%
Disapprove a little 2% 4% 9%
Disapprove a great deal 2% 10% 42%

Looking more specifically at the idea of a challenger to Trump, we asked Republican voters if they believe President Trump should seek re-election, and among his 2016 supporters, 90% believe he should. This number actually rose from 78-80% in our 2017 polling.

The share of support for Trump seeking re-election drops to 75% among all Republicans and, as would be expected, sinks even further among Republicans who say they didn’t support Trump in 2016.

The slightly more encouraging numbers — but still not very positive — come from Republican voters who are asked if they would like to see a challenger to President Trump in 2020.

In this slightly different perspective, 25% of 2016 Republican Trump supporters say they would like to see a challenge, and this increases to 37% among all Republicans and to 81% among Republicans who didn’t support Trump in 2016.

  2016 Resurvey   Republican Trump Supporters All Republicans Republicans who say they didn’t vote for Trump      
N = 352 N = 580 N = 135
Looking forward to 2020, do you believe Donald Trump should seek re-election?
Yes 90% 75% 29%
No 6% 16% 58%
Undecided 4% 9% 13%
Would you like to see another Republican challenge Donald Trump in the 2020 Primary?
Yes 25% 37% 81%
No 75% 63% 19%

These numbers aren’t screaming for a challenger. In fact, they could be rather discouraging. But what might be added to the mix as potential Republican candidates enter the field?

The timing of the Republican primary process is similar to that of  the Democrats, with a Feb 3 launch with the Iowa Caucuses. Then comes New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada before California and the rest of the Super Tuesday states.  (South Carolina and Nevada are on different days than the Democratic primaries, but still both are before Super Tuesday).

Structurally, there are three main differences between the Democratic and Republican primary processes in California: delegate allocation, winner-take-all awarding of delegates and the closed primary.

Each of these have implications for the candidates and their potential strategies.

Like the process on the Democratic side, the bulk of the delegates come from those allocated to each congressional district. However, while the Democrats allocate delegates based on the number of Democrats in each district, the Republicans simply have three per seat, regardless of how many Republicans live there.

This allocation of delegates creates a situation in which the nearly 200,000 Republican voters in Tom McClintock’s 4th Congressional District have just as much say as the 50,000 Republican voters in Maxine Waters’ 43rd Congressional District.

Essentially, a Republican living in Waters’ seat has four-times the voting power as one living in McClintock’s.  And, the data from the 2016 Primary shows that Republican voters who live in more progressive communities, like the 43rd, were more likely to support a challenger to Trump.

This could definitely advantage any potential Weld, Kasich, Corker or Romney run.

One additional change for Republicans is how the delegates are awarded.

Democratic candidates win delegates on a proportional basis, where two or more of the top vote-getters split up the handful of delegates awarded in the congressional district and statewide.

Republicans are in a winner-take-all for the three delegates within each congressional district (totaling 159) and for the additional 13 delegates awarded to the statewide winner.  If a Democrat were to get second place in every congressional district they would walk away with a significant haul, maybe just as many as the actual winner.

But a GOP candidate coming in second in all 53 seats would get zero. This likely gives an  advantage to  President Trump. He has consistently shown much higher than 50% support among likely Republican primary voters and could, conceivably, lock out even a well-performing challenger who could get a significant percentage but still not break that first-place barrier.

Finally, the closed nature of the Republican primary is a major distinction between the two party primaries.

The open nature of the Democratic primary likely provided Bernie Sanders with a much stronger result in the 2016 primary than he would have had in a closed primary.

If Republicans had an open primary, the introduction of independents into the contest could be a real benefit to a GOP challenger.

Independents have historically given lower levels of support to President Trump, while some independents who wouldn’t normally vote for any Republican could vote in that primary just to get another opportunity to vote against him.

If there is a significant challenge to Trump, the closed primary could actually provide a boon to flagging Republican registration numbers.

In May of 2016 we saw a period of time immediately before the Republican primary — and just before Trump won Indiana, thereby locking up the nomination — that Republican registration peaked at more than a third of registered voters, That is double their current rate of registration.

It probably can’t completely reverse the slide we have seen in Republican registration, but a competitive Republican primary could give some conservative independent voters a reason to check that box on their registration forms in January and February of 2020.

No matter the likelihood of winning, or the polling to date, we are likely to have a Republican challenger by the time we hit March of 2020.

California Republicans, with this early primary, will have an outsized impact on that challenger’s success.  And because of the primary rules, Republicans who live in heavily Democratic districts will have an even louder voice in this process.

Whether that contest gets any legs is a real unknown.  And whether the media will have the bandwidth to cover a fledgling Republican challenge to Trump is also still to be determined.

But we will be watching!

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