Exclusive: Defeated and impeached, Trump still commands the loyalty of the GOP's voters

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If there’s a civil war in the Republican Party, the voters who backed Donald Trump in November’s election are ready to choose sides.

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Behind Trump.

An exclusive Suffolk University/USA TODAY Poll finds Trump’s support largely unshaken after his second impeachment trial in the Senate, this time on a charge of inciting an insurrection with the Capitol’s deadly assault on Jan. 6.

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By double digits, 46%-27%, those surveyed said they would abandon the GOP and join the Trump party if the former president decided to create one. The rest were undecided.

“We feel like Republicans don’t fight enough for us, and we all see Donald Trump fighting for us as hard as he can, every single day,” Brandon Keidl, 27, a Republican and small-business owner from Milwaukee, said in an interview after being polled. “But then you have establishment Republicans who just agree with establishment Democrats and everything, and they don’t ever push back.”

© SAUL LOEB, AFP via Getty Images Former President Donald Trump and Senate Minority Leader Leader Mitch McConnell

Half of those polled said the GOP should become “more loyal to Trump,” even at the cost of losing support among establishment Republicans. Just one in five, 19%, said the party should become less loyal to Trump and more aligned with establishment Republicans. 

The survey of 1,000 Trump voters, identified from 2020 polls, was taken by landline and cell phone last Monday through Friday. The margin of error is plus or minus 3.1 percentage points. 

They expressed stronger loyalty to Trump the person (54%) than they did to the Republican Party that twice nominated him for the White House (34%). 

A post-Trump era? Not so fast

Those will presumably be distressing findings for Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell and other senior GOP figures who had hoped Trump’s decisive defeat for re-election and his subsequent impeachment might mean a post-Trump era was poised to begin.

More: Donald Trump rips Mitch McConnell as each seeks to exert leadership after impeachment trial

But the overwhelming allegiance the former president commands among the party’s voters gives him the standing to weigh in on GOP primaries and seek retribution on those officeholders who voted to impeach and convict him. He is scheduled to make his first major address since leaving the White House at an influential conservative conclave, CPAC, next Sunday in Orlando. 

While a majority of the Senate voted to convict Trump in his second impeachment trial, by 57-43, they failed to reach the two-thirds threshold required for conviction. He was acquitted last Sunday. 

Trump voters are prepared to punish those who crossed him. Eight in 10 said they would be less likely to vote for a Republican candidate who had supported Trump’s impeachment, as 10 representatives did in the House. An equal portion, 80%, said the seven Republican senators who voted to convict Trump had been motivated by political calculations, not their consciences.

Trump doesn’t need to form a third party, said Francis Zovko, 63, a Republican from Jefferson Hills, Pennsylvania. “I think he’s just going to, you know, take over the Republican Party, much as he did in 2016,” the systems analyst said. “They all kind of thought he was a big joke, and by the end they weren’t laughing any more.”

Only 4% said the impeachment trial made them less supportive of Trump; 42% said it made them more supportive. A 54% majority said it hadn’t affected their support.  

Embracing an untruth: antifa’s role

Most Trump voters embraced a version of events for Jan. 6 that has been debunked by independent fact-checkers and law-enforcement agencies.

Asked to describe what happened during the assault on the Capitol, 58% of Trump voters called it “mostly an antifa-inspired attack that only involved a few Trump supporters.” That’s more than double the 28% who called it “a rally of Trump supporters, some of whom attacked the Capitol.”  Four percent called it “an attempted coup inspired by President Trump.”

Law enforcement investigations have found no evidence of a role by antifa, a loose alliance of leftist, anti-fascist groups that have staged demonstrations in some cities, particularly on the West Coast. Most of those arrested for their role in the Jan. 6 assault have identified themselves as Trump supporters. 

“It looked horrendous, but how are we to know who was actually taking part?” said Christine Rodriguez, 79, a Republican from Galveston, Texas, who was among those surveyed. “You could have somebody planted there from the left … pretending to be a real Trump supporter.” 

“There were a variety of people who were there,” said William Case, 40, an electrician and independent voter from Vacaville, California. “I mean, outside there was a bunch of Trump supporters that didn’t go in, but there’s video proof of other groups that did, antifa being one of them. There were also reporters that broke in and followed everybody.”

While credentialed journalists covered the attack, some after being trapped in the Capitol, none have been charged with wrongdoing. No one known to be affiliated with antifa has been among those arrested so far.

More: Fact check: What’s true about the Capitol riot, from antifa to BLM 

In the poll, more than nine of 10 Trump voters said the former president wasn’t guilty of inciting an insurrection. Close to eight in 10 said the crowd would have stormed the Capitol even if Trump hadn’t urged them to “fight like hell” at a rally outside the White House that day.

Calling Trump responsible for the attack is “insane,” protested Jane Wiles, 76, a retired insurance manager from Treasure Island, Florida. “Was he there? No. Unless he was there leading the pack, he is not responsible.”

By 2-1, 59%-29%, Trump voters said they wanted him to run for president again in 2024. If he ran, three of four, 76%, would support him for the nomination; 85% would vote for him in a general election.

“I think he’s probably exhausted,” said Peter St. Ong, 47, an independent voter from Berlin, New Hampshire. Trump might decide not to run again, he first said, then reconsidered. “He seems to be more or less addicted to being the center of conversation, so I would honestly be pretty shocked” if he didn’t run again in 2024.

Even so, St. Ong suggested it was possible that in four years the Republican Party would be ready to turn to a fresh face. “I do like the populist ideas that he has brought into the party,” he said of Trump. On the other hand, “his mouth kind of got away with him sometimes, and I think some of these other people have a little bit more discipline so they might be more successful, more able to reach across the aisle.”

No honeymoon for Biden

Trump voters aren’t ready to acknowledge Joe Biden as president despite his margin of victory of seven million votes nationwide.

Three of four, 73%, said Biden wasn’t legitimately elected. What’s more, most don’t want their representatives to cooperate with him, even if that means gridlock in Washington.

Six in 10, 62%, said congressional Republicans “should do their best to stand up to Biden on major policies, even if it means little gets passed.” That’s more than double the 26% who said congressional Republicans “should do their best to work with Biden on major policies, even if it means making compromises.”

More: USA TODAY/Suffolk Poll: Americans, braced for violence at the inauguration, see democracy damaged after Trump

There were also disquieting findings in the poll for Fox News, which has prospered as the dominant news source for conservatives. In a USA TODAY/Suffolk Poll in October 2016, 58% of Trump voters said Fox was their most trusted source of news. In the new poll, that has dropped to 34%.

Trust has risen in two relatively new outlets that have made their reputations by championing Trump. Newsmax was the most trusted among 17% of Trump voters, followed by 9% for One American News Network, or OANN. 

David Paleologos, director of the Suffolk University Political Research Center, said the findings could reflect “a seismic shift in the landscape of trusted news sources for conservatives in the country.”

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Exclusive: Defeated and impeached, Trump still commands the loyalty of the GOP’s voters

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