Franklin & Marshall College Poll: Does a Trump Endorsement Help or Hurt in Pennsylvania?
This month’s newsletter considers how President Trump's endorsement of Sean Parnell in the 2022 Republican US Senate primary may affect the race. The article begins by discussing how the former President's endorsed candidates in similar battleground primaries have fared, and then provides an overview of the size and characteristics of voters in the Trump wing of the Pennsylvania Republican party.
Former President Donald Trump’s early September endorsement of Republican US Senate candidate Sean Parnell is, to date, the most consequential event of the 2022 primary campaign season. The August 2021 Franklin & Marshall College Poll found no clear front runner in the Republican US Senate contest, with the state’s Republican voters mostly undecided about which candidate they plan to support. The results were not a surprise given how far we are from the primary election in spring 2022 and the fact that none of the leading candidates hold statewide office or has previously run in a high profile, statewide general election campaign. The former president’s endorsement changes this.
Battleground Primary Endorsements
Mr. Trump’s endorsement in battleground primaries has been meaningful. According to Ballotpedia, his endorsed candidates have won 37 out of 43 (86%) battleground primaries since taking office in 2017, including 21 of 23 (91%) in the 2020 election cycle. His endorsements normally help candidates improve their name recognition and fundraising. Can we expect President Trump’s endorsement of Mr. Parnell to make a difference in Pennsylvania?
In every survey conducted in 2021, the Franklin & Marshall College Poll has tracked where partisans place themselves within their parties. In each survey we ask respondents, “Regardless of how you are registered in politics, as of today, do you think of yourself as a Republican, a Democrat, or an Independent?” Those who respond "independent" are asked if they lean toward a party and, if so, they too are asked the appropriate faction question. Anyone who identifies as Republican is then asked:
The Republican Party includes several different wings or factions. In the Republican Party, for example, there seems to be a faction that embraces Donald Trump's brand of politics and another that is aligned with a more traditional brand of Republican politics. Do you think of yourself as a Trump Republican, a traditional Republican, or something else?
In Pennsylvania, the largest Republican faction is the Trump faction (Figure 1). Our data, which has found about the same intraparty distribution of partisans in each of this year’s surveys, shows that nearly half (47%) of Republicans identify with the former president, one-third (34%) identify as a “traditional” Republican, and the rest, about one in five (19%), identify as something else. Clearly, Mr. Trump’s endorsement will influence the choices made by those who identify with him.
In fact, it is likely that Mr. Trump’s followers will represent an even a larger chunk of Republican primary voters in 2022. Comparing the Trump faction to the other Republican factions in the state hints that these voters are likely to be motivated to vote—they are deeply dissatisfied with the direction of the country, they are equally dissatisfied with their economic circumstances, and they are near unanimous in rating President Biden’s performance as poor (see Table 1). Couple these motivating resentments with the fact that his voters are among the oldest and the most conservative Republicans, and it is likely they will be the driving force in next year’s Republican primaries.
Winning the primary is of course the first step Mr. Parnell needs to take to represent Pennsylvania in the US Senate, so he will undoubtedly welcome Mr. Trump’s endorsement. But whether Mr. Trump’s endorsement will help him in the general election in November 2022 is a different question. Recent scholarship has shown that Mr. Trump motivates his opponents and that his endorsements generally increase fundraising and vote share for Democrats. In short, Mr. Trump’s endorsements tend to be more harmful than helpful in competitive general election campaigns.
Recent Franklin & Marshall College Polls have hinted that Democrats are less motivated for the 2022 elections than they’ve been the past few cycles because Mr. Trump is not on the ballot, which would give a turnout advantage to Republican candidates. The Democrat’s major concern, as it always is for a party during a mid-term election in which they hold the presidency, is figuring out how to tamp down the natural backlash that exercising power creates among opponents. Mr. Trump’s endorsement may have given Democratic strategists just what they need to help remind their voters that a vote for a Republican is also a vote for Mr. Trump. For Democrats there is probably no better motivator, making Mr. Trump’s endorsement consequential for both the primary and general election races.