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'The Trump Party': Here's why Donald Trump's supporters are calling the shots with Republicans ahead of 2024

WASHINGTON — The political fates of Donald Trump and the Republican Party depend on a large group of voters who don't really consider themselves Republicans. They're much more loyal to Trump than the GOP.

According to an NBC News poll released in November, 34% of GOP voters consider themselves more supporters of Trump than supporters of the Republican Party. If the former president had formed a third party two years ago, 46% of his supporters would back the Trump Party, while 27% would champion the GOP, according to a 2021 Suffolk University/USA TODAY poll.

Trump's solid political base – estimated at between 30% and 40% of Republican primary voters – is fueling his dominance in polls on the crowded Republican field. And that dominance comes after four indictments in 2023, fallout from the Capitol riot and more.

"These are people who have converted it to the Trump Party," said Patrick Murray, director of the independent Monmouth University Polling Institute.

Primary rivals like Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, Former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, and Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie are looking for ways to cut into or get around Trump's base. But little more than a month before the Iowa caucuses on Jan. 15, Trump has leads of around 50 percentage points in some national polls.

Donald Trump during a recent event in Iowa.
Donald Trump during a recent event in Iowa.

'Greatest movement' or 'cult of personality'?

Trump's supporters are sticking with him in part because many believe his false claims about election fraud in his 2020 loss to President Joe Biden. Those lies led to criminal charges of trying to steal the election in Georgia and Washington, D.C.

A CBS News/YouGov poll in August said nearly all of his voters believe that the former president "fights for people like me." CBS reported that, despite many questions about Trump's veracity, his voters look to him as a source of information, even more than some conservative media figures, religious leaders or loved ones.

Trump faces a total of four criminal trials, with other cases involving hush money payments in New York and the alleged mishandling of classified documents in Florida. Yet Trump's voters believe his claims that the Biden administration, prosecutors and others are targeting him for political reasons.

"This is the greatest movement in the history of our country," Trump has said at many a campaign rally.

But Trump's critics argue that his supporters are less of a unified movement. Pollster Frank Luntz said Trump has managed to create "a cult of personality" within the Republican Party.

"That cult of personality is carrying him right now," he said, "when anybody else would have been destroyed," he said.

Trump's Republican rivals take different approaches

Republicans challenging Trump for the Republican presidential nomination are trying different ways to make inroads into Trump nation.

DeSantis, the governor of Florida, is going after hardcore Trump voters, saying he is a better and newer version and can be more effective in office. He has also questioned the effects of age on the 77-year-old Trump, not unlike the way he and other Republicans hit the 81-year-old Biden. Entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy has also positioned himself as another version of the former president.

"The idea that we’re going to put someone up there that’s almost 80 - and there’s going to be no effects from that - we all know that that’s not true," DeSantis said during last week's GOP debate in Tuscaloosa, Ala. "So we have an opportunity to do a next generation of leaders and really be able to move this country forward."

Haley also presents herself as the representative of a "new generation" and seems to appeal to what some call "Maybe Trump" voters. That group includes those who have cast ballots for him in the past but are open to alternatives this time around.

"We have to stop the chaos, but you can’t defeat Democrat chaos with Republican chaos," Haley said during the debate. " And that’s what Donald Trump gives us. My approach is different. No drama, no vendettas, no whining."

Christie is aiming straight for the anti-Trump crowd, and telling the Trump base the party cannot win the general election against Biden with the ex-president still leading it.

During last week's debate, Christie noted that Trump could lose his right to vote if he is convicted in any of the cases against him, earning him boos.

"You can boo about it all you like and continue to deny reality," Christie said. "But if we deny reality as a party, we’re going to have four more years of Joe Biden."

Trump's lead is steady

So far, these strategies have all had little effect. Trump has huge leads in polls, with the Iowa caucuses looming on Jan. 15 and the New Hampshire primary on Jan. 23.

A recent Monmouth University Poll gave Trump 58% of the Republican vote nationally, well ahead of DeSantis (18%), Nikki Haley (12%), Ramaswamy (4%), and Christie (2%).

The poll also said that most supporters of Trump would prefer primaries in which no one opposed the former president – a "coronation," said Murray.

“The results don’t look good for any candidate not named Trump," Murray said.

Should challengers get out of the race?

The power of Trump's base is is why some have urged other Republican candidates, particularly Christie, to get out of the race so that the anti-Trump vote can consolidate around a single alternative.

So far, Haley, DeSantis, Christie and Ramaswamy have not expressed any interest in ending their bids for the White House. DeSantis during the debate last week was asked about his electability against Trump and argued that "The voters actually make these decisions, not pundits or pollsters. I'm sick of hearing about these polls."

Even if, or when, Trump opponents drop out, that doesn't mean all of their votes will go to another Trump opponent.

"A lot of those voters will go to Trump," said Hogan Gidley, a former spokesman for the Trump White House.

"There's a lot of people in this to support him - but also to support him as leader of the party," Gidley added.

What happens if Trump loses?

The influence of Trump country raises another question: What do those voters do if Trump falters and loses the Republican nomination? Will they back the GOP nominee if it is not Trump? Or will they stay home?

Luntz noted that Trump threatened to create his own party after he left office in early 2021. The former president has also said he wouldn’t sign the GOP “Beat Biden” pledge to support any Republican nominee, even if it isn't him.

There seems little doubt that he would tell diehard supporters to reject the Republicans if they nominate someone other than him. The former president could also refuse to concede the 2024 Republican primary, coming as he has refused to concede the 2020 race for the White House.

"Trump could sink the GOP," Luntz said, "as he threatened to do after 2020."

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Donald Trump's base is calling the shots among Republicans before 2024