Over this past weekend, a spate of Republican party leaders denounced Donald Trump following the release of his now infamous Access Hollywood recording. The public exodus has left plenty of Trump opponents wondering: “Why now?” What made these comments the last straw for the GOP establishment? After all, the Republican presidential candidate has had plenty of other scandals, from Trump’s racist comments about federal district court judge Gonzalo Curiel and the Khan family to his sexist smearing of Alicia Machado to the revelations about his federal income taxes, the fraud allegations against Trump University and his public suggestion that Russia ought to spy on his political enemy. Republican senator John McCain even endorsed Trump after the candidate said he wasn’t a real war hero, but it was Access Hollywood that convinced him to unendorse?
A generous way to interpret the GOP’s change of heart would be to celebrate the party for finally finding its spine. Yet as new voter polls begin to come in, politicians’ real motivation has become clear. There’s nothing moral about the party’s rebuke of Trump, just pure political opportunism.
A new NBC/WSJ national poll compiled between the release of the recording and the second presidential debate has Clinton leading by 14% in a two-way matchup between her and Trump, and more than 10% in a four-way matchup including Gary Johnson and Jill Stein. Similarly, a PRRI/The Atlantic poll has confirmed a similar lead in the two-way matchup during the same time period.
What makes these poll results so interesting is a tweet by GOP strategist Mike Murphy, referring to the NBC/WSJ poll. Murphy is not just unfazed by the results; he’s seems to be expecting worse. And he cannot be the only conservative privy to this info.
In this context, the timing of Paul Ryan’s decidedly chilly recent statements on Trump make more sense, too. While he has not technically unendorsed the candidate, Ryan has given rank-and-file Republicans permission to do what they need to in order to win their own elections. It’s very likely that Republicans were quicker than the mainstream polls; they predicted voters would turn away from Trump after news of the tape broke and went into crisis mode. They wanted to unendorse (or at least back away from) him and are using his misogyny as ethical cover.
To the GOP’s collective credit, its leadership is realizing that you can’t win an election by relying solely on angry white men anymore. They see the sinking internal numbers, confirmed by public polling data, and have found an opportunity to pivot back to the mainstream majority while pretending it’s an act of conscience.
But this does not justify their previous defense of the indefensible. And it will be interesting to what happens after November. Assuming Trump loses, Ryan and the bulk of the GOP may well try to pretend the Donald Trump phenomenon was just a bad dream. When confronted with their support of his campaign, many will likely point to their late-to-the-game unendorsements as evidence they have always had America’s best interests at heart. (How they will talk down Trump’s legions of rabid supporters is another, much more complicated story.)
At the end of the day, the GOP is always going to look out for the GOP. If Trump was winning, it’s likely they would have stayed quiet on his comments. But he’s not and they didn’t. They saw an opening and they took it, hoping nobody would notice.