It’s been clear for a long time that the Republican Party is in thrall to its base — significantly more than Democrats are to theirs. Republicans have embraced broadly unpopular policies and positions like restrictive abortion bans and the claim that the 2020 election was stolen — both of which helped cost them in the 2022 election — because it’s the price of a seat at the table in the Trump-era GOP.
Rarely has it been as evident that a relatively small portion of that activist base can hijack an issue.
The Ukraine war divides the Republican Party approximately evenly. Around 4 in 10 Republicans say we should decrease or end our financial assistance to Ukraine, but about the same number say we should continue as is, or even increase funding.
But to watch two big forums featuring GOP presidential candidates on Friday and over the weekend, you’d think supporting Ukraine was an unthinkable position in the conservative movement.
First came the evangelical Family Leadership conference turning over its Iowa event to host Tucker Carlson, who used that position not to press the candidates on religious conservative causes but to push them away from supporting Ukraine. When he pressed former vice president Mike Pence extensively on the subject, the crowd cheered Carlson’s oversimplified skepticism. It wouldn’t even express support when Pence noted how successful Ukraine had been. Pence’s support for actual Ukraine funding even drew boos at one point, along with one or two claps.
Then came the Turning Point Action conference this weekend in Palm Beach, Fla., at which former president Donald Trump spoke. Turning Point USA’s founder Charlie Kirk disclosed the results of a straw poll Sunday that had been conducted among the conference’s thousands of young attendees. The most lopsided issue? Ukraine. Nearly 96 percent said they do not support “U.S. involvement,” according to Kirk.
This is not where the American people more broadly are.
Among the broader electorate, supporting Ukraine is around a 2-to-1 issue in most polls. A Quinnipiac University poll last month showed 66 percent of Americans said that supporting Ukraine was in the national interest of the United States, while just 28 percent said it was not. Even among Republicans, a 52 percent majority said it was in our interest, compared to 40 percent who said it was not.
Similarly, an Economist/YouGov poll last month showed twice as many Americans favored increasing or keeping the same amount of aid as supported decreasing it. Neither among Republicans nor among 2020 Trump voters was decreasing aid even a majority position.
But at this conference, ending U.S. involvement was a near-unanimous position.
It’s fair to ask what people might interpret “U.S. involvement” to mean. Perhaps some would understand that as including sending U.S. troops, which is overwhelmingly unpopular in both parties. But that’s not something that’s really on the table; our long-standing involvement has been to send aid — including weapons — to help Ukraine repel Russia’s invasion. And both conferences revealed an activist base that appeared overwhelmingly against helping Ukraine.
Both were also a contrast to what we saw in Congress law week. While about 4 in 10 House Republicans voted to withhold $300 million in aid to Ukraine, and about two-thirds voted to cut off Ukraine entirely — large numbers, considering the stakes — these still remain minority positions in the congressional GOP.
But we’ve already seen what the pressure from the likes of Carlson and the base can do, particularly when it comes to DeSantis’s “territorial dispute” flap. A plurality and possibly even a majority of Republican voters appear to still be at least passively in favor of helping Ukraine — as are most congressional Republicans and most GOP presidential candidates not named Trump or DeSantis. But if these are the kinds of crowds GOP presidential candidates are going to keep confronting as the nominating process ramps up, it will register.
“When will politicians learn that you can’t tell voters what to believe?” Kirk said while reflecting upon the straw poll results. “You should listen to your voters if you want to win a nomination process.”
Or perhaps more specifically, listen to the loudest ones. And if we’ve learned anything about the GOP in recent times, it’s that the candidates will feel lots of pressure to do just that.