The Most Important Question to Ask Trump Defectors

by Nathan L. Gonzales August 12, 2016 · 1:28 PM EDT

“Quitting the Republican Party” is the easiest way to make the news these days, but the stories about Donald Trump defectors don’t go far enough to understand the potential impact on the November elections.

Conservative columnist George Will revealed in late June that he had changed his voter registration to “unaffiliated.”

"After Trump went after the 'Mexican' judge from northern Indiana then Paul Ryan endorsed him, I decided that in fact this was not my party anymore," Will said on Fox News Sunday.

More recently, long-time Jeb Bush advisor Sally Bradshaw told CNN that “Trump has taken the GOP in another direction, and too many Republicans are standing by and looking the other way.”  The Atlantic tacked on a dramatic headline, “Sally Bradshaw Has Left the Republican Party.” 

But quitting the Republican Party, not voting for Trump, and/or changing your voter registration is different than changing voting behavior up and down the ballot or switching parties entirely. In most cases, Trump defectors are going to vote for Republican nominees for other offices.

After the Bradshaw news broke and the focus was on her presidential choice and quitting the GOP, I asked her how she would vote in other races.

“I’ll continue to support conservatives up and down the ballot,” she told me.

That’s bad news for Trump, but good news for other Republicans, particularly if other Trump defectors follow suit. For example, Maine Sen. Susan Collins said she wouldn’t vote for Trump in an op-ed for The Washington Post on Monday, but she pledged to work for other GOP candidates around the country.

Illinois Reps. Robert J. Dold and Adam Kinzinger have been critical of Trump and said they cannot support the GOP presidential nominee, but that doesn’t mean they’ll vote for Democratic Rep. Tammy Duckworth over Mark S. Kirk in the Senate race.

What so-called #NeverTrump voters do in Senate and House races is one of the most critical storylines of the cycle because vulnerable members can’t afford any Republicans staying home. They need every GOP voter possible and still need votes from Independents and some Democrats win in competitive states and districts.

It’s also important to remember that anecdotal stories about Republicans defecting from Trump aren’t as important as a larger trend. Nearly 61 million people voted for Mitt Romney in the 2012 presidential race, so a couple dozen stories about defections hardly registers in terms of magnitude.

What should be more concerning to the Trump campaign are polls such as the recent WBUR poll, conducted by MassINC, which showed the Manhattan real estate mogul getting just 63 percent of registered Republicans in New Hampshire to vote for him. I heard about another private poll that showed Trump struggling to get half of GOP voters in the Granite State.

In 2012, Romney received support from 94 percent of Republicans in New Hampshire, according to the exit poll.