How Trump has redefined conservatism

A few key findings immediately stand out. First, in looking just at our 2021 survey data, a politician’s support for Trump has come to define who party activists think of as conservative. Romney, Toomey and Sasse were all rated as fairly liberal Republicans despite their conservative voting records in Congress, according to DW-Nominate, which quantifies the ideology of every member of Congress based on roll call votes cast in a legislative session. Staunchly pro-Trump politicians (or Trump-adjacent politicians), like Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, former Vice President Mike Pence, Sens. Tom Cotton, Josh Hawley and Lindsey Graham, and Trump were all clustered together on the more conservative end of the spectrum, even though there is quite a bit of difference, ideologically speaking, between these men. Pence, for instance, stands out for having established a very conservative track record pre-Trump whereas Cotton, Graham, Hawley and DeSantis’s claims to being so conservative are more closely linked to their connection to Trump. What seems to matter more is not so much one’s voting record in the pre-Trump era as one’s relationship to Trump...

However, using our survey data from 2016,6 we can see that even before Trump became president, he was starting to redefine who party activists thought was conservative. For instance, based on their voting records via DW-Nominate, which scores voting records from 1 (most conservative) to -1 (most liberal), Flake and Sasse were about as conservative as Sen. Ted Cruz. But activists thought Flake and Sasse were significantly more moderate, quite possibly because of their outspoken opposition to Trump. Meanwhile, pro-Trump senators like Jeff Sessions (the first senator to endorse Trump) and Cotton were perceived as far more conservative than their actual voting records indicate. Trump, in other words, began to reshape who was “conservative” long before winning office.