It took nearly 24 hours after GOP presidential frontrunner Donald Trump’s call to ban Muslims from entering the U.S. from abroad for a statement from Reince Priebus, the chairman of the Republican National Committee, to surface. And compared to the strong condemnation of Trump that came from some of his competitors for the presidential nomination and from House Speaker Paul Ryan, it was pretty weak tea.
“I don't agree,” Priebus said about Trump’s plan. “We need to aggressively take on radical Islamic terrorism but not at the expense of our American values.”
Asked about the effect Trump’s proposal might have on the GOP in general and on the Party’s chance to beat likely Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton in 2016, he said, “That’s as far as I’m going to go.”
Coincidentally, on Wednesday afternoon, the results of a poll conducted by USA Today and Suffolk University revealed one reason why Priebus and his colleagues at the RNC might be a little nervous about being overly critical of the former reality television star currently dominating their party’s race.
The pollsters asked Republican voters to identify their first choice among the various GOP candidates for president, and as he has done in almost all the polls so far, Trump topped the field, this time with 27 percent of the vote – more than 10 points higher than his nearest rivals.
However, the pollsters went back to the respondents who said Trump was their first choice and asked a follow-up question: “Earlier you said your first choice in the Republican Primary is Donald Trump. If Donald Trump runs as an independent candidate – not as a Republican - would you still vote for him?”
More than two-thirds of respondents – 68 percent – said that they would, indeed, leave the Republican fold and vote for Trump if he split from the party and ran as an independent.
To be sure, the margin for error here is large. The number of respondents for that particular question was 98 voters, meaning the result has a margin of error of up to 10 percentage points. It’s also very early in the race, voters might be persuaded not to leave the party, etc., etc.
Caveats aside, though, the result suggests that there is a non-trivial percentage of Republican voters who would jump ship and join Trump in a third party effort if he mounted one. And he has threatened to do just that if he is not treated “fairly” by the GOP establishment.
In a presidential election year, Republicans always face an uphill climb, and winning the White House will be a serious challenge even under the best of circumstances. In a close race, having Trump off to the side, pulling even a few percentage points of the vote his way could be enough to sink the candidacy of an otherwise viable Republican. Not to mention the impact it might have on other down-ballot races.
So as much as he might have wanted, deep down, to roundly denounce Trump on Tuesday, Priebus has a job to do -- and it’s getting Republicans elected. Even if he doesn’t expect Trump to be the eventual nominee, speaking out against the billionaire at this stage could indirectly harm the person carrying the GOP mantle next November.