The dispute over what it means to be a MAGA Republican has given the GOP an opening to accuse President Joe Biden of “smearing” half the voters in the country — the roughly 47% of those who voted in 2020 for former President Donald Trump.
MAGA — Trump’s trademark Make America Great Again 2016 campaign slogan — is subject to interpretation. Biden offered his take in a Sept.1 speech in Philadelphia.
“There is no question that the Republican Party today is dominated, driven, and intimidated by Donald Trump and the MAGA Republicans, and that is a threat to this country,” Biden said. “MAGA Republicans do not respect the Constitution. They do not believe in the rule of law. They do not recognize the will of the people.”
Biden’s insistence during the address that “not every Republican, not even the majority of Republicans, are MAGA Republicans,” has hardly mollified his critics. Fox News commentator Kayleigh McEnany, a former Trump administration press secretary, echoed a common GOP theme, tweeting that Biden had delivered the “most divisive presidential speech” she’d ever seen.
In a recent interview on CBS News’ “60 Minutes,” Biden went further, citing two telltale markers that he believes distinguish MAGA Republicans.
“MAGA Republicans are the people who refuse to acknowledge that an election took place and there was a winner,” Biden said Sept. 18. “The MAGA Republicans are those people who, in fact, say that the use of violence is a legitimate tool, like what happened to the Capitol.”
We examined data to see where Republicans stand on election denialism and sympathy for the people who breached the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. It shows that Republican voters are divided on those points, but the differences among them are rarely crisp and clean.
As political scientist Christopher Cooper at Western Carolina University put it, “People don’t put on the MAGA label like a pair of pants — it’s an identity that some people have more of and some people have less of.”
A focus on Trump
MAGA is the Trump brand, from campaign slogan, to red hats emblazoned with the letters, to the closing line of his stump speeches.
“A MAGA Republican is first and foremost a Trump supporter, no matter what he seems to do or say,” said American University political scientist James Thurber.
A survey of self-identified MAGA voters conducted just after the Capitol assault found they strongly believe the election was stolen and that the riot was the work of antifa, a loose collection of activists who rally against fascism and far-right groups.
Since January 2021, pollsters have been asking Republican voters which they identify more with — Trump, or the Republican Party. In a NBC/Wall Street Journal poll, support for Trump has been waning.
In January 2021, an equal number of Republican voters, 46%, said they supported Trump and the Republican Party. By September 2022, Trump supporters had dropped to 33%, and party supporters had risen to 58%.
A recent Politico/Morning Consult tracking poll asked Republicans to pick their preferred 2024 presidential candidate. Trump came in first with 52%, but that also meant about half of Republicans wanted another candidate. In a July New York Times survey, about a fifth of Republicans said Trump’s actions on Jan. 6 “went so far that he threatened American democracy.”
Others are eager to define what it means to be a MAGA follower, but Republican voters appear to apply the label to themselves flexibly.
Cooper at Western Carolina University was part of a study of Southern state Republicans — people in Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas and Virginia. The study’s poll gave self-identified Republicans the option to choose among the labels Traditional Republican, America First Republican and MAGA.
Respondents were asked to rate how well the labels fit them on a scale of 1= “not at all” to 10= “completely describes me.” Nearly three-quarters of respondents picked a 6 or higher for more than one label.
“There are not bright lines between the three categories,” said Western Carolina University’s Cooper. “But there is something distinct about MAGA Republican identifiers. They are less likely to believe that Donald Trump should be prosecuted for January 6, less likely to believe that our elections are free and fair, more likely to approve of Donald Trump.”
Trump’s influence was evident in the primaries.
An analysis from senior fellow Elaine Kamarck at the Brookings Institution, a research and policy center in Washington, D.C., found that 96% of Trump-endorsed candidates won their recent primary elections. Those candidates were a select group — only about 12% of all Republican candidates got Trump’s nod.
Kamarck noted that many contests included Trump “wannabes.”
“Candidates attacked each other for not being loyal enough to Trump or they tried to paint themselves as the best example of Trumpism, even when they did not get the formal endorsement,” Kamarck wrote.
Thirty-six percent of primary candidates identified themselves as Trump or MAGA Republicans; 47% called themselves mainstream conservatives.
A majority of Republicans challenge the 2020 election
Biden defined MAGA Republicans as those who refuse to accept that he won the 2020 election. And poll results suggest that is true.
In the survey of Southern state Republicans, about 80% of those who identified strongly as MAGA said they did not believe the 2020 election was fair or accurate, compared with 66% of those who identified as Traditional Republicans.
But the percentages of election deniers are high for all Republicans. In survey after survey, between 60% and 70% of Republicans say Biden was not the legitimate winner.
The violence on Jan. 6
Biden said MAGA Republicans believe the violence that took place at the Capitol on Jan. 6 was justified.
Surveys show that Republican attitudes on the Capitol breach and the battle with law enforcement are divided. But a Monmouth University poll also found that in the past year, Republicans became a little more accepting of the violence that day.
In June 2021, 47% of Republicans said it was a legitimate protest, In August 2022, the fraction rose to 53%.
That roughly equal division among Republicans showed up again in a December 2021 CBS News poll. Then, 47% of Republicans said the people who stormed the Capitol were patriots; 53% said they were not.
But when asked in the CBS poll whether they approved of what took place, 76% of Republicans said they disapproved.