Long before the most recent revelations rendered it significantly messier, New York Times reporter Maggie Haberman asked Donald Trump about GOP Senate candidate Herschel Walker’s messy personal life. Trump wagered that it wouldn’t really matter.
Trump, in comments published in Haberman’s new book, “Confidence Man,” called it “a personal history that, ten years ago, maybe it would have been a problem. Twenty years ago would’ve been a bigger problem. I don’t think it’s a problem today.” Asked why he thought things had shifted, Trump offered: “Because the world is changing.”
Trump talking in CONFIDENCE MAN about why the allegations about Walker’s personal history wouldn’t be a problem pic.twitter.com/fEDg5sdGv3
— Maggie Haberman (@maggieNYT) October 5, 2022
Trump is almost unquestionably right that these things once mattered much more. But it’s not so much that the world has changed as that the Republican Party has.
And rather conveniently so.
The Daily Beast’s report that Walker had paid for an abortion in 2009 (which Walker denies) combined with harsh comments about Walker from his conservative son have rekindled long-running questions about just how much personal conduct and hypocrisy matter to voters. It’s a conversation we occasionally have, such as when a GOP congressman urges a mistress to have an abortion or when a GOP Senate candidate is reported to have pursued teenage girls while he was in his 30s. These questions often focus on the GOP, because the party around the turn-of-the-century built its brand on morality. Think: the “values voters” of 2004.
What’s clear is that the party has evolved considerably since then, toward a version of itself that can accept the likes of Trump and Walker — and overwhelmingly.
In 2011, the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) asked whether people thought an elected official who committed an immoral act “can still behave ethically and fulfill their duties in their public and professional life.” (Journalist John Dickerson pointed to these findings Wednesday.)
While half of Democrats said they could, just 36 percent of Republicans said the same — a finding in line with the GOP’s emphasis on morals over the previous two decades.
But by 2016, things had changed substantially. With a vulgar, thrice-married alleged adulterer at the top of the party’s ticket, the number of Republicans who said such an official could fulfill their duties nearly doubled to 70 percent. And by the end of Trump’s term as president, that number stood at 71 percent.
The shift was driven by the evangelical Christians who had once pushed the party to embrace morality. While in 2011, just 30 percent of White evangelicals said such a candidate could fulfill their duties, that number in 2020 was 72 percent. Among the major religious groups, this one went from the least tolerant of such a candidate to the most tolerant.
Democrats, by contrast, are about where they were in 2011. While back then 49 percent said such a candidate could fulfill their duties, in 2020 that number stood at 47 percent. (There was a momentary uptick to 61 percent in 2016.)
It’s a question that also cropped up in the aforementioned 2017 Senate race in Alabama. When GOP nominee Roy Moore was accused of pursuing teenage girls decades before, The Washington Post and the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University asked the same question as PRRI.
And again, Republicans were suddenly more willing to look the other way — or at least focus on other things. While Alabama Democrats said by a seven-point margin that such a candidate couldn’t fulfill their duties, Alabama Republicans said they could by a 23-point margin, 50-27.
This is, as with many poll questions, not a perfect gauge of how Walker’s alleged conduct might be received by Georgia voters. For one, he’s denying paying for the abortion, and many Republicans will undoubtedly accept that denial. Second, an “immoral act” could certainly span a whole host of behaviors; basically everyone has done something immoral.
But an alleged abortion is hardly the only aspect of Walker’s past that would seem to run afoul of the standard most of the GOP subscribed to just a decade ago. And it’s not just his son alleging that Walker “threatened to kill us” and that the family had to move repeatedly to flee violence from Walker, or his ex-wife recounting incidents in which Walker allegedly held a gun to her head. It’s also the three previously undisclosed children he had with different women. (Walker has campaigned against absentee Black fathers but doesn’t appear to have been a major presence in these children’s lives.) Walker is now speaking in terms of redemption — even as he denies the abortion story — but were Walker to have paid for an abortion, that also would run afoul of his recent claims to always have opposed abortion rights.
A final poll we’ll note here is a survey from The Washington Post and the Kaiser Family Foundation, in 2012, when Republicans were more insistent upon morality. It asked whether “Americans are too tolerant and accepting of behaviors that in the past were considered immoral or wrong.” While half of Democrats agreed with that statement, 77 percent of Republicans did.
Today, it’s Republicans who say they’re more tolerant of immoral behavior, at least in their politicians. Whether it’ll be enough to salvage Walker’s fledgling political career — which independents will also have a major say over — is another matter.