WASHINGTON — When researchers surveyed political activists about their views of Sen. Pat Toomey in 2016, the respondents’ views largely tracked his voting record: they saw the Pennsylvania Republican as one of the more conservative voices of the Senate.
Toomey’s voting patterns and views haven’t changed — but perceptions of him have.
A new survey by the same research team shows that activists in both parties now rate Toomey as one of the most moderate Senate Republicans, even though his record remains staunchly conservative.
The most likely reason, according to the researchers? Toomey’s high-profile breaks from former President Donald Trump. He forcefully opposed Trump’s attempt to overturn the 2020 election and was one of only seven Republicans who voted to convict Trump in his second impeachment trial.
Toomey is one of the most glaring examples that researchers cited in their surveys suggesting that perceptions of public officials’ conservative credentials now depend more on their allegiance to Trump than their policy views.
Trump, the researchers concluded, has redefined conservatism in the eyes of activists from both parties.
“The perceived conservative wing of the Republican Party is now basically entirely the most pro-Trump figures,” said Dan Hopkins, the University of Pennsylvania political scientist who co-led the study and first published his findings on the data-focused website FiveThirtyEight.
Toomey, in an interview, agreed that Trump has had “a significant impact” on the GOP, but disputed the conclusion that the former president has changed ideas about what’s conservative.
“People know that in Congress and in the Senate there are Republicans who have been, let’s say, much more deferential and loyal to Donald Trump than I’ve been. People get that,” Toomey said. “I don’t think they actually think that I’m not a conservative.”
He questioned the methodology of the study, which gave respondents political activists pairs of public officials to evaluate, and asked them to choose who was more conservative or liberal. Toomey argued that the method lacked nuance and was likely to become a proxy for who was fighting alongside Trump.
“Donald Trump has been seen as arguably one of the most aggressive and vigorous warriors against the left, and he was joined in battle. And so to some degree, the guy that’s taking the fight to the other side most aggressively, it’s easy to have a shorthand if the only choice you give a respondent is, ‘Is he conservative?’” Toomey said.
How this could affect key Pa. races for governor and Senate
Trump’s influence has significant implications for Pennsylvania: Republicans next year will nominate candidates to replace Toomey (who isn’t seeking reelection) and to run for governor. Perceptions by conservative activists will be crucial in those primaries, which will decide the new public faces of the GOP in Pennsylvania, and the candidates for races with major national implications.
“It seems to be swimming against the current to try to define one self as an anti-Trump conservative,” Hopkins said.
He pointed to his findings on Toomey. In his first term, starting in 2011, Toomey consistently had one of the Senate’s most conservative voting records, even compared to other Republicans, according to Voteview, which tracks votes and places them on a conservative-to-liberal spectrum.
So in a 2016 study Hopkins ran with Hans Noel of Georgetown University, activists rated Toomey as one of the 25 most conservative senators.
(The survey, conducted by YouGov, polled about 3,000 political activists in both parties — people who had been local party chairs or had run for elected office, acted as paid political staffers, or those who had done some combination of donating to a candidate, attending a rally, or making phone calls for a campaign.)
Toomey’s ideological record didn’t change much after his 2016 reelection. In the 2017-2019 session of Congress, his votes were more conservative than 90% of his fellow GOP senators. And he was a leading advocate and author of Trump’s two biggest legislative efforts: the attempted repeal of the Affordable Care Act and the Republican tax cuts.
For 2019-2021, Toomey’s votes were still more conservative than 86% of Republican senators.
Yet after breaking with Trump’s election lies in late 2020 and early 2021, a new survey of 1,110 activists in April saw a profound shift: Toomey was now seen as the 9th least conservative Republican senator.
The new measure of conservatism
The senators and other officials rated most conservative, Hopkins noted, all have close affiliations with Trump: Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, Sens. Tom Cotton of Arkansas, Tommy Tuberville of Alabama, Josh Hawley of Missouri, and former Vice President Mike Pence.
Toomey, notably, had a more conservative voting record than Cotton each of the past two congresses, according to Voteview.
“Even for activists — who we would expect to be the vanguard, defining and policing what it means to be conservative — to a surprising extent being conservative is defined by your relationship to personalities [like Trump] rather than you relationship to policies,” Hopkins said.
Toomey said the survey’s method gave respondents too few options, leading to answers that conflated support for Trump with conservatism.
“There’s no question that there’s a large majority of Republicans who associate [Trump] as the leader of the party. I don’t think that they’re necessarily confused about ideology,” he said. “People are quite capable of recognizing that a person can be ideologically and philosophically conservative and may or may not be a big fan of Donald Trump. Those two are not the same thing.”
Hopkins said his most recent findings mirror a phenomenon he noticed during Trump’s rise in 2016, when some longtime conservatives, such as former Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona, were seen as relatively moderate and those who strongly supported Trump, such as former Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama, were seen as more conservative their actual voting records indicated.
The updated results suggest the trend has accelerated. If so, it could shape the GOP’s direction in critical 2022 races.