Despite President Donald Trump largely having control over the Republican Party and the loyalty of his staff, a number of prominent officials from the Republican administrations of Ronald Reagan, George H. W. Bush, and George W. Bush, and even some of those who have served under Trump, have announced their support for Democratic Party candidate and former Vice-President Joe Biden. They have started working to achieve a victory for Biden in the presidential elections scheduled for November 3, 2020, as they see Trump’s re-election as a threat to national security.

Profile of Republican “support” for Biden

With the elections on the horizon, competition between the two candidates is intensifying as Trump tries to narrow Biden’s lead in the national opinion polls. Against this backdrop, a number of prominent former Republican cabinet members have endorsed Biden, including former Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel and former Secretary of State Colin Powell. Past Republican members of Congress and several ex-officials of the Trump administration, such as former White House Director of Communications Anthony Scaramucci and former Chief of Staff to the Secretary of Homeland Security Miles Taylor, are also backing Biden.

More than 70 ex-officials of the national security and intelligence agencies who served under the last three Republican administrations have warned against Trump’s re-election, declaring his presidency to have been worse than they had imagined and urging voters to support Biden in November. Their current position runs counter to that held during the 2016 elections; while they had cautioned against voting for Trump in an open letter on the grounds that he would be “the most reckless president in American history”, many of them had not been prepared to support Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton. Four years later, however, Trump’s performance has driven these ex-officials to publish a new letter, in which they state that, even though they are not politically aligned with Biden and his party, he has their vote because their concerns about Trump now far outweigh those about Biden. They add that they are hoping to restore the moral foundation of US democracy following the current President’s assault on US values and institutions, and to restore their country’s role as a world leader.

On the first day of the Republican National Convention, Biden and his running mate Kamala Harris gained the support of 27 former Republican Congress members. Hundreds of former aides to President George W. Bush, ex-Senator John McCain, and serving Senator Mitt Romney have also endorsed Biden’s presidency. The Lincoln Project, membership of which includes a number of important anti‑Trump Republicans, is focusing on disaffected voters in crucial swing states such as Wisconsin and Florida, and is also backing the Democratic candidate in the coming elections.

Former Republican officials have not just been encouraging voters to choose Biden; they have been working with the rest of the anti‑Trump conservative Republican forces, such as Defending Democracy Together, to fundraise for pro‑Biden campaigns in swing states, in particular Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Michigan, Arizona, North Carolina, and Florida, which play a key role in deciding the winner of the presidential elections. Defending Democracy Together has also highlighted the damage that Trump has done to the national security agencies responsible for protecting Americans, and in May 2020, it launched the Republican Voters Against Trump initiative and raised almost $20 million for a campaign against a second term for Donald Trump.

While many former Republicans who worked in the Trump administration have explicitly endorsed Biden, some Republicans, although sharply criticizing Trump, have not openly announced their support for his rival. In this regard, several US reports have indicated that the previous Republican President George W. Bush has told those close to him that he will not support Trump in this year’s elections. James Mattis, Trump’s former Secretary of Defense, and John Kelly, who served as his Secretary of Homeland Security and White House Chief of Staff, have expressed their opposition to Trump winning a second term, with Mattis describing him as the first president in his lifetime who is not trying – or even pretending to try – to unite the American people. Furthermore, Trump has been criticized by many of his former staff, most prominently ex‑Director of the National Economic Council Gary Cohn, former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, and former National Security Advisor John Bolton.

Impact on Biden’s chances of winning 

In an attempt to exploit overt Republican outrage toward Trump’s domestic and foreign policies, especially his failure to come to grips with the coronavirus pandemic and the economic recession, the Democratic National Convention invited several Republicans to speak during its four-day meeting on August 17–20, 2020, chief among them former Secretary of State Colin Powell. The widow of the former senator and 2008 Republican presidential candidate John McCain also spoke about her husband’s friendship and personal relations with Biden despite their electoral rivalry and political differences.

In addition to the support expressed by some former and current Republicans for the Democratic candidate, the Biden campaign have launched “Republicans for Joe Biden” in an attempt to attract votes from anti-Trump Republicans this fall.  

The Democrats are banking on ex‑Republican officials’ support for Biden and their reasons for opposing Trump, in addition to the fact that Trump has let down the millions of voters who put their trust in him and has been described as “dangerously unfit” to lead the USA for a second term. They are also emphasizing Biden’s dynamism and his ability to lead the country, bring Americans together, and reestablish the USA as a world leader. This will enable the Democrats to attract votes from moderate Republicans who may have supported Trump in the 2016 elections but now reject his policies, and from those who are hesitant to vote for Biden.

However, the Democrats’ wager on support from a section of the Republican population faces a host of challenges, most importantly:

  • Former Republicans’ overt support for Biden does not reveal a strong wave of anger within the Republican Party about Trump’s policies, as he still enjoys firm support among Republican voters.
  • Since his nomination as the 2016 Republican presidential candidate, Trump has strengthened his position in the party, making it difficult for Republicans in Congress to distance themselves from him without antagonizing his voter base.
  • Many Republicans who oppose the President’s policies would prefer that Trump govern for a second term than the Democrats get into power and pursue liberal policies. Besides that, voters who are considering supporting the Republican Party but do not support Trump will refuse to vote for Biden so as to preserve the party’s cohesion and its place at the pinnacle of power in the USA.
  • Former Republican officials are not endorsing Biden because they have become liberals, but because they have decided that their party needs to rid itself of Trump, even if that means the Democrats taking the reins of power for a time. This is at odds with the convictions of Republican voters who consider the Democratic Party to be dominated by left‑wing trends and disagree with its liberal approach to numerous domestic issues.

Conclusion

Biden’s chances of winning the upcoming elections are unlikely to be boosted by support from ex-officials who have served under the current and previous Republican administrations. This is actually nothing new; some of these same Republicans had warned against voting for Trump in 2016, but he won in the end. This confirms, once again, that the considerations of the political elite and corporate sponsors are not the same as the considerations and views of the ordinary voters that constitute Trump’s voter base.

* Researcher specializing in US affairs.

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