Why I’m Less Bullish on Trump’s Chances in the 2024 GOP Primary Than the Early Polls Are
Trump’s primary success in 2024 comes down to whether party elites and the media have learned from their mistakes in 2016.
In less than 36 hours, Joe Biden will be sworn in as the next president of the United States. But the magnitude of his victory has been overshadowed by the political fallout from the January 6th siege on the U.S. Capitol by President Trump’s supporters, which resulted in five deaths and President Trump becoming the first president in U.S. history to be impeached twice.
With a deeply unpopular outgoing president as well as the loss of the Senate majority in a traditionally red state, it’s no surprise that Republicans are already talking about rebuilding the party ahead of the 2024 GOP presidential primary without Trump. And these aren’t just Lincoln Project-style Never Trump Republicans; rather, they are self-styled pragmatists who, as POLITICO’s Tim Alberta put it, recognize the “party’s ceiling is stupidly low [and] they need to shed Trumpism” in order to win electoral majorities at the national level again.
Republican voters, however, aren’t ready to conclude that the Trump name is a foregone loser for the GOP. According to a recent Politico/Morning Consult poll of Republican and Republican-leaning voters, 40 percent said they would support President Trump as the party’s nominee in 2024, and save for Vice President Mike Pence, the other 2024 contenders in the survey did not fair much better than Trump’s son, Donald Trump, Jr. Similarly, a recent Washington Post / ABC News poll found that 57 percent of Republican voters surveyed believed that GOP leaders should follow Trump instead of trying to move the party in a different direction.
Even with a second impeachment and the loss of the Senate in his final days in office, there are valid reasons to believe that Trump would sweep the 2024 GOP primary if he decided to run for a second nonconsecutive term. His false claims of massive voter fraud in the November 3rd election always seemed to be about clearing the 2024 field for himself or his adult children. And so long as there’s no compelling alternative to Trumpism within the GOP, Trump will succeed in making loyalty to him the litmus test of the GOP primary.
Trump can also legitimately claim that he turns out rural, white working class, and Latino voters in ways that no other Republican nominee has in recent history. As Alberta noted, while establishment Republicans are likely to view the Georgia Senate run-off results as proof that Trump is an albatross around the party’s neck, MAGA loyalists could counter that the run-offs are proof that the party “maxes out” with Trump at the top of the ballot and they’ll need him in 2024 to excite GOP voters.
But when I look at Trump’s political trajectory, I am much more inclined to view his success as a series of lucky breaks and irresponsibility on the part of the GOP and news media than I am to point to any particular turnout strategy that helped him beat Hillary Clinton in 2016. In other words, for Trump to consolidate the GOP around him and beat the Democrats again in 2024, both parties and the media would have to repeat their failures from eight years earlier.
Below are three things that could break Trump’s way ahead of 2024, along with a brief explanation as to why I remain skeptical that any of them will play out as the Trump-aligned right may hope.
1. Democrats become divided over issues that play into Trump’s strengths.
Obviously, Biden spending the next four years embroiled in a scandal or an unpopular war would be a huge boost to the GOP nominee in 2024, even if it isn’t Trump. What is likely to elevate Trump over any other GOP contender though, is if Democrats publicly splinter over issues like immigration and policing, where Trump’s racist rhetoric proved to resonate more with GOP-leaning voters than talk of institutional reform. Biden in particular can’t afford to have a progressive flank that is demobilized by inaction or huge policy concessions to the right. Moreover, a public fallout with Black organizers and activists could provide an opening for Trump to target young Black voters with anti-Democratic Party rhetoric, just as he did in 2016 and in 2020.
If Biden decides not to run for reelection in 2024, picking the wrong candidate to run in his place would probably boost Trump’s chances of not only clinching the GOP nomination for president but winning a second nonconsecutive term. The reason is simple: Trump is a known commodity to the GOP. Democrats, in contrast, wouldn’t have a natural, broadly popular heir to the White House if Biden’s first term ended badly. Progressives would likely oppose Vice President Kamala Harris as more of the same and some Democrats would privately worry about putting up another woman to run against Donald Trump.
I have a hard time imagining Biden’s first term being such a disaster that voters would be angling for another four years of Trump. Yes, Biden has shown reluctance to fully embrace the demands of Black organizers and activists in the wake of the George Floyd protests, but he hasn’t ignored or sidelined criminal justice issues in the hopes that he could build bridges with Republicans. Nor does he appear eager to let right-wing fear-mongering set the terms of the immigration debate. Lastly, even if they are disappointed by what Biden is unable to accomplish in his first term, there’s no reason to think Democrats wouldn’t still be motivated to vote against Trump and everything he stands for if he were to run for president again. Both Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock won by bigger margins in the January 5th Georgia Senate run-offs than Biden won in the whole state during the November 3rd election.
2. Republicans decide that stopping Biden from governing is more important than stopping Trump from becoming the party nominee again.
If Republicans on the Hill really wanted to remove the threat of Trump running for president as their party’s nominee in four years, they would vote to convict him at his upcoming impeachment trial in the Senate. They are unlikely to do this because most of them do not see Trump as a threat to their political careers, but rather the only electoral force keeping Republicans relevant in an anti-establishment political climate.
If Republicans don’t have the courage to stop Trump from running again via conviction in the Senate, they could support probes into his personal finances and business dealings that might uncover criminal activity not covered by a federal pardon. Trump’s persistent legal problems would not cost him his core base of support, but they could dissuade enough Republican voters from lining up behind for a second time. Instead, these Republicans may opt to throw their support behind candidates who, as political analyst Geoffrey Kabaservice quips, “Bow-tied commentators on Fox and Sinclair talk up the merits of” such as Nikki Haley and Mike Pence, who “excite the masses with Trumpian bravado while also pleasing the party establishment.”
This “comprise” candidate scenario seems more likely after the Georgia Senate run-offs, where running pro-Trump candidates in a purpling state cost Republicans the Senate. In short, Republicans hoping to stop Trump in 2024 may not represent the base of the party, but this time around they exist in enough variation and numbers to put up a formidable challenge to MAGA in 2024.
3. The media (the press, cable news shows, social media companies) revert to their 2016 coverage of Trump.
Following his incitement of a mob to attack the U.S. Capitol, Twitter permanently banned President Trump from using its platform. Facebook followed suit and suspended the president’s account until at least after his term ends. Within the last two years, social media companies have taken steps to curb the flow of disinformation coming from the president and his allies. And traditional news outlets have gotten more aggressive with fact-checking and following up on statements put forward by the White House. News outlets have also gotten more selective about when and how long to air the president’s televised remarks.
All of these examples represent a sharp break from how media outlets tended to cover Trump when he ran for president in 2015. As I argued back in 2019, the assumption that Trump could never actually become president likely played a role in cable news media’s overly generous coverage of his rallies and press conferences. His celebrity past also made it difficult to assess him the way governors and senators are typically assessed when they decide to run for president. What’s more, the gravity of the numerous sexual assault allegations Trump faces as well as his racist public campaign against the Central Park Five was undermined by media efforts to make Hillary Clinton’s legal troubles over her work emails seem equally perverse.
I do worry about Trump’s post-presidency affairs becoming a news beat in their own right as a Biden presidency probably won’t provide the shock and awe that Trump’s did. But for a number of reasons, media outlets can’t afford to be as naïve about Trump running for president again as they were during his 2015–16 run. For one, Trump would have an actual record he would have to defend, so the media wouldn’t be primed to take everything he says at face value again. Also, Trump’s persistent efforts to undermine the credibility of non-conservative news outlets over the past four years makes it unlikely that these outlets will allow him once again to seize control of the daily news cycle with random rallies and social media ramblings.
Trump will remain wildly popular with certain segments of the GOP. But his November 3rd loss proves that he needs much more than his core base to win major elections. And so far, he hasn’t proven that he knows (or cares) how to expand the GOP coalition in significant numbers beyond Trump loyalists. The truth is that Trump did nothing special to sweep the 2016 GOP primary. Whether it was an out-of-touch GOP establishment, a legally-fraught opponent in Hillary Clinton, or a bored 24-hour news media, everything fell into place for Trump. He probably won’t be as lucky in 2024.