The Invisible Primary as of February 2023
Taking stock of the Republican presidential contest
Where exactly does this thing stand?
If you had asked me even a few months ago whom the Republicans were going to nominate in 2024, I’d have said Donald Trump with a high degree of confidence. One thing that has come out in a number of interviews I’ve done, as well as with public polling, is that Republicans overall didn’t see the 2020 election outcome as a signal to rethink things. Even those who were comfortable saying that Trump lost fair and square largely attributed his loss to Covid and the chaos that it produced.
But the 2022 midterms told a different story. One of the common narratives coming out of that election was that Trump caused the party to under-perform. His large endorsement influence in GOP primary elections and his recruitment of candidates led to many sub-par nominees (think folks like Dr. Oz, Herschel Walker, and Blake Masters) who lost key winnable races. Many of his endorsees echoed his false conspiratorial claims about the 2020 election, which also seemed to hurt their vote shares. And Trump did numerous campaign rallies throughout the fall and did whatever he could to make the election about him, and he’s not that popular.
It's not terribly surprising that some Republicans criticized him after a pretty substantial election under-performance – they’ll do that from time to time. Some prominent Republicans criticized Trump after he attacked John McCain in 2015, after the release of the Access Hollywood tapes in 2016, after the January 6th riots, etc., but largely recanted within a few days or weeks. What is surprising is how long this current round of criticism has lasted.
And it’s likely having an effect on public opinion. A UMass Amherst poll of Republican primary voters found Trump with 37% support and Ron DeSantis with 34%. Quinnipiac found Trump with a 70% approval rating among Republicans, his lowest since 2016.
But a few recent items have particularly struck me:
A quarter of the Republicans in the Michigan statehouse have written to Ron DeSantis urging him to run for president.
Some evangelical leaders are turning against Trump and he’s angry about it.
Quite a few RNC members have cooled to Trump, even though he’s responsible for them being there in the first place.
Longtime financial supporters of Trump’s campaigns are hesitant to commit to him now.
The Koch Network is willing to fund an alternative to Trump.
That’s not just unstable public opinion or ephemeral criticism – that’s the kind of stuff designed to make the 2024 nomination a real contest.
Now at least so far, Ron DeSantis is enjoying the benefit of some national conversation about him as an alternative to Trump. But that condition is temporary – he hasn’t campaigned much outside of Florida, and we don’t really know how he’ll play in Iowa, New Hampshire, and elsewhere. Politically astute people outside Florida know his name but not much more at this point.
Also, there are other candidates out there. They’re not showing up in polls yet because people don’t know that they’re running, but they are. Nikki Haley, Mike Pompeo, Mike Pence, and others are visiting the early contest states, raising money, making friends, asking for endorsements, and doing all the other things candidates do at this stage.
Trump wasn’t especially popular early in the 2016 cycle, but the key to his success was that his opponents within the Republican Party were divided among many different candidates. Those events could repeat themselves in 2024. But it’s also possible that Republicans who are worried about his influence just might have learned a lesson from back then.