Republican 2024 Presidential Politics:  First Inclinations: Part II

If one intends to review this post, but has not yet read Part I (which is immediately below), I would start there.

I generally refrain from posting any part of a multi-part note until all parts are completed.  The original version of Part II of this post – a pretty traditional analysis of lanes to the 2024 Republican presidential nomination — was done and scheduled when Part I was published on March 3.  Events occurring before Part II ran made me pull it back; it’s clear that the two lanes to the 2024 Republican presidential nomination will be markedly less about political philosophy than about personality; there will be a Donald Trump Lane and an Everybody Else Lane. 

At the time this is typed, former President Donald Trump certainly appears to be the frontrunner for the nomination; he retains a core MAGA base that I’ve seen estimated at 30 – 45% of Republicans, which will serve him well in a multi-candidate race.  Perhaps even more unnerving for his declared and prospective adversaries is a recent Emerson College (Massachusetts) poll indicating that Mr. Trump was the preferred candidate for 58% of New Hampshire Republicans – with FL. Gov. Ron DeSantis and NH Gov. Chris Sununu next trailing at, respectively, 17% and 7%.  While the Emerson sample size was tiny — 384 registered Republicans – New Hampshire ain’t Alabama; if the poll’s notable gap in support between Mr. Trump and his opponents has any appreciable relation to Republican sentiment in politically centrist states, such does not bode well for the other aspirants.

Since Part I was posted, the former president, in a rousing speech to a rabid MAGA crowd at the conservative conference, CPAC, claimed that he will continue his presidential candidacy no matter the state of his various legal challenges, and intimated that he wouldn’t necessarily support another Republican in 2024 if he fails to secure the party’s nomination – pronouncements amounting at the same time to a declaration of war on his nomination adversaries and a blackmail threat to Republican traditionalists.  The path Mr. Trump sees back to the White House appears clear:  that he’ll quickly dispatch any opponents for the nomination that have the temerity to take him on; that the entire Republican party will fall in behind him – although I am sure that he is aware that as many despise as adore him – because of Republican tribalism; and that any sign of increasing frailty or significant blunder by President Biden during the next two years will enable him to win over enough swing state swing voters to eke out an Electoral College victory.

First things first:  aside from blind ambition [admittedly, every politician’s failing 🙂 ] trumping [if you will 😉 ] logic, it’s hard to see why potential Republican candidates who have secure positions wouldn’t wait to run until 2028.  (Such a calculation would, of course, be premised on the assumptions that Mr. Trump will win the nomination and that he’ll either lose in 2024 or will indeed give up the presidency in 2028 if he wins in 2024.)  Of Mr. Trump’s potential adversaries for the nomination listed in Part I, sitting back seems the rational play for TX Gov. Greg Abbott, U.S. TX Sen. Ted Cruz, Mr. DeSantis, SD Gov. Kristi Noem, U.S. SC Sen. Tim Scott, Mr. Sununu and VA Gov. Glenn Youngkin.  (Mr. DeSantis’ candidacy may now be too anticipated for him to back out, but given his timidity thus far in confronting Mr. Trump, one certainly cannot rule out the possibility that he will yet quail.)        

The other potential candidates listed in Part I — former NJ Gov. Chris Christie, former AR Gov. Asa Hutchinson, former U.S. Vice President Mike Pence, and former U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo – have no secure office from which to wait four years; if they don’t run and win in 2024, they will – as declared candidate former U.S. UN Amb. Nikki Haley obviously believes she will – almost certainly be irretrievably old news by 2028.  (Former MD Gov. Larry Hogan was also listed in Part I, but Mr. Hogan has since indicated that he will not seek the nomination.) 

Not all of the candidates listed in Part I can be addressed here – neither your patience nor my stamina could bear it – but a few seem worthy of consideration, and a couple perhaps illustrate manners in which Mr. Trump might be denied the Republican nomination.

First, the most prominent piece of Republican political flotsam:  Mr. Pence.  He hasn’t been sufficiently forthright in calling out Mr. Trump for inciting the January 6th insurrection to redeem himself with those who oppose Mr. Trump, while at the same time he is loathed by MAGAs as the ultimate traitor to Mr. Trump.  I see no path for him.

Mr. DeSantis is, of course, currently being touted as the Great Hope of those that oppose Mr. Trump.  After I posted Part I, a close friend commented that he hoped Mr. DeSantis would pull away from Mr. Trump, which he believed would cause Mr. Trump to form his own party, thereby doing in both his and Mr. DeSantis’ candidacies and the MAGA movement.  I would welcome such an outcome since I consider Mr. DeSantis to be as substantively dangerous as Mr. Trump, but I don’t see how Mr. DeSantis, who has diligently made himself a Trump Mini-Me, bests Mr. Trump for the Republican nomination as long as Mr. Trump remains a viable contender.  Both men visited Iowa recently; Mr. Trump’s crowds reportedly dwarfed Mr. DeSantis’.  If as a voter you like a dark stout, why settle for Near Beer?

That said, the nomination prospects of Mr. DeSantis or any other Trump Wannabe would seemingly improve if, despite Mr. Trump’s claims that he intends to continue his candidacy despite his legal challenges, such challenges ultimately disqualify him from a practical standpoint before he has the opportunity to politically eviscerate them.  They can’t beat Mr. Trump, but one might be able to step over him – if he legally implodes soon enough.  The difficulty with this scenario is that the former president is as good at delaying legal proceedings as he is at sowing sedition; it’s hard to see how a Trump Wannabe can wait long enough for Mr. Trump to legally succumb yet get in the race early enough to mount a viable campaign.  In Mr. DeSantis’ case, the attacks have already begun.

The candidates who seek to create a perceptual contrast between him/herselves and Mr. Trump – let’s call them, “Trump Alternatives”; Ms. Haley now being the only announced candidate in this category – seem to me to have perhaps brighter prospects than those of true Trump Wannabes.  I would offer that any Trump Alternative should want Mr. Trump in the race to clear out the Trump Wannabes.  As Mr. Trump scores some early primary wins, hand-wringing will mount in Republican circles regarding the likelihood of a resounding November defeat.  In the early going, each Trump Alternative should focus on beating the other Trump Alternatives.  Each Trump Alternative’s early core strategy should be the punch line of the two hikers confronted by a charging bear:  “I don’t need to be faster than the bear; I just need to be faster than you.”  A leader among Trump Alternatives will emerge.  The hope here is that there will be tremendous pressure brought to bear on the trailing Trump Alternatives to exit the race before Mr. Trump has garnered enough primary victories to de facto clinch the nomination, setting up a one-on-one between Mr. Trump and the remaining Trump Alternative.  Most prognosticators believe that Mr. Trump will lose primaries if forced to compete one-on-one at an early enough point in the primary season — an assumption admittedly yet to be tested.

One could discount this scenario by rightly pointing out that such didn’t happen in 2016 – former OH Gov. John Kasich stuck around almost to the end of the Republicans’ nominating process, and the party apparatus didn’t get behind him.  I would submit that this time could be different.  There seems a consensus, even among Republicans that maintain sympathy for Mr. Trump’s illiberalism and/or his policies, that it is highly likely that if nominated, he will lose to Mr. Biden.  Republicans want to win.  The party’s establishment undoubtedly realizes in retrospect that in 2016 they just didn’t envision soon enough that Mr. Trump (whom all considered a certain general election loser) could capture their nomination – until the proliferation of mainstream candidates cancelled each other out, and he did.  In 2020, they watched the Democrats learn from Republicans’ 2016 experience, and engineer the withdrawals of moderate candidates U.S. MN Sen. Amy Klobuchar and then-South Bend, IN Mayor Pete Buttigieg from their presidential nomination contest just in time for Mr. Biden to corral all of the moderate Democratic support and snatch the nomination from the surging, and unelectable, progressive U.S. VT Sen. Bernie Sanders.

Then there is the X Factor:  former U.S. WY Rep. Liz Cheney.  She almost certainly can’t win the nomination herself – although if she did, I would submit (somewhat ironically, given the widespread antipathy toward her in the party) that she’d have a good chance to defeat Mr. Biden – but if she elects to get in the race, her attacks on Mr. Trump would undoubtedly divert Mr. Trump’s and his supporters’ venom away from the Trump Alternative.  [Admittedly, Ms. Cheney – substantively still a staunch Republican despite her undoubted devotion to American democracy — would need to craft a message designed not to draw support to her from the Trump Alternative (such a draw would help Mr. Trump) if she was comfortable that the Trump Alternative wasn’t a threat to democracy.]

And there is another factor, one of the few remaining maxims of American presidential politics:  anyone challenging Mr. Trump must – must – defeat him in the challenger’s home state primary.  Mr. Kasich could stay in the 2016 race to the end because he beat Mr. Trump in Ohio primary.  U.S. FL Sen. Marco Rubio dropped out of the 2016 race immediately after he lost the Florida primary to Mr. Trump (while Mr. Trump was still a New Yorker).    

There is one Trump Alternative whose opportunities – albeit requiring an audacious, Jimmy Carter in 1976-type strategy — intrigue me more than the rest; a notion that, even based upon a couple of references in this Part II, would make you question my mental acuity even more than you already do. 

As Mr. Trump likes to say:  We’ll see what happens. 🙂

Have a Happy St. Patrick’s Day.

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