Trump is still a threat to Republican chances if he isn’t the nominee
"It’s kind of hard to prevent people from running that have different opinions."
Good afternoon and welcome to Press Pass. Spring is around the corner, and that means a bunch of people who believe they can be the next president, senator, or other kind of high-profile public servant are meticulously crafting their campaign rollouts for 2024. Today, I’d like to look at an often-overlooked role in the American political script that could turn out to be a showstopper in the next election: the spoiler candidate.
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Today The Bulwark released our first poll, conducted with North Star Opinion Research. Regarding the 2024 race, there are two key findings that stuck out to me:
A race between Ron DeSantis, Donald Trump, and “another candidate,” DeSantis received 44 percent, Trump received 28 percent, and the generic “another candidate” got 10 percent, with an additional 17 percent undecided.
A full 28 percent of Trump supporters would follow him out of the Republican Party entirely to support him if he decides to run on an independent ticket.
There is a lot more worth digging into in the polling data to gain a better understanding of how 2024 is shaping up. If you want to have a closer look at the poll’s crosstabs and more technical details, take a look here. There’s a lot of information to digest, so if you want a summary of the most important findings, my colleague Sarah Longwell has an excellent writeup that you can read here.
Something to look for when the Republican field begins to take shape
Remember how, in the 2016 election cycle, one of the earliest points of contention in the Republican primary was the question of whether each candidate would commit to backing the eventual GOP nominee?
Because Trump had been winking about running as an independent if he didn't win the nomination, the loyalty issue was posed in the very first question at the first Republican primary debate in August 2015—and sure enough, Trump was the only person on stage unwilling to commit to supporting the nominee unless it was him. He reached a deal in September with then-RNC Chair Reince Priebus to sign a loyalty pledge, but reneged on it in the spring of 2016 after the giant initial field had narrowed to three candidates and he felt a bit threatened. (Ted Cruz and John Kasich, the two other GOP candidates still staggering along at that point, also suggested they might not abide by their own pledges that month, with Cruz saying, “I don't make a habit out of supporting people who attack my wife and attack my family.” He sure picked up that habit later.)
The spoiler threat that Trump leveraged during the 2016 primary could become more than a threat in 2024. His grip on the Republican base, his ego, and his tired, lackluster performance in the new cycle have combined to give his new campaign a very different spin from the one he launched almost eight years ago. While voters know him, they’re also tiring of him; they increasingly see him as stuck in the past, which leaves him in a vulnerable position in relation to the aggressive and forward-looking Ron DeSantis.
But would Trump accept losing and putting his support behind DeSantis for the sake of the party’s electoral prospects? Even if more than a quarter of Republicans are willing to follow him no matter what? Avoiding the disaster of an independent Trump candidacy in 2024 is one of the GOP’s most urgent problems to solve as the primary season starts to take shape.
I caught up with two of the people who were onstage with Trump when he declined to commit to supporting the GOP nominee in 2015, and asked for their take on the loyalty question and the significance of the current Republican frontrunner being a proven sore loser. What I heard surprised me—not least because their responses were fairly indifferent:
Rand Paul: “I remember challenging Trump on it because Trump said he wouldn’t necessarily support the candidate. I think it’s a good question to ask. I don’t think it has to be a rule—I don’t think it’s ever been a rule that you can’t run [as an independent]. It’s kind of hard to prevent people from running that have different opinions. I’m not for making it a rule, but it’s a reasonable question to ask.”
Marco Rubio: “[Supporting the nominee] was my view of it at the time. But I can’t impose that on anybody else.”
This is especially curious in Rubio’s case given that he appears to be preparing for another White House bid. The question of party loyalty might strike him differently should his prospects of securing the Republican nomination significantly improve.
So what can the Republican party do to prevent a renegade breakaway candidate from pulling a chunk of the base away from the party’s nominee? One Republican operative I spoke with suggested there could be another pledge. But given that Trump broke his own pledge while he was still the favorite to win the party’s nomination, it’s hard to imagine him sticking to it with more challenging prospects.
Right now, it seems as though the best bet for Republicans who want a nominee other than Trump is for them to pray that he bows out quietly. (Don’t hold your breath.)
Do you have other ideas for how the GOP might avoid sleepwalking into a Trump disaster in 2024? Let me know in a comment.
And for more insights into how Republican voters are starting to think about the next election, you can hear them tomorrow! Sarah Longwell and Whit Ayers of North Star Opinion Research will kick off a new season of The Focus Group podcast tomorrow. Subscribe on Apple Podcasts or wherever you get your podcasts.