To topple Trump, GOP challengers lean on personality over policy

Bumper stickers supporting Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis on sale at former President Donald Trump’s rally in Conroe, Texas, Saturday, Jan. 29, 2022. (AP Photo/Jill Colvin)

Republican hopefuls are relying on personality over policy in the hopes of supplanting former President Trump as the party’s 2024 presidential nominee. 

Those who have already declared their candidacy and those viewed as likely runners have in recent weeks struggled to offer up any tangible policy differences between them and the former president, a nod to how the GOP has adopted the majority of Trump’s views on immigration, the economy, education, crime and other issues.

Part of the issue for those hoping to capture the nomination in 2024 is that Trump remains popular within the party. So they must convince voters that for the GOP to be successful, it must move on from Trump without abandoning his policies while also somehow capturing his supporters.

It also underscores the degree to which those who are challenging Trump for the 2024 nomination are banking on a message of generational change to win over voters.

“The backing of Trump, whether it was early on or once he got the nomination, was never about policy. The fact there was no [RNC] platform really demonstrates that. Trump was an attitude, he wasn’t a series of position papers,” said Doug Heye, a former spokesperson for the Republican National Committee and on Capitol Hill.

Polling throughout Trump’s time in the White House showed many voters – Republicans in particular – supported his policies, but were less enthralled with his brash personality and character. 

A Gallup poll from June 2020 found 42 percent of Americans viewed Trump as empathetic and able to effectively manage government, and only 36 percent viewed him as honest and trustworthy. Even among Republicans, only 72 percent viewed him as honest, the poll found.

While the field of challengers to Trump for the 2024 nomination is still taking shape, early indications are that candidates will focus more on those issues to try and nudge GOP voters to move on from a former president who still has a sizable base of support while battling a cascade of legal issues.

Nikki Haley, Trump’s former ambassador to the United Nations, made one of the strongest cases for fresh blood when she proposed during her campaign launch that politicians 75 or older take a competency test, putting the spotlight on generational change.

But when pressed by Fox News host Sean Hannity during one of her many recent interviews on the network to name policy differences with Trump, Haley demurred.

“What I am saying is I don’t kick sideways, I’m kicking forward. Joe Biden is the president. He’s the one I’m running against,” Haley said in a Feb. 15 interview with Hannity. “And what I’m saying is you don’t have to be 80 years old to be president. We don’t need to have these same people going back again.”

Vivek Ramaswany, an entrepreneur running for the GOP nomination, told Hannity he was not running against Trump and gave few details on what his policy platform would be.

“He was the OG of America First, I’m taking that to the next level with America First. 2.0,” Ramaswany said.

Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.), told Hannity last week he was glad Trump was president, and his early message to voters as he teases a 2024 bid has been focused more on his personal story and how that might appeal to a broader audience. Scott in Iowa last week spoke of “overcoming our differences and then creating converts to conservatism.”

He’s also laid blame at Democrats for the fierce political divisions in the country, borrowing a grievance often relayed by Trump himself.

“The fact is that the left is trying to sell a drug of victimhood and a narcotic of despair,” Scott told Fox News Sunday host Shannon Bream.

Former Vice President Mike Pence routinely speaks about the accomplishments of the “Trump-Pence administration” during public appearances, and he has argued that the country should return to the energy and immigration policies of the previous White House.

But Pence has broken with Trump on the events of Jan. 6, 2021, calling the riots at the Capitol a “dark day” and saying Trump was wrong to try and overturn the election. He has also more recently differed from his former boss in acknowledging the need to reform entitlement programs like Social Security and Medicare for long-term solvency.

But Pence has been careful not to attack Trump when asked about whether the party should back the former president for another term.

“I think the times call for different leadership,” Pence said last week in an interview with NBC News. “And I’m confident we’ll have better choices than my old running mate come 2024.”

Even Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) has adopted the Trump policy playbook on certain issues like immigration and education. DeSantis sent migrants who crossed the southern border illegally last year to the liberal enclave of Martha’s Vineyard, a move that was reminiscent of proposals during the Trump administration to send migrants to sanctuary cities.

DeSantis has aggressively pushed back on so-called “woke” politics by attacking corporations and signing laws to prohibit discussion of gender and sexuality in grade schools.

The question, party strategists and donors said, is whether any of those potential candidates will be able to break through with voters solely based on personality and the idea that it’s time to move on from Trump, who would be 78 at the start of a potential second term in 2025.

“Presidential elections are a mix of policy and personality. Voters want candidates they agree with, but leadership qualities can be even more important,” said Alex Conant, who worked on Sen. Marco Rubio’s (R-Fla.) 2016 presidential campaign. “That’s why candidates are pushing messages like experience and generational change right now.”

Recent polls show that GOP candidates face an uphill battle to overtake Trump.

A Fox News poll released Monday showed Trump leading DeSantis by 15 points among Republican presidential primary voters.

An Emerson College poll released Tuesday showed Trump narrowly leading President Biden in a hypothetical 2024 matchup, while Biden leads Haley and DeSantis in those hypothetical head-to-heads.

So far, some polls suggest DeSantis may be Trump’s biggest challenge, sometimes leading the former president in surveys that ask Republicans who they want as leader of their party. As governor, DeSantis regularly makes national news for controversial policies he’s implementing as governor including the rejection of African American studies in Florida schools.

There are some policy differences emerging within the GOP field, particularly on how the U.S. should approach aid to Ukraine, but ultimately those hoping to dethrone Trump will have to capture the support of the electorate beyond policy matters, party members said.

“Trump’s greatest advantage has been that he didn’t care about decorum or how things were supposed to be done, so he was seen as someone who would fight the woke culture on the left. Most of the other candidates seeking the GOP nomination have tried to some extent to adopt that fighter’s stance,” said Dan Eberhart, a GOP donor and CEO of Canary, LLC. “The only one who seems able to challenge Trump on this point though is DeSantis.”

Tags GOP Joe Biden Mike Pence Mike Pence Nikki Haley Nikki Haley Tim Scott Trump 2024

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