Trump’s path back to the Oval Office
U.S. Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) is dropping strong hints of entering the 2024 presidential race after this year’s midterms. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has raised more than $100 million and would be an immediate top-three option should he seek the nomination. And Donald Trump’s former vice president, Mike Pence — the guy Trump allegedly wanted dead — could return with the vengeance of a Christian true believer with nothing left to lose.
Yet all of these rumblings are moot if Trump joins the race — because while the other 2024 GOP aspirants fight for MAGA’s adoration, the aura of Trump in Republican circles goes far beyond the political sect he spawned. The 45th president is above reproach among a majority of his primary voters. That’s the key. While Pence and DeSantis and Cotton and others wrangle for party support, only one person commands supremacy.
Although Trump’s approval rating before leaving office was the lowest of his presidency, 82 percent of Republicans still supported him, according to Gallup. It’s still more than 80 percent today. And as we’ve seen time and again, Republicans who openly question Trump’s intelligence, success or veracity are — more often than not — vanquished. That’s the power of having most of your party in your back pocket. Trump is the only potential GOP presidential candidate who apparently can bilk hundreds of millions of dollars from supporters for personal profit — and still keep them in his back pocket.
That’s Houdini-level magic.
If President Biden’s situation were similar to most other first-term presidents — if he were a shoo-in for his party’s renomination — then we might imagine Democratic voters in early primary states temporarily switching to Republican in order to help shape the GOP-nominating process. But the Democratic race in 2024 (likely beginning in earnest in early 2023) could become even messier than 2016’s, when former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton faced a surprisingly tough foe in Sen. Bernie Sanders (Vt.).
By contract, 2024 could feature multiple strong options to replace Biden. And even if Biden steps aside, Vice President Harris surely would face similarly tough competition. By many accounts, the Democratic Party is in the midst of its own existential crisis. Biden is an old-guard placeholder. Placeholding, by definition, doesn’t hold firm for very long.
So, we should assume that Democratic primary voters will be preoccupied in 2024, as will many Democratic-leaning independent voters dissatisfied with either the activism or the inactivism of a party charged with restoring normalcy.
This scenario would put Trump in a prime position to win the Republican presidential nomination. In a recent poll of potential candidates, he’s 33 points ahead of DeSantis and 39 ahead of Pence. More glaringly, he’s at 51 percent in a crowded field. Even 25 percent support in a crowded field would all but assure Trump of the nomination in a packed primary.
We watched this play out in 2016, when a far-weaker Trump lost the Iowa caucuses and then barely secured one-third of the primary vote in New Hampshire and South Carolina. Yet that alone was enough to give him a “clear path” to the nomination. No state gave him 50 percent support until his home state of New York on April 19, more than 10 weeks after Iowa and after nearly two-thirds of states had cast their votes.
The only realistic way Republicans such as Pence, DeSantis and Cotton can stop Trump is if all but one of them declines to run. Presumably, DeSantis would be the most formidable opponent, but he’d also have the most to lose, as his standing within the party surely would weaken ahead of 2028. For months, he would be the sole object of Trump’s ire. And as the formerly “unstoppable” Jeb Bush and hundreds of others have learned, that never ends well.
As I’ve been writing for some time, Trump’s hold on the Republican Party is unyielding. It doesn’t matter how many insurrections he supports, how many GOP political careers he destroys or how many women accuse him of rape. When it comes to his party, he gets what he wants. The rest is merely a fight for second place.
B.J. Rudell is a longtime political strategist, former associate director for Duke University’s Center for Politics, and recent North Carolina Democratic Party operative. In a career encompassing stints on Capitol Hill, on presidential campaigns, in a newsroom, in classrooms, and for a consulting firm, he has authored three books and has shared political insights across all media platforms, including for CNN and Fox News.
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