Is the influence of Donald Trump actually that unusual in politics?
After his Conservative Political Action Committee speech, Donald Trump has proven that his election loss has not slowed down his domination of the party. It is instead the opposite, as Republicans who deviate from his own line, whether a former party candidate, the wife of one, or a ranking member in the House, are denounced and threatened with primary race challenges or even being totally written out of the party.
Many observers, including Mitt Romney, feel that if Trump decides to run again, the 2024 nomination is his for the taking. This may be the case but that alone does not make Trump unusual. The reality is that his continued command and influence over the party could simply be due to his certain willingness to break with tradition. Several former presidents, even those one termers who were rejected by the country as a whole, tend to always receive an inordinate amount of support from the party.
For those recent presidents who lost their second election, we saw their continued impact decades later. Though neither the first George Bush or Jimmy Carter made any other efforts to recapture the White House, both still retained influence even if they chose not to actively wield this power. Two years after Bush lost in 1992, two of his sons became the Republican nominees for governor of major states. Then eight years after his defeat, one of his sons won the Republican ticket for president.
Carter lost the election in 1980 and took a step back from politics. Then in 1984, his vice president Walter Mondale was the Democratic candidate for president. Far from the rejection of Carter plus his legacy, the party chose his heir during the next election. Before Gerald Ford decided not to run for president in 1980, he was still leading the Republican polls. Ronald Reagan had even considered Ford as his vice president in 1980.
Herbert Hoover was thought of as the Republican nominee in 1936 before he decided to back out. Following his desultory second win for president in 1912, William Taft stayed in such high stead that he was appointed chief justice for the Supreme Court the next time there was Republican control. There is plenty of sense behind this since the president spends four years gathering party support for his policies and being the focus of the attacks from the other side. Both of these create a “rally around the flag” effect to the president, giving him a level of lasting party support.
The decisions of Bush and Carter to back away from politics, plus the lack of one termers, hides this reality. It could also seem surprising because of the lack of interest a party shows with losing standard bearers. Ever since Richard Nixon in 1968, no candidate clinched a nomination after losing an election for president. On three occasions, a losing candidate managed to win a Senate seat. But a losing candidate has just months to be the center of attention and ends up getting the blame for the party loss without even getting the goodwill of creating popular policy in the race.
The problem with Trump and Republicans is that ironclad party support is needed to win the nomination, but it is far from sufficient to win the White House. Exit polls indicated that Trump and Joe Biden won over 90 percent of voters from their party, which could be the record numbers of retained support of any president since at least 1976. But the result was that Trump lost by seven million votes. It is a gap five million votes larger than in 2016. Republicans could soon find out if having voters continue to support their former president really helps the party at the end of the day.
Joshua Spivak is a senior fellow who is focused on politics and history with the Hugh Carey Institute for Government Reform based at Wagner College.
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