The 2021 Conservative Political Action Conference proved that it’s still Donald Trump’s Republican Party, but then you knew that. So did the organizers, the attendees, and the politicians who attended.
It’s why the conference moved from its traditional home outside Washington, D.C., to Florida. Oh, sure, COVID-19 restrictions played a part, but CPAC could have chosen any number of places to relocate, and it chose the former president’s home state, hoping he’d attend—as he did. (Why bring the base to Washington when you can take Washington to the base?)
It’s why an artist brought a literal golden idol of the former president and attendees eagerly posed with it. It’s why Trump merchandise flew off vendor tables, why Trump gave the keynote, and why Trump won the presidential straw poll. It’s why even ambitious potential rivals for power paid effusive homage. “Let me tell you this right now: Donald J. Trump ain’t goin’ anywhere,” Senator Ted Cruz told attendees. They didn’t need Cruz to tell them.
Hero worship is not new to CPAC—before there was Trump, there was Ronald Reagan—but no former president has ever dominated the conference in this way, because he is still a concern for 2024. (Reagan and George W. Bush each served two terms; among one-termers, Gerald Ford was a known squish and George H. W. Bush a presumed squish who had a chilly relationship with the conference.) The 2024 GOP presidential primary may be a wild affair, but Trump’s continued dominance poses a more immediate quandary for the Republican Party in 2022.
Decades of experience have taught that the sitting president’s party loses seats in midterm elections. Only three times in the past century—1934, 1998, and 2002—has the rule failed to hold. Democrats will enter the midterms with only a minuscule edge in the House, so even a small loss of seats would give Republicans control. The question is whether Trump will help, hinder, or possibly even prevent that from happening.
The extent of the losses by members of the president’s party in midterm elections tends to track his approval rating as well as the state of the economy. Right now, both indicators are tentatively positive for President Joe Biden. He’s more popular now than Trump ever was. The economy is struggling, but it’s expected to rebound as the COVID-19 pandemic retreats, and the massive stimulus package currently under consideration in Congress should help too.
Of course, there’s plenty of time for Biden to lose favor with voters between now and November 2022. That’s almost always how it goes: A candidate is well liked and wins the election (how else would he win?), but familiarity and presidency breed contempt. There’s also a difference in the composition of the electorate between presidential and midterm years. The president’s supporters are discouraged and stay home, while those who dislike him are more likely to turn out, part of the process known as negative or affective partisanship: Americans are not only more polarized than ever before, but they’re more motivated by animosity toward the other party than affection for their own.
But Trump often scrambles expectations. Take the 2018 midterms, in which Democrats whipped Republicans. While that follows the pattern of a president’s party losing, the UC San Diego political scientist Gary Jacobson explained in a 2019 paper that the cycle’s results were extraordinary. First, the strong economy predicted a much higher approval rating for Trump than he actually had. Second, this gap was exacerbated because the president exercised a larger influence on voter behavior than normal. Presaging 2020’s record turnout, 2018 saw the highest turnout for a midterm in a century. Trump asked voters to treat the election as a referendum on himself, and voters obliged—but Democrats were especially obliging. They were eager to cast a vote against Trump, an example of negative partisanship.
“Polarized partisanship is not a new phenomenon, to be sure, but it reached new extremes in 2018, and the party alignments revealed by the 2018 vote suggest that it will not lessen any time soon,” Jacobson wrote. “As partisan identities, ideological leanings, and issues preferences have moved into closer alignment, individuals’ political attitudes have become more internally consistent and more distinct from those of partisans on the other side.”
That description has aged well. The 2020 presidential election was a direct referendum on Trump, and voters rejected him. (Tellingly, House Republicans actually outperformed Trump, narrowing Democrats’ edge in the chamber.) Two months later, Trump told supporters that the two runoffs for U.S. Senate in Georgia were about him as well, and Democrats won both seats. In both elections since 2018 that Trump has insisted were about him, he or Republicans have lost. (The 2016 presidential election was arguably a referendum less on Trump than on Hillary Clinton.) CPAC shows that Trump, his supporters, and even his would-be rivals will likely try to make the 2022 elections about him, too.
While it’s clear that Trump is a strong motivator—both to supporters and detractors—Biden’s muscle in that regard is murkier. Polls during the 2020 race suggested that many Biden voters were more excited to vote against Trump than they were to vote for Biden. Though some pundits speculated that Biden’s “enthusiasm gap” would hurt him, this orientation proved sufficient for defeating Trump by 7 million votes.
What that means going forward is unclear, but Biden’s entire persona has been constructed around affability, so it’s harder to rally the Republican base against him the way conservatives rallied against Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton. So far, there’s not really a “Biden Derangement Syndrome” to match the “Clinton crazies,” Bush Derangement Syndrome, or Obama Derangement Syndrome of recent history. Critics are more likely to argue that Biden is a Trojan horse or pawn for some other shadowy force (Kamala Harris, socialists, whomever) than that he himself is nefarious.
At CPAC, The Washington Post’s Dave Weigel reported, “Displays of anti-Biden sentiment were fairly rare, as the new president had not attained the boogeyman status of former president Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton, who galvanized the right.” A vendor hawking shirts that featured a Hitler-mustached image of the new president lamented, “I can’t give the Biden stuff away.”
Trump himself unloaded on Biden, as Trump’s aides had hoped he would, but the nature of his attacks only underlined the difficulties Republicans have faced in building opposition to the current president. Trump spent conspicuously little time complaining about the $1.9 trillion stimulus bill—a proposal Republicans have struggled to effectively oppose, and one that remains very popular with voters. Instead, Trump repeated (over aides’ advice) his false claims that the presidential election was stolen from him, claims previously aired as part of a long-running and failed effort to overturn the results.
In Trump’s alternative reality, he is still the rightful chief executive. But if the midterms are always a referendum on the president, and Trump insists that’s still him, then which party will face a midterm backlash in 2022?