Does Trump Stand a Real Chance to Repeat 2016?
The “party decides” theory faces its biggest test.
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: Well-placed Republican insiders are mobilizing to block Donald Trump from winning the GOP presidential nomination.
For instance, Trump is conspicuously excluded from the roster of potential 2024 candidates whom the Club for Growth has invited to speak this weekend at a retreat the conservative group is hosting for its biggest donors in Palm Beach, Florida—Trump’s backyard. Likewise, the sprawling network of donors associated with the Koch brothers declared last month that it would work in the 2024 GOP primaries to elect a nominee who “will turn the page on the past several years,” an unmistakable reference to moving beyond Trump. And though they’re still a minority, a steady stream of prominent Republican strategists, donors, and elected officials are openly predicting that the party will lose in 2024 if it nominates Trump again.
If all of this sounds like an echo of the 2016 Republican primary race, that’s because it is. Both the Club for Growth and the Koch network opposed Trump’s nomination then too. Big donors almost entirely shunned him, hardly any elected officials endorsed him until after he had already secured the nomination, and party leaders such as Senator Lindsey Graham warned that “if we nominate Trump, we will get destroyed … and we will deserve it.”
None of this stopped Trump from winning the nomination, and, except for the relatively small band of Never Trump conservative activists, all of that internal Republican opposition evaporated after he won the White House.
Whether this institutional opposition to Trump will prove more effective and durable now is an open question. Republicans resistant to Trump are cautiously optimistic that this time will be different. That’s partly because of signs that Florida Governor Ron DeSantis might unify the party’s anti-Trump forces more effectively than any of his rivals did in 2016. But it’s also because those who oppose Trump are mobilizing earlier than they did in the 2016 race.
“The thing about 2015 is that Trump had the initiative; he surprised everyone,” says the conservative strategist Bill Kristol, who became one of Trump’s leading GOP critics. “The establishment was always on the back foot trying to react to him, and the candidates were diffuse, so there was never a coming together. Here, at least in theory, you have big institutions mobilizing against him early, and they are ready from the beginning.”
Yet even with those undeniable shifts in the landscape, many Republicans remain dubious that opposition from party leaders and big donors will have much impact on Trump’s fate in 2024.
Almost everyone in the GOP agrees that Trump faces political challenges now that he didn’t then—in particular, more widespread concerns among Republican voters about whether he can win a general election. But some believe that, if anything, more overt opposition to Trump from the party elite will help him convince his die-hard supporters that he alone is fighting for them. “Trump is such a unique political figure that, in some ways, you could argue that having all these institutional forces mobilize against him makes him stronger,” Craig Robinson, the former political director for the Republican Party in Iowa, told me.
Trump’s camp is ready to make those sort of arguments against the groups and party leaders that oppose him. Hogan Gidley, Trump’s former White House deputy press secretary, says it is “naive” to assume that the party establishment could really unite behind a single alternative, as many of Trump’s critics hope. But, he adds, “if in fact there is a coalescing this time,” Trump and his allies are prepared to argue that it represents a continuation of “a concerted effort by the establishment to try to take down someone they couldn’t control.”
Given how quickly top Republicans bent the knee to Trump after he was elected, it may be hard to remember that in 2016, he was more distant from his party’s leadership than any candidate who had won either side’s presidential nomination since the Democratic outsiders George McGovern in 1972 and Jimmy Carter in 1976. The McGovern and Carter victories were the direct products of the rule changes that Democrats instituted after their bitter nomination fight in 1968 to shift power for selecting the presidential nominee from party bosses, elected officials, and other insiders at their quadrennial national convention to voters through primaries and caucuses. Republicans quickly followed suit.
Over time, though, political scientists began to perceive a striking pattern in which the new system took on more characteristics of the old one. Although the reformed rules ostensibly empowered voters to select the nominees during the marathon of primaries and caucuses, in fact, the winners were usually those around whom party insiders coalesced during what became known as “the invisible primary.” That phrase referred to the rolling courtship of donors, other elected officials, and party interest groups that the contenders slogged through for a year or more before the first voters cast a ballot in Iowa and New Hampshire.
The “invisible primary” didn’t always have a clear winner, but when it did, that candidate almost always won the nomination—as demonstrated by the Democrats Walter Mondale in 1984, Bill Clinton in 1992, Al Gore in 2000, and Hillary Clinton in 2016, and by the Republicans George H. W. Bush in 1988, Bob Dole in 1996, George W. Bush in 2000, John McCain in 2008, and Mitt Romney in 2012. The race between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama in 2008 probably stood as the premier example of a contest in which the invisible primary ended in a standoff.
The pattern of primary voters eventually choosing the candidate who had first secured the most support from elected officials, interest groups, and donors became so reliable that the political scientist Marty Cohen and his three colleagues could flatly declare, per the title of their 2008 book, The Party Decides. “The reformers of the 1970s tried to wrest the presidential nomination away from insiders and to bestow it on rank-and-file partisans,” they wrote, “but the people who are regularly active in party politics have regained much of the control that was lost.”
Trump’s march to the 2016 GOP nomination represents the most explicit recent exception to the “party decides” theory. Trump amassed almost none of the assets that usually boost nominees. During the 2016 primaries, Jeb Bush, Ted Cruz, and Marco Rubio all outraised him. Those rivals also won far more endorsements than Trump did; only Senator Jeff Sessions of Alabama and three governors endorsed Trump at any point in the primaries. And to describe Trump’s ground-level political organizations in the early states as skeletal would be to overstate the meat on their bones.
Trump in 2016 overcame these limitations with forceful and flamboyant performances at Republican debates, arena-size rallies in the key states, and, above all, a wave of unprecedented national-media coverage in which he appealed to white voters’ anxieties over racial and cultural change more openly than any national candidate in either party had since George Wallace. “Trump was able to run a national media campaign to win the nomination, and that is something that we just didn’t expect to be a successful path,” Cohen, a political scientist at James Madison University, told me this week.
Cohen, like many others, believes that one principal reason Trump survived such widespread resistance from party leaders is that those opposed to him never united behind a single alternative, splintering instead among Cruz, Rubio, Bush, and former Ohio Governor John Kasich. “I think that when the party is able to coalesce on an acceptable candidate, they still have a pretty good chance at getting them nominated,” Cohen said. “The question that’s pressing is how difficult is it now to solidify around one particular candidate?”
That exact question is looming again for the Republicans skeptical of Trump. Many in the party believe the ceiling on Trump’s potential support is lower now than it was in the 2016 primaries—particularly among college-educated Republican voters, who mostly voted against him even then. But Trump’s solid hold on about one-third of GOP voters could still allow him to win if no one consolidates the remainder of the party.
To many of Trump’s GOP skeptics, the biggest difference from 2016 is the possibility that DeSantis might unify the party’s anti-Trump forces more thoroughly than anyone did then. “I think you are going to see a lot of folks coalesce around DeSantis this summer after he runs around the track and does his formal announcement,” predicts the GOP strategist Scott Reed, who served as Dole’s campaign manager in 1996.
DeSantis is certainly generating enormous interest: A retreat he convened in Florida last weekend drew a procession of elected officials, conservative activists, and donors. And all of the Republican strategists I spoke with in recent days expect donors to be much more conscious than they were in 2016 of concentrating their dollars on a few candidates to reduce the chances that Trump can again divide and conquer a large and unwieldy field. DeSantis will likely be lavishly funded, but that calculation could make it difficult for many others contemplating the race to raise enough money to truly compete.
However, many of those strategists also remain unconvinced that the party’s Trump skeptics will move en masse to the DeSantis side until they see more evidence that he can handle the rigors of a national campaign—and of running against Trump. Mike Murphy, a GOP strategist who helped direct the super PAC supporting Jeb Bush in 2016, told me that though “the donor mentality is going to be a lot different … it’s not going to be binary: ‘We’re all going to be for DeSantis, and nobody else can raise any money.’”
In fact, several GOP strategists I spoke with predicted that with DeSantis and Trump both defining themselves primarily as pugnacious culture warriors, there might be room in the top tier for a third candidate who offers a less polarizing and more optimistic message. And one name came up repeatedly as a possibility for that role: South Carolina Senator Tim Scott, the sole Black Republican in the chamber. “I think he could come here and do very well,” Robinson, the former Iowa GOP political director, said.
What’s clear already is that, for groups, donors, and candidates alike, opposing Trump won’t be for the fainthearted. Without identifying specific targets, Gidley, for instance, says Trump’s allies are prepared to argue that big donors organizing against him are doing so to protect business interests in China. “That’s going to be a massive point that was not talked about in 2016 that will most assuredly be exposed in 2024,” says Gidley, now an official at the America First Policy Institute, which was founded by former Trump aides.
Even against such threats, the conditions seem to be in place for the GOP institutions skeptical of Trump to move back toward the “party decides” model in 2024. Jennifer Horn, the former Republican state party chair in New Hampshire and a leading Trump critic, told me that it’s likely the institutional resistance to him this time “will be stronger and more organized” than it was in 2016. Doubts about Trump’s electability, she added, could resonate with more GOP primary voters than opponents’ 2016 arguments against his morality or fealty to conservative principles did. “His biggest vulnerability in a primary is whether or not he can win a general election,” she said.
But Horn cautions that such internal resistance could melt away again after a few primaries if it looks like Trump is on track to win the nomination. “If we get into the primaries and Trump is winning, it will all go to the side, just as in 2016,” Horn predicted. “We saw the degree to which the party and the donors and everyone else completely sold their soul and became all Trump, all the time. If he becomes the guy again, he’s going to be everybody’s guy.”