Why I'm Not Worried About the GOP's Crowded 2024 Field
Sure, Trump could win, but everyone seems to have 2020 amnesia.
As the Republican presidential primary field fills out (psst… Jamie Dimon… there’s still time, dude!), the hope for a Republican less toxic than Trump to earn the nomination looks less likely than it did at the start of the year. Understandably, the congressional wing of the GOP is starting to fret about Donald Trump’s commanding lead in the polls and the endorsements.
Politico’s Burgess Everett and Olivia Beavers have the scoop on how the GOP establishment is freaking out about a possible replay of the 2016 primary:
The GOP presidential primary is looking more and more like 2016 — a rerun that plenty of Hill Republicans are watching with heartburn.
Among the many Hill Republicans who want to see someone other than Donald Trump atop the ticket, there’s clear concern that the surge of candidates entering the 2024 fray could make it harder to defeat President Joe Biden next year. Three more candidates jumped in this week alone.
“I’m worried about it,” Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) said of the early presidential field. He wants the GOP to “do better” than Trump and fears the former president “hasn’t figured out how to expand beyond his base.”
Could the GOP field narrow before primary voters go to the polls? Cornyn replied: “I can dream, can’t I?”
The fear makes some intuitive sense. In 2016, Donald Trump carved out a solid command of 35% of the GOP base. That was enough to win because the 16 other candidates split the remaining 65% amongst themselves and targeted their fire at each other rather than Trump. By the time the field had narrowed to 2-3 people, it was too late.
Fast forward to 2024, and it sure seems like a lot of non-Trump candidates are spending more time attacking each other than attacking Trump. There is also the widespread fear that Trump has zombie-like powers to keep moving forward after suffering setbacks that would mortally wound other politicians.
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All that said, it seems way too premature to conclude that 2024 will be a replay of 2016. For one thing, there’s at least another six months of politicking and debating and fundraising and going-on-Fox that has to take place. Trump will get indicted at least one more time and possibly three more times in the interim. The #MAGA folks might talk a good game on this front, but at some point his legal troubles will take their toll.
More generally, it’s fair to assume that at least one or two non-Trump candidates will generate some momentum between now and the Iowa caucuses. It will be interesting to see how Trump responds to that phenomenon.
Perhaps the most important reason it is premature to say that 2024 is like 2016 is that we do not know how either the non-Trump candidates or the other GOP heavyweights will behave as crunch time approaches.
It is worth remembering that after the first few 2020 Democratic primaries it seemed that Bernie Sanders was going to earn the nomination. Joe Biden performed horribly in both Iowa and New Hampshire, while Sanders performed strongly in both states as well as Nevada. He was poised to take a commanding lead after Super Tuesday.
Then South Carolina Representative Jim Clyburn endorsed Biden, who then won a plurality of the South Carolina primary. After that, the Democratic Party establishment went and decided:
What has happened in the 48 hours since Biden’s victory has also been rather astonishing. Tom Steyer dropped out after a dismal finish in South Carolina, saying he saw no viable path to the nomination. This is consistent with “The Party Decides” mostly by showing spending hundreds of millions of dollars does not necessarily lead to anything other than comparisons to John Connally.
More significantly, Pete Buttigieg dropped out Sunday. Then on Monday, Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) dropped out, too, and then she endorsed Biden. Buttigieg followed suit, as did Beto O’Rourke. Other party stalwarts have started lining up behind Biden as well.
It is worth appreciating the contrast between the Democrats behavior now and how the GOP handled Trump in 2016. Back then, a welter of plausible rivals to Trump — Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio and John Kasich — stayed in the race, canceling one another out in the process. Furthermore, the congressional wing of the GOP made it pretty clear they preferred Trump over Cruz, his most formidable rival at the time. As Bump noted, “Two leading moderate Democrats seeking the party’s nomination in 2020 have done what Kasich and Cruz didn’t: dropped out to clear the path for former vice president Joe Biden.”
You know how the rest of 2020 played out.
As I noted three years ago, the Democratic Party in 2020 behaved differently than the Republican Party did in 2016. But those two cycles also offer 2024 Republicans a clear roadmap for what to do if the choice boils down to “Trump” and “someone other than Trump.”
The tricky thing is that in 2020, Biden was the obvious focal point for establishment politicians who wanted someone other than Bernie Sanders to win the nomination. As of the drafting of this newsletter, I suppose DeSantis is the obvious not-Trump, but there’s six months for that to change.
That said, there is still plenty of time for the GOP to re-run the Democratic Party’s 2020 playbook if necessary. Even if there are a lot of candidates who have thrown their hat in the ring, they can also choose to depart en masse when the time comes. And 2020 proves that the time can be very late and still have significant political consequences.
“Anyone-but-Trump” Republicans should take heart. Even if Donald Trump is leading the primary polls, it’s still early, he’s still in serious legal jeopardy, and there is still oodles of time for the GOP to coalesce around an alternative.