KEY POINTS FROM THIS ARTICLE
— Donald Trump’s bid for a third Republican presidential nomination opens the 2024 presidential election.
— The former president achieved only limited victories in the 2022 national and state elections.
— But the structure of the Republican party provides him with many institutional advantages in the nomination race.
Trump: A weak 2022, but promise for 2024
A week after the 2022 congressional elections, Donald Trump announced his candidacy for the Republican presidential nomination in 2024. The former president will seek to replicate the trifecta of Grover Cleveland in 1884 (win), 1888 (lose), and 1892 (win).
His chances of winning the bet will be affected by at least two factors: his record in the elections just concluded and the institutional structure of the Republican nomination contest. The first will hamper his bid for power. The second may strengthen the odds of winning victory within the party.
The Elections of 2022
Trump is both the also-ran of the presidential election of 2020 and an unrelenting sore loser who refuses to acknowledge his defeat. In 2022, Trump seemed primarily interested in revengefully defeating those who had opposed him politically, especially those who voted for his impeachment.
His attention to contests for governor resulted in some notable defeats. He endorsed challengers to sitting governors in Georgia and Idaho, and neither won; in another state, Nebraska, he endorsed a candidate who lost to a rival backed by the outgoing governor. Trump’s endorsement helped some other gubernatorial candidates who won in primaries but then lost general elections, like in the key states of Arizona and Pennsylvania (although in the latter, his endorsement came long after Doug Mastriano, the eventual winner, had emerged as a clear favorite in the primary).
The voters also rejected some prominent Trump endorsees who backed his claims of a ”stolen” election in the 2020 presidential match. They spurned all Republican candidates seeking offices supervising elections, secretary of state or attorney general, in the states that are competitive for the presidency (although a recount is underway for the Arizona attorney general race, where a Democrat narrowly leads).
In the House of Representatives contests, of the 10 Republicans who voted for impeachment, only 2 survived. Four retired in the face of strong local opposition, while 4 were defeated in primaries — most notably Liz Cheney in Wyoming. Two other Republicans narrowly thwarted opposition from Trump supporters and will be returning to Congress. For the party, however, the limited purge bore a cost — the loss of Republican seats previously held by pro-impeachment Reps. Peter Meijer in Michigan and Jaime Herrera Beutler in Washington that both incumbents would have had a much better chance to retain.
In the House races, Trump endorsed hordes of Republican candidates, but the unique impact of his support is limited because most already held safe seats.
For the Senate, Trump was significantly involved in several intraparty contests. His ire was focused particularly on Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, who won both rounds of a complex new ranked-choice electoral system. Trump also worked to clear the party contest on behalf of a personal favorite in Georgia, Herschel Walker, who easily won a primary but then lost a general election runoff.
In 2 Senate contests, Trump couldn’t make up his mind. In Alabama, he tentatively endorsed Rep. Mo Brooks, then withdrew his endorsement because of personal quarrels and Brooks’s struggles, then endorsed the preferred candidate of retiring Sen. Richard Shelby, who ended up winning the nomination and the general election. In Missouri, he endorsed 2 candidates, seemingly because they shared the first name of “Eric,” not distinguishing between Attorney General Eric Schmitt and disgraced former Gov. Eric Greitens. Both of the namesakes accepted the two-sided endorsement, with Greitens, according to CBS News, tweeting “Honored to have the support of President Trump! We will MAGA!” Greitens had ties to Donald Trump Jr. and Kimberly Guilfoyle (the younger Trump’s romantic partner). Eric Schmitt, the choice of establishment Republicans, won the primary and the general.
Trump’s preferences were clearer in some other party contests: Nevada and North Carolina as well as Arizona, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. In the latter trio of states, his picks gained plurality primary victories, edging past more conventional candidates. These contests were Trump’s most prominent efforts to demonstrate his personal continuing appeal to the Republican mass base.
Of his priority list in key states, Trump’s top choices lost general elections in many places (Arizona, Georgia, Nevada, and Pennsylvania). J.D. Vance in Ohio and Ted Budd in North Carolina won.
This mediocre-to-disastrous result has raised some Republicans’ doubts over Trump’s new presidential bid. Larry Hogan, retiring governor of Maryland, typified the skepticism in a post-election appearance on CNN: “It’s basically the third election in a row that Donald Trump has cost us the race, and it’s like, three strikes, you’re out.”
House GOP leader Kevin McCarthy of California — fresh off his own win in leadership elections but not necessarily assured of the votes needed to become Speaker in January — declined to endorse Trump, even as the former president has reportedly been trying to help him secure the votes for speaker. While many other Republican leaders have delayed commitments, some are now reportedly hostile, such as past major media supporters including Rupert Murdoch (Murdoch’s most influential news organization, Fox News, appears on the fence currently about Trump, according to the Financial Times). Some large donors and past supporters are holding back.
Others are more critical, such as the conservative National Review, suggesting “It’s too early to know what the rest of the field will look like, except it will offer much better alternatives than Trump.” The New York Post (a Murdoch paper) relegated its report of Trump’s campaign opening to the tabloid’s page 26 and headlined it “Florida Man Makes Announcement.”
But the argument against Trump lacks depth. It is an opposition based on instrumentalist not philosophical grounds. For the most part — Liz Cheney a conspicuous exception — the discontent is not based on evaluations of his policies or character, but rather simply on his electoral standing. If he can regain his voting strength, opposition can rapidly turn to support.
Trump remains a viable presidential candidate: “Jason Miller, a strategist assisting Mr. Trump with his campaign announcement, warned… that Mr. McCarthy ’must be much more declarative that he supports President Trump‘ in 2024,” reported the New York Times.
For his part, the former president seems ready to attack. In entering the 2024 race, he denigrated his opponents as “the combined forces of the establishment, the media, the special interests, the globalists, the Marxist radicals, the corporations, the weaponized power of the federal government, the colossal political machines, the tidal wave of dark money.” In his first race, 2016, Trump successfully used this argument against the “establishment” favoring Gov. Jeb Bush of Florida.
He might well employ the same argument against a similar establishment in 2024 and defeat another Florida governor, Ron DeSantis. The fluidity of public opinion is evident in 2 successive Yahoo News/YouGov polls. Trump led DeSantis among Republicans by 9% in October; DeSantis jumped to a 5% lead in December. Neither result should be taken as definitive. (More on polling below.)
The Republican institutional structure
While Trump lost broadly in 2022, he retains many campaign assets for the 2024 race. Even this year, he did show his winning appeal within the mass base, particularly in the party’s primaries where the critical votes will be cast before the summer 2024 convention in Milwaukee.
The institutional leadership of the party favors his cause, perhaps bolstering his nomination drive. Trump supporters dominate the party’s state and national organs, and his acolyte Ronna McDaniel claims to have the votes to win reelection as chair of the Republican National Committee (although she does face some opposition). His foundational advantages can be seen in the formal nomination rules. As he jumps over the starting line, he has many edges in the forthcoming race. Consider the following realities of the track:
Ex officio delegates. Trump allies dominate the official leadership of the party after determined cleansing during and after his presidency, The convention call gives votes to 168 members of the Republican National Committee and state party chairs in each state and territory. In most states, these party leaders are required to support the winner of the state primary or divide their votes proportionally among the competing candidates. In non-primary states they may be less constrained, and in all states they can use their power and prestige to constitute a first line of defense for Trump.
Allocation of Delegates. The number of delegates for each state has been based on an implicit federalist reliance on state equality. Each state has 10 initial delegates, mirroring state equality in the U.S. Senate, as well as 3 delegates for each congressional district, regardless of party control. Bonus delegates are added based on the state’s 2020 Electoral College tally for Trump, each Republican U.S. Senator and governor, and a Republican majority in a state‘s U.S. House seats and in each state legislative chamber.
These allocations reward states that are relatively small in population, less competitive, controlled by Republicans, gerrymandered, and programmatically conservative. Illustratively, following the existing rules, in 2024 sparsely populated Wyoming would have 28 delegates, compared to teeming California’s 169. Texas, with 34 bonus and a total of 161 delegates will rival California, which will receive no earned bonus. (The source for these totals and the delegate allocation rules is the Green Papers.)
These distributions would seem to undermine the presumed interest of the convention in choosing a presidential winner. The critical states (Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin) that tipped the 2016 and 2020 elections — first for and then against Trump — would have only 14 bonus votes and a total of 262. But 5 uncompetitive states of the old Confederacy (Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, and Tennessee) would receive 73 bonus seats, and a total apportionment of 237. (2022 results and elections next year will impact the state tallies in small ways.)
Divided Competition. Ironically, Trump may also benefit from his weaknesses. Now that he appears vulnerable, other ambitious candidates are considering challenging for the 2024 nomination. The list is potentially long, headed by the aforementioned DeSantis, and including former Vice President Mike Pence, U.S. Sens. Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley, and current or former Govs. Greg Abbott, Chris Christie, Larry Hogan, Asa Hutchinson, Kristi Noem, and Glenn Youngkin. Some national polls have shown DeSantis leading Trump, sometimes impressively, in a hypothetical head-to-head matchup. But Trump often leads when other candidates are included, a phenomenon that Politico polling expert Steve Shepard recently said reminded him of polling in 2016.
The list may shrink or expand, but the real point is its length. The more candidates for the nomination, the more fragmented the vote will be and the more likely Trump can conquer a divided opposition. He does not need majorities in most primaries. Given the rules in many states, he only needs to come in first. His opponents can then fight to be the last fruitless aspirant. That was his path to victory in 2016; it may be the roadmap to another nomination in 2024.
State Primaries The convention will have a total roster near 2,500 delegates. Trump’s renomination will be advantaged by the domination of state parties, which will set the selection rules. These state parties are now largely in the hands of his fans, such as MAGA enthusiasts and election deniers. Although delegates will be chosen in competitive primaries in most states, these contests will be structured by the formal state organizations.
These organizations might opt to choose delegates through party caucuses or conventions, convenient locales for the most enthused followers. If they employ primaries, these contests can be state at-large or congressional district elections, awarding delegates through a proportional division of delegates among competing candidates, or through winner-take-all primaries, depending on timing and other factors. Many of the contests, particularly later in the process, can be described as winner-take-all or winner-take-most. That is the sort of system that could advantage Trump if indeed he is the plurality leader in a splintered field.
Closed Primaries. The party primaries in many states will not be like general elections, open to all enrolled voters. In many states, the primaries are “closed,” to one degree or another. These states provide ballots only to persons who have previously declared themselves as Republicans or allow unaffiliated voters (not Democrats) to join in only after the state party has changed the rules. Only about a third of the states provide easy means for crossover voting by Democrats or Independents. In “open” primaries in the other states, crossover voting is theoretically permitted but limited in practice. Because Trump’s appeal is strongest among dedicated Republicans, these restrictions aid his campaign. (The National Conference of State Legislatures has a good list of how primaries in each state work.)
Convention Rules. A Trump triumph might be finally sealed by invoking constraining rules at the convention. With past rules continued for 2024, there will be little opportunity for opposition to develop against Trump at the formal convention (or against any other leading aspirant). Delegates who attempt to change any mandate from primaries will not be recognized. Once uneasily seated, dark horses or dissidents will not be allowed to seek the formal nomination unless they can demonstrate support among a plurality of delegates within 5 state delegations. There will be no late stampede for any imitative heir of Abraham Lincoln or William Jennings Bryan.
If Donald Trump has made any contribution to political science, it may be encouragement of an added degree of caution in prediction. Many of us quickly “knew” in 2015 he could not win the Republican nomination, most of us were sure he would lose the contest against Hillary Clinton in 2016, many of us worried that he would win reelection in 2020, few of us expected a 2021 insurrection to overturn the national election. Our “confidence level” is as uncertain as the ultimate fate of the Republic.
Perhaps we might agree that the Republican nomination of 2024 or the Electoral College certification of the results in 2025 is uncertain. Perhaps “the fix is in” for a Trump victory within his party. Perhaps the congressional elections this year foretell a different result. Uncertainty is what makes horseraces. Get ready for the ride.
|Gerald Pomper is retired as Board of Governors Professor of Political Science (Emeritus) at Rutgers University and its Eagleton Institute of Politics. He is the author or editor of 21 books on American politics; his analysis of the Biden-Trump presidential election is the last chapter of Michael Nelson’s recent edited work, The Elections of 2020 (University of Virginia Press).|