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Strength In Numbers

How a crowded 2024 primary field could hurt Trump.

Nikki Haley speaks at the Republican Jewish Coalition annual leadership meeting. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images.)

If you want to know whether Donald Trump’s political stock is up or down within the Republican establishment, watch Nikki Haley.

She’s my favorite weathervane. Not a well calibrated weathervane, as we’re about to see. But if the slightest breeze is blowing against him among the institutional party, the Haley-o-meter will detect it and start to whirl.

She began as an adversary. In January 2016, with Trump leading GOP primary polls, Haley delivered the party’s rebuttal to the State of the Union with a shot at its anti-immigration presidential frontrunner. “During anxious times, it can be tempting to follow the siren call of the angriest voices,” she said. “We must resist that temptation. No one who is willing to work hard, abide by our laws, and love our traditions should ever feel unwelcome in this country.”

Ten months after warning about “the siren call” of his angry voice, Haley agreed to join Trump’s new administration. The weathervane had spun for the first time.

Four years and a few months later, she watched Trump’s “rigged election” propaganda end with red-capped goons sacking the Capitol. Haley naively assumed, as many of us did, that the Republican love affair with MAGA populism would collapse in the aftermath of a national disgrace. Less than a week after January 6, she delivered Trump’s political eulogy to Politico reporter Tim Alberta.

“He’s not going to run for federal office again,” Haley said.

But what if he does? Or at least, what if he spends the next four years threatening to? Can the Republican Party heal with Trump in the picture?

“I don’t think he’s going to be in the picture,” she said, matter-of-factly. “I don’t think he can. He’s fallen so far.”

“We need to acknowledge he let us down,” she said. “He went down a path he shouldn’t have, and we shouldn’t have followed him, and we shouldn’t have listened to him. And we can’t let that ever happen again.”

She said that on January 12, 2021, when it seemed possible that the Republican establishment might support impeachment. Clearly the wheels were already turning in her mind about 2024. Seeking a sharp break with populism, a humiliated GOP would want a presidential nominee as different from Trump as possible in the next cycle. A mainstream Republican with governing experience, say. A woman, maybe even a nonwhite woman, who could play in the suburbs where Trump had been routed … 

And so the weathervane had spun again.

But when the time came to vote on impeachment, just 10 House Republicans went along. Mitch McConnell and the Senate caucus contrived an excuse to acquit him at trial based on the fact that Trump had already left office. The GOP governing class had heard from their constituents and discovered that the base’s affair with Trump hadn’t cooled. A degraded party still wanted its degraded king.

Haley, the not-very-well-calibrated weathervane, had miscalculated grievously. And so she spun again, desperate to make amends for her rash criticism of Trump by repositioning herself as his defender. Less than two weeks after the House voted, she told Fox News that she saw no basis for impeachment and groused that whiny Democrats should “give the man a break.” A few weeks later, she sought to visit Mar-a-Lago to kiss the ring but was rebuffed

In April 2021, with her national future now uncertain in a party still dominated by Trump, she bent the knee and vowed publicly that she would support him if he ran in 2024. “I would not run if President Trump ran,” she assured reporters.

Which brings us to this past weekend, when the weathervane spun again at the annual conference of the Republican Jewish Coalition. 

There’s a point to this trip down memory lane besides giving me an excuse to vent my contempt for Haley and her cowardly opportunism. The weathervane is picking up on the fact that not since 2016 has the GOP establishment been more outspoken in criticizing Trump as it is right now. A faint breeze before the midterms has stiffened into a strong wind. What an insurrection couldn’t achieve, an Election Day disappointment has. That’s what happens when a party, and the base on which it rests, cares for nothing except power. 

“Outspoken” is a relative term, mind you; Mike Pompeo, for instance, still can’t muster the courage to mention the name of his former boss when taking shots at him. But Paul Ryan is suddenly calling himself a “Never Again Trumper.” Bill Barr is publishing “dump Trump” op-eds. Longtime anti-Trumper Larry Hogan is told-ya-so-ing Republicans who finally feel emboldened to speak. And Chris Christie is all but daring colleagues in the party to be tougher on the former guy. “We keep losing and losing and losing,” he said on Saturday. “And the fact of the matter is the reason we’re losing is because Donald Trump has put himself before everyone else.”

For cripes sake, even Lauren Boebert sounds Ready for Ron in 2024. Which brings us back to the RJC event this weekend at which Haley spoke.

It seems those gusts of anti-Trump wind swirling through the establishment will end up blowing all sorts of 2024 hopefuls into the race. Ron DeSantis was at the RJC conference too, as was Mike Pence. So were Pompeo, Hogan, Christie, Chris Sununu, Tim Scott, and Ted Cruz. “Some huddled privately with donors,” the Wall Street Journal reported. It ended up being a de facto cattle call for Republican presidential candidates. A year ago Trump looked poised to win the nomination a third time by acclamation, with only token resistance of the sort he faced in 2020. Now, after a midterm debacle for which he’s rightly been blamed, not only will he face real opposition but he’s apt to encounter another large field a la 2016.

The pundits will tell you that that would mean disaster for the GOP. We all remember how that primary ended, after all.

But what if I told you that a crowded field could actually … hurt Trump this time?

I’m not sure I believe it. Every bit of conventional wisdom stands against it. I’m going to make the argument, though, mainly to see if I can talk myself into it. A slow holiday news week is a perfect time for a writer to ratchet up the degree of difficulty and challenge himself.

Here we go with a take that’s hotter than a Thanksgiving turkey fresh from the oven.

You and I know from painful experience how a crowded field might benefit Trump. Forty percent of the party is willing, if not eager, to see him crowned as an American Caesar. That’s not enough to win a one-on-one primary where the other 60 percent of the vote goes to his opponent, but it’s more than enough to win a multi-candidate primary where that 60 percent is divvied up among half a dozen opponents or more.

Especially if those opponents turn their fire on each other instead of on Trump. The 2016 race was functionally a competition among establishment Republicans to see who would emerge as The One True Alternative, believing that the last man standing against Trump would inherit the non-MAGA two-thirds of the electorate. So instead of Marco Rubio and Jeb Bush attacking Trump, they attacked each other. Ted Cruz spent the first six months of the campaign outright praising Trump in the expectation that Trump would ultimately flame out and Cruz would pick up his populist voters.

But they learned the hard way in 2016 that momentum is a thing in presidential primaries. They hoped and expected that the early primaries would thin the herd quickly and consolidate the anti-Trump majority behind The One True Alternative. In reality, Trump winning most of the early primaries established him as a serious contender and attracted undecideds who were lured by his “winner” persona. By the time Cruz ended up as the last man standing and made it a one-on-one race, it was too late.

It could happen again in 2024. Republican leaders are already fretting about it and Trump cronies are crowing about it. “We have at least 30% of the Republican primary electorate that will do anything to support the [former] president. And the value of their votes becomes proportionately higher if a bunch of others pile in the race and dilute the not-Trump vote and divide it up between them,” an anonymous Trump adviser recently told NBC.

Imagine a dozen candidates get in and all of them train their fire on DeSantis, this year’s frontrunner to be The One True Alternative. In order to supplant him and reach the one-on-one phase against Trump, a rival might reason that he first has to destroy DeSantis’ base of support.

That’s a recipe for a splintered field and another easy Trump primary victory. So much so that I suspect Trump will recruit a populist toady to run for president as a stalking horse and task them to attack DeSantis nonstop. Picture Marjorie Taylor Greene or Kari Lake laying into the governor of Florida at every campaign event in hopes of helping their patron to the nomination.

A crowded field is also risky inasmuch as DeSantis probably won’t declare his candidacy until spring, after Florida’s legislative session ends. That gives figures like Pence, Pompeo, Haley, Christie, and others who don’t currently hold office an opportunity to get in early and try to build credibility as a counterweight to Trump. Conceivably Haley could attract 20 percent of the vote early on, before DeSantis declares. By the time he does, he might find to his dismay that that 20 percent has solidified behind their candidate and is in no hurry to ditch her for him.

DeSantis almost certainly can’t win a three-way race without convincing a significant share of hardcore Trump cultists to prefer him to their leader. Any collective action problem that the anti-Trump field encounters will redound to Trump’s benefit.

Or, instead of some rival getting in early and building support, DeSantis could have the opposite problem. What if half a dozen contenders jump into the race this winter and none makes a dent in Trump’s polling? What if, in fact, Trump’s share of the primary vote increases from, say, 50 percent to 70 percent as Pence, Pompeo, and Christie pale by comparison to the Great MAGA King? Republican voters might come to believe that Trump is invincible after all, dampening enthusiasm for DeSantis’ forthcoming candidacy. The first step in deposing the king is convincing his subjects that he’s mortal, but the next six months could do the opposite, revealing again a la the aftermath of January 6 that the base isn’t as eager for a new monarch as the party establishment might wish.

There are many reasons to believe that a big field will deliver a third Trump nomination, in other words.

But there are also reasons to believe—famous last words—that This Time Is Different.

Start with the fact that Trump’s position in 2024 is drastically different from what it was in 2016. No longer is he the brash outsider whose candidacy wasn’t taken terribly seriously until it was suddenly too late to stop him. It made some sense at the time for Marco Rubio and Jeb Bush to worry more about each other than about Trump. They believed, as most of us did, that the Republican primary electorate took conservative principles seriously and would never choose a callow celebrity pretender over a right-wing true believer.

No one’s under any illusions now. Instead of 16 “true conservative” alternatives onstage a la 2016, Trump will face 16 populist alternatives. The Bush dynasty won’t be represented this time, as Rich Lowry notes. The closest thing to a dynastic candidate will be the leader of the new Republican establishment, Donald J. Trump.

He won’t get to play offense exclusively in this cycle, either. As a former president, he’ll have a record to defend. DeSantis and others will demand that he explain why he took Anthony Fauci’s advice on lockdowns, didn’t build the wall as promised, and passed a tax cut for the rich approved by Mitch McConnell instead of doing more for his working-class base.

And as reluctant as the field might be to antagonize Trump’s voters by attacking him directly, this time they’ll have no choice. The 2016 primary was wide open, a true “choice” election. The 2024 primary will be a referendum. The question presented to voters, implicitly, will be “Why shouldn’t we nominate Trump again?” His opponents will have to answer it whether they want to or not.

That being so, I wonder if the One True Alternative strategy might operate in reverse this time. Instead of the field tearing each other down in hopes of being the last man standing against Trump as he skates through, they might reason that the only way to become The One True Alternative is to first attack Trump en masse and try to weaken his base of support. If, for instance, he’s indicted in the near future we’re destined to hear them say that a nominee with his baggage can’t win in 2024, especially starting from the dismal baseline of the 2022 midterms. (There was conspicuously little pretend-outrage at Merrick Garland from the GOP establishment after a special counsel was appointed to investigate Trump, the reader may note.) Beating him one-on-one in a party he dominates would be difficult even for the strongest candidate, but if they can collectively push him from 40 percent in the polls to 30 percent, say, that will open up the race and create opportunities for everyone.

And any evidence in polling that he’s losing rather than gaining support may puncture his aura of invincibility, needless to say.

A big field could also benefit his most formidable opponent, DeSantis, in certain ways. If Pence, Christie, and a few others get in soon, before the governor does, they’ll act as canaries in the coal mine for him. DeSantis can sit back and watch which attacks on Trump are effective and which aren’t. The effective ones could even begin to soften Trump up in the polling, making DeSantis’ eventual entry into the race that much more hotly anticipated.

If nothing else, having Trump Cabinet members like Pence and Pompeo in the field will dilute the potency of Trump’s criticism that DeSantis has behaved “disloyally” by challenging him for the nomination. Trump likes to remind his fans that he “made” DeSantis by endorsing him for governor in 2018 because he wants them to view DeSantis’ presidential run as an ingrate’s betrayal and special affront. That attack might have some bite in a one-on-one race, but how seriously will it be taken if Trump’s vice president and secretary of state are also running against him? Who’s the bigger “traitor,” the governor who turned Florida blood red without Trump’s help—or Trump’s own running mate?

The bigger the field gets, the stronger the signal will be that it’s acceptable, even mainstream, not to want Trump as the nominee again. If the GOP’s biggest names are willing to be “disloyal” in the name of securing Republican victory in 2024, including some administration alumni, voters may get more comfortable with feeling the same way. That collective signal that it’s time to move on wouldn’t be as strong in a one-on-one Trump-DeSantis race.

A crowded field in 2024 will also have the benefit of hindsight. Asked recently whether he feared a reprise of 2016, with the anti-Trump vote splintering in the primary, New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu called it a “concern” but shrugged it off. “Everybody understands we don’t want what happened in ’16. Put your ego aside, run hard, but if it ain’t working, it ain’t working,” he told the New York Times. There will be enormous institutional pressure from Republican leaders and major donors for also-rans to drop out early, ideally before Iowa, if they haven’t demonstrated serious viability in polling. And although we underestimate at our peril politicians’ capacity to delude themselves in the name of ambition, I suspect Trump-leery Republican voters will also be thinking more strategically in 2024. If Trump leads DeSantis 45-40 on the eve of the Iowa caucus, the remaining 15 percent who are split among the also-rans are destined to consider carefully how their vote might optimally be spent.

Finally, to state the obvious, Ron DeSantis ain’t Ted Cruz. The last man standing against Trump in 2016 was a famously unlikable Tea Partier who couldn’t beat Trump in a battle fought on less ideological populist political terrain. DeSantis is more likable, and his political brand as a culture warrior is more germane to the working-class Republican base than “constitutional conservatism” ever was. For the same reason, comparisons between DeSantis and Scott Walker don’t hold up. Walker’s claim to fame among righty activists was winning a fiscal war against public employee unions in 2011. By 2016 that victory was a fading memory and Walker had little else to offer Republican primary owners by way of lib-owning. DeSantis, on the other hand, has spent the last 18 months picking one culture war fight after another with the left and has made himself the national face of opposition to Democratic-imposed lockdowns during the pandemic in the process.

All of which is to say that even if the 2024 field starts off large, it might not remain large for long. It’s possible that Republican voters will quickly come to treat it as a binary choice between Trump and DeSantis, leaving the other candidates with no path and no hope after Iowa (or maybe even before). The collective action problem bedeviling the non-MAGA majority of the party exists if and only if there’s no obviously preferable consensus choice among their favored candidates, as was the case in 2016 when Cruz, Rubio, and Kasich lingered on. In 2024, there is a consensus choice among that cohort whom we might plausibly expect will consolidate their votes. At least if the primaries were held today.

How’s that for devil’s advocacy on behalf of an “everyone should run” strategy? I’m not sure I talked myself into it but I’m more open to it than I was yesterday.

One parting thought. Even if the worst were to occur and Trump were to prevail again among a splintered field with 40 percent of the vote, that would be a horribly weak position from which to launch a general election campaign. Once again, 2024 isn’t 2016. Trump winning the nomination with a plurality six years ago was impressive because he was a political novice battling the heavyweights of his party. Trump winning the nomination with a plurality two years from now would amount to a humiliating underperformance by the colossus who bestrides the American right. The unmistakable message from that result as the general election campaign began would be that even most Republican voters weren’t enthused for one last ride on the crazy train. Good luck to him in that event turning out the disappointed 60 percent of the primary electorate who thought the GOP could do better this time than nominating a depraved, twice-impeached, probably soon-to-be indicted coup-plotter.

Nick Catoggio is a staff writer at The Dispatch and is based in Texas. Prior to joining the company in 2022, he spent 16 years gradually alienating a populist readership at Hot Air. When Nick isn’t busy writing a daily newsletter on politics, he’s … probably planning the next day’s newsletter.