The Never Trump Temptation

Former President Donald Trump speaks at the New Hampshire GOP annual meeting on January 28, 2023, in Salem, New Hampshire. (Photo by Scott Eisen/Getty Images)

The thing to understand about the coming Republican presidential primary is that it’s a referendum, not a choice.

Superficially it’s a choice. There’s Trump, soon there’ll be Nikki Haley, eventually there’ll be Ron DeSantis and a few others, each offering a different blend of conservatism and populism. Trump might go full metal nationalist next time while Haley reverts to her center-right roots; DeSantis and figures like Mike Pence will steer somewhere in between. That’s a complex choice for voters, no?

Nah. Not really.

A “choice” election is one in which the electorate weighs the strengths and weaknesses of multiple candidates before settling on one. A referendum is one in which the strengths and weaknesses of a single candidate drive their decision. Between the time Ronald Reagan left politics and the time Donald Trump entered, I’d argue that the only true referendum Republican voters experienced in a primary was 1992. That was the year Pat Buchanan forced a right-wing gut check on the success of George H.W. Bush’s first term as president.

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