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The 18 Days That Will Decide the GOP Nomination
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The 18 Days That Will Decide the GOP Nomination

Mark your calendars for February 2024.

Ted Cruz responds to a question as Donald Trump listens during the Republican presidential debate in Detroit, Michigan, March 3, 2016. (Photo credit should read Geoff Robinson/AFP/Getty Images)

In a little more than a month, we will move into the next phase of the Republican presidential nominating contest with the first debate among the serious(ish) contenders.

An August 23 debate is a little later start than the last time Republicans had an open seat to fill. It was August 6, 2015, when the combatants gathered in Cleveland for their first showdown. But that was a lot later than in the previous two cycles when the contests began in May of the year before the election.

Those two were aberrations, though. The practice of holding televised primary debates started in 1980 with a gathering in January of that year. In the next three cycles with the nomination up for grabs, 1988, 1996, and 2000, the first debates took place in October of the year before.

Debates are important for what happens on stage—or at least what people think happened on stage—but their most important role is in focusing the minds of voters on the task at hand. The bulk of what the candidates have been doing until the debates begin is about donors, the media, and the perceived kingmakers in early-voting states. 

With the debates, they move from pseudo-events to something closer to the real thing. This produces a change in the candidates, but also the psychology of the electorate. 

The first period of the contest began at the conclusion of the 2022 midterms and the effort to spin the results for or against frontrunner Donald Trump. After more than eight months of positioning, posturing, fundraising, and organizing, we are now finally almost ready to start phase two. 

And now that we finally have a date for the Iowa Republican caucuses, we know how long the second phase will last. It will be 145 days—about 21 weeks—between the first debate on August 23 and that cold Iowa night when strangers gather in school gymnasiums and volunteer fire departments to caucus. 

What will happen over those five months or so is no less predictable nor any less fascinating than the migration of the monarch butterflies or the running of the shad. Voters will herd themselves into categories. The term “lanes,” the abuse of which is appropriately lamented, should more rightly direct our thinking not about the candidates but rather the electorate. 

Picking a candidate demands trade-offs and compromises. While it is certainly true that candidates spend a lot of time chasing voters, we can’t forget the social psychology at work on the other side. Like consumers scrolling through a selection of air fryers on Amazon, voters will be sorting themselves out based on the limited, if still expansive, choices put before them.

This is when voters decide who they want, who they can live with, and who they absolutely will abjure. Even if they are not making conscious choices, those attitudes are taking shape all the while. It starts with the most engaged, opinionated, activist voters, and proceeds all the way down to the most persuadable, least ideological likely voters still in the mix. 

A poll taken today reflects the firm opinions of some, but cannot possibly include the eventual attitudes of those most desperately sought voters: the really persuadable ones. They don’t know what they really want, because they haven’t been forced to think about it seriously. Those who choose out of obligation rather than passion delay their work. So for five months, the candidates and campaigns will wheedle, deceive, flatter, cajole, attack, and beg. Along the way, like grains of sand through the hourglass, voters will reach their conclusions. 

And then, on January 15, everything will be exploded by those caucusgoers.  

By the time New Hampshire votes eight days later, the race will have changed dramatically. Far more than in recent cycles, the voters in New Hampshire and the subsequent states will be evaluating their choices under pressure. The Republican Party in many ways is stuck in 2016, and that year’s long, acrimonious nominating process.

That certainly doesn’t mean that New Hampshire voters will feel any need to ratify Iowa’s choice. In open contests in the modern era, Republicans in the two states have never picked the same candidate. Indeed, winning Iowa probably hurts a candidate in New Hampshire. What is different is that donors, volunteers, friends, supporters, and colleagues of the candidates will be applying lots of pressure on the Iowa also-rans to start wrapping it up. Long, contentious nominations sound fun only when you haven’t lived through one. For the candidates other than Trump, there will be little indulgence for vanity runs or campaigns to “send a message.”

Certainly that will be the case in the two weeks between New Hampshire and Nevada, which votes on February 6. There’s a legal fight going on in Carson City right now as Trump backers in the state party have sued to block a new law that replaces Nevada’s old caucus system that worked to Trump’s advantage in 2016 with a straight primary. How that is resolved, and if the state party decides to honor the results of the primary if it proceeds, will determine how much weight the results will take. For Trump’s purposes, a muddy result may be as good as an outright win if it denies a challenger an outright victory and momentum.

And then … nothing. Not for 18 days.  

That span from February 6 to February 24, when South Carolina votes, will be the moment the Republicans sort themselves out. That’s phase three.

You can see how the increments of time contract. Nine months from midterm to debate, five months from debate to Iowa, three weeks from Iowa to Nevada, and then 18 days from Nevada to South Carolina. 

The pressure on the remaining candidates will be intense, but so will the pressure be on voters. With three contests done, South Carolina will have the chance to either set the race as a two-person contest or ratify the eventual winner. If Trump (or anyone) has won two of the three and rolls into South Carolina with a head of steam, Palmetto State Republicans can end it there. If there is less clarity from the early races, South Carolina can anoint a Trump rival to go the distance.

And the distance is not far. Just nine days later comes Super Tuesday, including California, Texas, and Georgia. In all, 35 percent of delegates will be awarded that day alone. In all but the most far-fetched scenarios, that is when the race will end.

How voters sort themselves in the 18 days before South Carolina will set the parameters of the possible on Super Tuesday, and Super Tuesday will decide the winner. Fifteen months, incalculable man hours, and hundreds of millions of dollars will all have gone into creating that little space on the calendar when the fate of the party, and maybe the health of the republic, will be decided.

Holy croakano! We welcome your feedback, so please email us with your tips, corrections, reactions, amplifications, etc. at STIREWALTISMS@THEDISPATCH.COM. If you’d like to be considered for publication, please include your real name and hometown. If you don’t want your comments to be made public, please specify.


Biden Job Performance
Average approval: 42.4%
Average disapproval: 52%
Net score: -9.6 points 

Change from one week ago: ↓ 1.4 points                        
Change from one month ago: ↑ 2.0 points

[Average includes: Emerson: 41% approve-51% disapprove; NPR/PBS/Marist: 47% approve-49% disapprove; Quinnipiac: 42% approve-54% disapprove; IBD/TIPP: 38% approve-51% disapprove; Fox News: 44% approve-55% disapprove]

Polling Roulette


Atlantic: “In 1994, Charmaine Simmons, the costume supervisor for Seinfeld, had a problem: People wanted to dress like Kramer, Jerry’s eccentric, ever-interrupting neighbor, played by Michael Richards. … The monster seems to have reawakened. Kramer’s old uniform—camp-collar shirts in colorfully printed silk or rayon, sack pants that pull up a little short at the ankle to reveal white socks, clunky-soled shoes, a thin gold chain—is new again. … Years of stretch fabrics that really needed the stretch have given way to breezy textiles and retro short-sleeved knits with a natural slouch, idiosyncratic prints, a lot more color, and maybe a little bit of embroidery. … All of which is to say, 25 years after Seinfeld went off the air, people are once again snapping up clothes in service of dressing like the oddball next door, whether or not they’re aware of their apparent inspiration. Kramer’s look is unmistakably back. Call it the summer of Kramercore…”


Politico: “Trump sent shockwaves through Iowa GOP circles this week when he posted on social media seemingly attacking [Governor Kim Reynolds] — who has an 86 percent approval rating among Iowa Republicans — for not endorsing his presidential bid. Reynolds said she is staying neutral in the primary, but in recent months has appeared alongside Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. … And on Monday night, Bob Vander Plaats, president of The Family Leader, an influential evangelical Christian group in Iowa, learned that Trump would not be appearing at his organization’s forum set for Friday. … The event, which the other major candidates are attending, will be moderated by former Fox News host Tucker Carlson. … Some Republicans in the state think such moves could cost him.”

Club for Growth offshoot plans anti-Trump spending spree: Politico: “A new group with ties to the anti-tax Club for Growth is launching a multimillion-dollar ad campaign in key early primary states aimed at stopping Donald Trump from steamrolling to the Republican nomination. The group, Win it Back, will on Tuesday begin airing TV commercials in Iowa and South Carolina. The new super PAC is spending $3.6 million on the blitz, which will run through the end of the month. … The emergence of Win it Back represents the latest twist in a long, complicated relationship between Trump and the Club for Growth.”

Trump nabs full slate of Michigan endorsements: The Hill: “Former President Trump received endorsements from all six members of Michigan’s Republican delegation in the House, his campaign announced Tuesday. The campaign said in a release that GOP Reps. Tim Walberg, Bill Huizenga, John Moolenaar, Jack Bergman, Lisa McClain and John James declared their support for the former president in the 2024 Republican presidential nominating contest. … Trump previously endorsed all six in their races for their House seats during last year’s midterm elections.”

But loses an Iowa surrogate: Politico: “An Iowa state senator who’d previously endorsed Donald Trump is flipping his support to Ron DeSantis just days after the former president attacked Iowa’s popular Republican governor, Kim Reynolds. Jeff Reichman, who is serving his first term in the state Senate, announced on Thursday that he is defecting to the Florida governor’s presidential campaign. In a statement, Reichman singled out praise for Reynolds, who Trump has targeted for her warmness toward DeSantis.”

As DeSantis struggles, Murdoch pines for Youngkin: New York Times: “With Mr. DeSantis’s campaign having failed to immediately catch fire against Mr. Trump, Fox News is not taking it quite so easy on Mr. DeSantis anymore. … The signs of skepticism from previously friendly conservative megaphones suggest that Mr. Murdoch’s media empire might now be reassessing him as the early shine comes off his campaign. … Mr. Murdoch has privately told people that he would still like to see Gov. Glenn Youngkin of Virginia enter the race… And he has made clear in private discussions over the last two years that he thinks Mr. Trump, despite his popularity with Fox News viewers, is unhealthy for the Republican Party.”

DeSantis down a dozen points since February: Split Ticket: “[The] impetus for change was so strong that DeSantis actually led Trump in some primary polls back in mid-February, well before he even announced his campaign. … Instead of being a harbinger of things to come, however, that was the high point for DeSantis. His nascent campaign has been hobbled by self-induced missteps and an indictment-fueled surge from Donald Trump, and his candidacy has flailed, with the Florida governor seeing his favorability and standing in primary polling plummet since his mid-February peak. … While some DeSantis backers may argue that endorsements are overrated, they are not meaningless — history suggests that the volume of endorsements is actually about as predictive of the primary as polling is, and so the fact that DeSantis trails Trump on both fronts by large margins is a major red flag for his candidacy.”

Haley, Scott bring in big bucks: Yahoo: “U.S. Sen. Tim Scott brought in $6.1 million during the first six weeks of his bid for the Republican nomination for president, … Scott ended the second quarter, which closed on June 30, with $21 million in cash available to spend in the Republican primary. But the $6.1 million, which includes money subject to federal campaign limits raised by related entities since the campaign’s May 22 launch, is less than what former S.C. Gov. Nikki Haley reported in each of her first two quarters of campaigning. … Haley and her joint fundraising committees raised $8.3 million in her first six weeks on her campaign, which launched on Feb. 15. She also raised $7.3 million during the second quarter of the year.”


Texas Tribune: “State Sen. Roland Gutierrez, D-San Antonio, announced Monday he is joining the Democratic primary to challenge U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas. … The [announcement] video also singles out Cruz for his 2021 trip to Cancun during the power-grid collapse in Texas, calling it ‘just indefensible.’ And it also takes shots, briefly, at other state GOP leaders, including Gov. Greg Abbott and Attorney General Ken Paxton. … Gutierrez’s entrance into the 2024 race has long been expected, and it sets up a primary matchup with U.S. Rep. Colin Allred of Dallas, who announced his campaign in May. … Gutierrez faces a serious opponent in Allred, who has already picked up a number of national endorsements and has raised more than $6 million.”

Slotkin draws celebrity opponent for Michigan Senate seat: Detroit News: “Actor Hill Harper is officially running for the Democratic nomination for U.S. Senate in Michigan, posing a progressive challenge to frontrunner U.S. Rep. Elissa Slotkin. … Harper, 57, has never run for public office before. He is best known for his roles in ABC’s ‘The Good Doctor’ and CBS’ ‘CSI: NY.’ … Harper is likely to have an uphill slog to compete with Slotkin, who flipped a GOP-held seat in 2018 and has run three times in competitive swing districts. … Slotkin got a head start campaigning four months ago, has already raised $5.8 million and has about $3.6 million in the bank as of June 30. … Slotkin could also benefit from the growing field — currently at six candidates — especially if Harper splits the Black vote with other African-American candidates.”

Dems struggle with Sunshine State recruitment: Politico: “Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee officials are trying to convince former Rep. Debbie Mucarsel-Powell to jump into a race against [Sen. Rick Scott]… But while Mucarsel-Powell plays the waiting game, Navy veteran Phil Ehr is preparing to launch a Senate campaign ‘soon,’ … A number of top Democrats in Florida, a once-perennial battleground state that has taken a sharp turn to the right in recent years, have ruled out a Senate bid next year. To make matters worse, the party’s bench there is thin. … And though many national Democrats have written off Florida for the foreseeable future, the state is one of the only opportunities the party has to flip a Senate seat in 2024.”


Politico: “Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va) on Wednesday addressed his plans to headline an event in New Hampshire hosted by the centrist group No Labels amid concern from Democrats about a third-party presidential bid backed by the group. Manchin has not yet ruled out a White House run, nor has he announced whether he plans to run for reelection to the Senate in 2024 in his increasingly red home state. … The centrist senator did nothing to quell the rumors that he might enter the presidential race. ‘I’ve never ruled out anything,’ he told CNN. … Manchin won’t be able to enter the race without a fight. Some Democrats on Capitol Hill are already rallying to thwart any third-party challenges that could weaken President Joe Biden in the general election.”


2024 House map littered with rematches—NBC News 

New York Dems clear court redistricting hurdle—The Hill

2024 Indiana gubernatorial primary grows crowded—Fox News

MyPillow business craters as retailers flee CEO’s conspiracy theories—Minneapolis StarTribune


“I apologize for using my flatulence as a medium of public commentary in your presence.” — Literary agent and former gossip columnist Doug Dechert, speaking to the New York Post about an incident at a Robert F. Kennedy Jr. campaign dinner with the press in which Dechert expressed his displeasure with the views of another attendee by loudly breaking wind.


“Why would a 15-week FEDERAL abortion ban be constitutional? Spoiler Alert:  It wouldn’t. You are right, Chris, that the politics and policy of the post-Dobbs world are a big drag on the GOP, but the Constitution has to come first for Conservatives. The feds can’t put an abortionist in jail because there’s no State Action. And there is for damned sure no Commerce Clause route to a constitutional statute.”Bill Hodes, The Villages, Florida

There would no doubt be a hellacious legal fight over whether the 14th Amendment and “the equal protection of the laws” to “any person” and the power of Congress to “enforce, by appropriate legislation” extends to the unborn. I certainly don’t know the law well enough to know how that fight would proceed, but I do know that I have seen Congress attempt more dubious claims to power, and sometimes succeed. The issue we have been wrestling with politically to little success for many years now is, at its root, about the rights of the unborn. I don’t know how it would turn out, but such legislation would certainly get at the crux of the question. The question I’m interested in is whether Republicans have a means to reach consensus on the issue. I will leave it to legal minds whether such a law could be enforced.

“Gov. [Chris Christie]’s position as expressed in Bari Weiss’ Honestly podcast (that you did not mention in last Friday’s email) is closest to my own: It is a state issue … and if some consensus, over time, emerges from the states then maybe take it federal. Republicans should not be taking positions ceding yet more power to the Feds! And no I’m not a Trumper—not in the least. … Love your writing Chris!”Beth Anderson, Dallas, Texas

I meant no slight by not including Christie’s thoughts on the subject, I promise! But it’s not a key issue for him, just as it was not for his constituents in New Jersey nor is it for the New Hampshire voters he is courting. But for a big swath of the GOP, it’s front and center. The contests in Iowa and South Carolina may depend on it, and many Super Tuesday voters in Georgia and your home state may agree. As I told Mr. Hodes, this is a subject on which Republicans have considerable sorting out to do. The primary process may yet yield an answer, perhaps the one you and Christie prefer. But I do like to see a little policy talk sneak into the American Gladiators-style contest we typically get.  

“The graph showing that younger Mormons are drifting toward the Democratic party left me wondering if a similar graph on most other populations including the general population would not show the same thing.  Is it not true that people tend to become more conservative as they age? So, it is not a case of younger people drifting toward the Democrats as it is one of older people drifting toward the GOP. As Churchill supposedly said, ‘A young man that is not a liberal doesn’t have a heart and an old man that is not a conservative doesn’t have a brain.’”—Paul Gross, Murray, Kentucky

Quite so, Mr. Gross! But by what degree? The poll shows baby boomers in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to be Republican by about 60 points, compared to about 17 points for members of the faith from the millennial generation. That 43-point spread looks even bigger compared to the electorate as a whole. Among all voters in the 2020 election, boomers broke for Republicans by about 3 points, while millennials went Democratic by about 18 points, a 21-point spread. If the age gap for Republicans among members of the Latter-day Saints faith is more than twice as large as in the electorate that poses serious challenges for the red team with a group that is important not just in tipping states like Arizona and Nevada in presidential elections, but also for Republican control in many Western states where the faith has its strongest concentrations. Some of those young Latter-day Saints believers will go on to be more conservative as they get older, but the demographic divide should be a warning to Republicans. As for the quote, though some 19th century sources give it to Edmund Burke, it, or some version of it, was very popular among French intellectuals, including Georges Clemanceau. But one of the earliest recorded versions belongs to none other than John Adams, who said in a letter to Thomas Jefferson in 1799: “A boy of fifteen who is not a democrat is good for nothing, and he is no better who is a democrat at twenty.”

You should email us! Write to STIREWALTISMS@THEDISPATCH.COM with your tips, kudos, criticisms, insights, rediscovered words, wonderful names, recipes and, always, good jokes. Please include your real name—at least first and last—and hometown. Make sure to let me know in the email if you want to keep your submission private. My colleague, the natty Nate Moore, and I will look for your emails and then share the most interesting ones and my responses here. Clickety clack!


Sen. Tim Scott speaking to pro-life protesters outside of the U.S. Supreme Court on March 2, 2016. (Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Sen. Tim Scott speaking to pro-life protesters outside of the U.S. Supreme Court on March 2, 2016. (Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

So many good entries this week! This picture of South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott firing up the crowd at a pro-life rally drew out some truly great responses, including quite a few we can’t print … The only downside is that so many of you landed on the same joke of Scott as a singer breaking down a solo on stage. But the version from this week’s winner captured not only Scott’s expression but also a funny musical juxtaposition to the scene: 

“Hey, hey mama said the way you move. Gonna make you sweat gonna make you groove.”Kevin Cook, Fort Worth, Texas

Winner, In Congress Division:

“C’mon everyone—let’s make some babies!”Douglas Leo, Scottsdale, Arizona

Winner, Physician Heal Thyself Division:

Howard Dean, this is how you ‘YOWWW.’” Tom Walk, Greensboro, North Carolina

Send your proposed cutline for the picture that appears at the top of this newsletter to STIREWALTISMS@THEDISPATCH.COM. We will pick the best entrants for each week and an appropriate reward for the best of this month—even beyond the glory and adulation that will surely follow. Be hilarious, don’t be too dirty, and never be cruel. Include your full name and hometown. Have fun!


Complex: “Judge Gary N. Wilcox of New Jersey is under investigation after he posted various videos on TikTok of him rapping along to music from Nas and Busta Rhymes, among others. … A complaint submitted to New Jersey’s Advisory Committee on Judicial Conduct shows that Wilcox used the pseudonym Sal Tortorella to share around 40 videos between April 2021 and March 2023. Of the content he shared through the public account, at least 11 were considered ‘inappropriate and brought disrepute to the Judiciary.’ Some of the songs he lip-synced along to included ‘Get Down’ by Nas, ‘Touch It’ by Busta Rhymes, and Rihanna‘s ‘Jump.’ … One of the videos featured Wilcox walking through the courthouse, while another showed him in his judicial robes. In one video, he stood up in chambers and lip-synced, ‘All my life, I’ve been waiting for somebody to whoop my ass. I mean business!’” 

(Ed. note: Stirewalt on Politics is taking a pause to refresh next week but will return on July 29 with contest winners, jokes, and, I hope, plenty of gas in the tank to go roaring into the coming campaign. I appreciate your support, encouragement, and corrections, and look forward to rejoining you soon. I hope you and yours have a chance to take a break and remember what it is that everybody is fighting about and for: the good life in the greatest nation the world has ever known.)

Chris Stirewalt is a contributing editor at The Dispatch, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, the politics editor for NewsNation, and author of Broken News, a book on media and politics. Nate Moore and Jae Grace contributed to this report.

Chris Stirewalt is a contributing editor at The Dispatch, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, the politics editor for NewsNation, co-host of the Ink Stained Wretches podcast, and author of Broken News, a book on media and politics.