The GOP’s Trump Primary Problem

Nonhierarchical parties strike again.

A piece in Politico outlines the challenges faced by a party with a one-term president who lost reelection and who might run for the nomination in 2024: GOP hopefuls crank up the ‘if-Trump-doesn’t-run’ primary The issue of what a former president with eligibility left (so to speak) would be of significance as a general matter, as the party would have to deal with the will-they or won’t they? problem. But, of course, the mercurial egoism of Donald J. Trump just makes it all the worse for them.

The possible primary candidates not named Trump are already (yes, it is still early 2021) gearing up, according to the piece:

Mike Pompeo and Rick Scott are headed to Iowa this week and next, followed by Tim Scott in mid-April. Mike Pence plans to visit the early primary state of South Carolina, while Ron DeSantis appears to be conducting a soft launch in his home state of Florida.

Jeff Kaufmann, chair of the Iowa Republican Party, said he’s never seen so much interest so early in a presidential election cycle.

“Iowa’s going to be hopping,” Kaufmann said.

And, of course, this is where we note that it is ridiculous that Iowa, of all states, is so pivotal in this process.

The candidates who are not Trump have to organize as if they might run, but be willing to drop it all if Trump does (on the reasonable assumption that beating the former president for the nomination would be difficult, especially if one is going to try and run as a Trumper):

For Pompeo and other potential candidates now starting to network in the early nominating states, there is little choice but to prepare as though Trump isn’t running — and then watch it all evaporate if he does.

“If you do nothing and assume Trump’s going to run and he says, ‘I’m not going to run,’ then you’re scrambling,” said Wesley Enos, the former chair of the Republican Party in Iowa’s Polk County. “Now is your opportunity, realistically.”

Not just staffing and organization, but also money:

Outside money may be affected in similar ways. John Thomas, a Republican strategist based in California, said he and several other strategists he declined to name are in the process of forming a PAC to support DeSantis, with what he called “low seven-figure commitments right now.” But the group is telling donors it will shift its operation away from DeSantis — and to Trump — if Trump runs.

“We would enthusiastically … put those efforts behind President Trump,” Thomas said. He described the current state of the race as “the if-Trump-doesn’t-run primary.”

The piece provides some additional details about Pompeo and Scott (and name-checks Rubio and DeSantis), specifically, but also some basic history on the rarity of having a president who has lost re-election but might be willing to run for a second, non-consecutive term.

What strikes me specifically about all this is that it clearly illustrates that the lack of hierarchy in US parties in the sense that the party organization itself does not control the usage of its own label and that there is no central authority in the party. The party’s presidential nominee becomes the de facto leader, and even more so if that candidate is elected president.

Since a former president is likely to be the odds-on favorite in the nomination contest, all the other contenders are stuck until that former president makes up their mind. Trump is clearly the single most popular figure in the party right now (as we would expect of a former president–after all, the party just re-nominated him and he just won 74 million Republican votes–quite a few more than Pompeo, Scott, or any other of the wannabes have won).

And so, Trump has the highest level of access to only one of two major party nomination slots for 2024. It makes the GOP his party until he chooses not to seek the nomination (or if he is unable to do so for some reason). And while the party will not radically restructure itself, it will change to adapt to whomever the next nominee is. It is the strange way of American political parties. They are highly shaped by their presidential nominating processes (you know, the ones that start for some reason in Iowa and New Hampshire years before the election).

All of this illustrates the lack of real control by the parties insofar as it illustrates each aspirant to the presidency has to build their own little party-within-the-party to campaign for the nomination, and therefore leadership of the party. The situation of Trump as potential second-termer just shows where the power is in an unusual way.

Note that if he were to remove himself from the fray his influence would greatly diminish, and therefore I expect he will continue to string this along, whether he ultimately runs or not. (Which, of course, puts his co-partisans in a bit of a bind).

FILED UNDER: Campaign 2024, Donald Trump, US Politics
Steven L. Taylor
About Steven L. Taylor
Steven L. Taylor is a Professor of Political Science and a College of Arts and Sciences Dean. His main areas of expertise include parties, elections, and the institutional design of democracies. His most recent book is the co-authored A Different Democracy: American Government in a 31-Country Perspective. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Texas and his BA from the University of California, Irvine. He has been blogging since 2003 (originally at the now defunct Poliblog). Follow Steven on Twitter

Comments

  1. MarkedMan says:

    What jumped out to me about that list was that they are all bad choices. There are darn few Republicans left that wouldn’t make me despair if they were elected, and none of them could possibly make it past the primaries.

    8
  2. Scott F. says:

    It makes the GOP his party until [Trump] chooses not to seek the nomination (or if he is unable to do so for some reason).

    I was pulling for “unable to do so for some reason” until I thought about the alternatives offered in this article: Pence, Pompeo, Rick Scott, Tim Scott, DeSantis, Cotton, Haley, and Noem – all Trumpers. Yikes!

    There’s simply no one in the GOP poised to edge the party away from the crazies.

    9
  3. Scott F. says:

    I have a question for you, Steven, if you would care to consider.

    If there were central authority in the Republican Party and the party did control the usage of its own label, who would the authority back and where would they try to take the party with their constituency being what it is at this point in its trajectory over the last 30 years?

    5
  4. PJ says:

    @Scott F.:

    I was pulling for “unable to do so for some reason” until I thought about the alternatives offered in this article: Pence, Pompeo, Rick Scott, Tim Scott, DeSantis, Cotton, Haley, and Noem – all Trumpers. Yikes!

    There’s simply no one in the GOP poised to edge the party away from the crazies.

    Lets say someone a bit more sane runs, for example Romney. The crazy vote is split among a number of insane candidates and Romney picks up all the more sane vote. Could end up with a reverse 2016, where the really insane ones refuse to give up and Romney keeps up winning state after state.

    2
  5. Kathy says:

    The GOP suffers from chronic, progressive trumpitis, but they refuse to even attempt a radical trumpectomy to solve it.

    4
  6. gVOR08 says:

    Everything Trump Touches Dies. Hopefully the country will survive him, but it’s good to seemhe’s still touching the Republican Party.

    4
  7. Mr. Prosser says:

    @PJ: I think Ben Sasse and Jeff Flake have been working on being the sane alternatives and will probably run whether the former guy teases the R’s or not. I’m not a Republican but I can see those two appealing to the suburbs. Also they’re young(ish) and I think the olds will have had it in future elections. Romney? Will be too old and is already a loser.

    1
  8. gVOR08 says:

    @PJ: Yes. Republican primary season seems to have become a perpetual SnowWhite and the Seven Or Way More Dwarfs. Snow White doesn’t have to be a more or less sane moderate. It was McCain, then Romney, but then Trump.

  9. Kylopod says:

    Even though we’ve never had a former president running in the modern age (arguably 1980 came close, with Gerald Ford), the situation of worrying about a potential candidate “clearing the field” is hardly new; it’s exactly what was happening early in the 2016 cycle with Hillary Clinton. Had she chosen not to run, we wouldn’t have ended up with just Bernie Sanders and Martin O’Malley and a couple of oddball ex-Republicans. The field would have opened up and a lot of people would have run who didn’t when Hillary decided to–probably several of the people who ended up running in the 2020 cycle, possibly including Joe Biden.

    Indeed, I think you often see this effect with vps who run. Didn’t exactly happen with Bush Sr. in 1988 (he got plenty of competition from other Republicans), but it did basically happen with Al Gore in 2000 (he only got Bill Bradley challenging him who ended up not winning a single state). The point is, it’s not unusual for there to be a candidate who’s considered such a juggernaut in the party it scares other people off from even entering the race and causes the field to be small.

    6
  10. MarkedMan says:

    @Kathy: “radical trumpectomy” is the procedure to remove an *asshole from you colon.

    5
  11. MarkedMan says:

    @PJ: I just don’t see guys like that, or Hogan or Kaisich, garnering more than a handful of votes. Decent, sane people have left the Republican Party behind. What remains are the clueless 70% and the nut cases.

    3
  12. David S. says:

    So, I’ve been looking at South Korean politics in bits and pieces and I’m struck by its similarity to American politics, as highlighted by the differences. South Korea is classified by Wikipedia as a two-party duopoly, but not because the same two parties are constantly in control. Instead, what seems to happen is that some charismatic personality will break with the party line on some issue, usually trivial, and form their own party via massive defection. Then, everyone from the previous party(ies) lines up in deference as “sister parties” because that’s the only way to actually fight for issues.

    It’s a weird kind of “exactly like America, but more honest” as far as I’ve been able to tell. Grain of salt, I’m literally getting all my information from Wikipedia, plus a couple of Google-translated articles linked from Wikipedia, but I find it a striking compare/contrast.

  13. CSK says:

    I’m willing to bet that even if Trump ends up not running–he may already have decided not to run–he’ll drag out the suspense till the last possible minute. Number one, he gets the attention he wants, and number two, he can rake in money from the rubes and do whatever he likes with it. Attention and money: his two greatest goods.

    And I think he enjoys the thought of spoiling other people’s chances as well as making them dance to his tune. He really is an execrable human being.

    We can hope he ends up in prison, though I’m not sure that will happen. Impoverished and disgraced would be good. And of course the Manhattan haut monde will never admit him to their precincts, which must hurt worse than anything.

    10
  14. Kylopod says:

    @CSK:

    I’m willing to bet that even if Trump ends up not running–and has already decided not to run–he’ll drag out the suspense till the last possible minute. Number one, he gets the attention he wants, and number two, he can rake in money from the rubes and do whatever he likes with it.

    That’s exactly what Sarah Palin did in the 2012 cycle. And, lest we forget, Trump himself.

    2
  15. CSK says:

    @Kylopod:
    Oh, of course. Palin worked up her fan club to the point that in 2011 they were booking hotel rooms in D.C. for her January 20, 2013 inauguration. And Trump’s been teasing a run since 1988, when he was riding high on the success of The Art of the Deal.

    Palin was Trump in second gear. But she certainly paved the way for him.

    4
  16. Gustopher says:

    @Mr. Prosser:

    I think Ben Sasse and Jeff Flake have been working on being the sane alternatives and will probably run whether the former guy teases the R’s or not.

    They should work harder on being sane.

    They are just saying the quiet parts quiet, rather than shouting them out in a spittle inflected diatribe, but other than tone… there isn’t a lick of difference. And this country is too close to the edge to go back to saying the quiet parts quietly.

    3
  17. flat earth luddite says:

    @Kathy:
    After I finished giggling, I decided I’m happy I never thought of naming my cancerous tumors and the resulting ostomy “Trump” instead of “Barney.” Unlike the orange dumpster fire, Barney was annoyingly silly. And SHMBO & daughter laugh at the inevitable noises that Barney periodically emits in public. Yet another public service from Luddite-Land™. Going back to my cave now.

    4
  18. Kathy says:

    @MarkedMan:
    @flat earth luddite:

    If surgery is a concern, there are other treatments available. I suggest two tablets of hydroxychloroquine every hour, washed down with undiluted bleach, followed by intense UV radiation applied internally.

    The problem is getting Trump to take them.

    4
  19. Nightcrawler says:

    @flat earth luddite:

    I’d heard of other cancer patients naming their tumors. I never named mine. Whatever it takes to get through treatment!

  20. CSK says:

    Today Trump told someone named Lisa Boothe, who apparently has a new tv show; that the future of the Republican Party is:
    Josh Hawley
    Ron DeSantis
    Ted Cruz
    Rand Paul
    Kristi Noem
    Sarah Huckabee Sanders

    Straight from the horse’s…mouth.

    3
  21. CSK says:

    @Nightcrawler:
    May I suggest Ivanka?

    2
  22. grumpy realist says:

    Trump isn’t going to let loose of the chance of running for some sweet, sweet cash and attention until he keels over with a coronary from eating all that KFC. And right behind him are all the other grifters.

    What we’re seeing is what happens when a political party has turned into a collection of marks and grifters. 50% of the party are the sort of idiots who send money to spam artists and the other 50% are the sort of connivers who would send the spam. Heck, the connivers wouldn’t WANT to win. It’s better to lose, so they can continue to send fire-breathing letters out whining about how “we wuz robbed!” and continue to get the monthly $29.99 payment each from the gullibles. They don’t have to do anything–just complain and whine and accuse the other side.

    What’s going to be hilarious is to watch Trump and the rest of the connivers squabbling over the gullibles and who gets to fleece them. Hey, maybe both groups will win out! At least I can expect whatever cash to be raised to end up in the pockets of the Russian mafia (Trump) or off-shore bank accounts (everyone else.) The one thing that it’s NOT going to be used for is spending on election stuff.

    3
  23. flat earth luddite says:

    @Nightcrawler: Well, as I pictured the tumor as large, pink, and annoying, it seemed appropriate at the time. Now the stoma is large, pink, noisy and breaks the tasteful cut of my aloha shirts. So now I just picture Barney in an aloha shirt. It’s all good.

    Just profoundly grateful that it didn’t occur to me to name it Trump.

    2
  24. charon says:

    @grumpy realist:

    What we’re seeing is what happens when a political party has turned into a collection of marks and grifters.

    This is one of the likely outcomes when a party’s politicians and patrons are an assortment of liars and/or grifters (mostly both) – the other likely outcome being the drift towards authoritarianism.

    1
  25. charon says:

    I think most of these candidates understand that Trump will not in the event actually run, but they need to play along because the marks don’t realize that.

    1
  26. Kylopod says:

    @charon:

    I think most of these candidates understand that Trump will not in the event actually run, but they need to play along because the marks don’t realize that.

    And I think Trump himself realizes it (actually my guess is that he isn’t sure what he’ll do yet) and is enjoying the power he has over these people.

    2
  27. Teve says:

    @CSK: where’s Pence and Pompeo?

  28. just nutha says:

    @David S.:What you describe may be true of what’s going on among leftists and progressives as various people rise and fall in favor, but on the right, the dominant feature seems to be changing the packaging of one fairly dominant party as new leaders rise and old leaders are chastised for their corruption. Think along the lines more of the GOP changing it’a name to the “America First” party as Trump rises, the “Freedom Party” as Cruz emerges, the “Patriot Party” as Tom Cotton comes to the fore, and so on. Same crappy policy, shiny new label and ad campaign.

    2
  29. CSK says:

    @Teve:
    Well, according to Trump, Pence cruelly betrayed him. And the Trumpkins hate Pence now.

    Pompeo? I don’t know. Didn’t grovel sufficiently?

    1
  30. CSK says:

    @Kathy:
    He claimed to be taking the hydroxychloroquine tablets last spring, remember?

  31. charon says:

    @Teve:

    https://www.rawstory.com/donald-trump-2024-2651172510/

    The list, which included Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, Missouri Sen. Josh Hawley, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, former White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, and South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem, was missing one notable person, namely Trump former vice president, Mike Pence.

    As Business Insider points out, Pence is considering a 2024 presidential bid if Trump decides not to run, but that hasn’t stopped Trump from continuing to disparage him publicly.

    Read more over at Business Insider.

    1
  32. Kathy says:

    @CSK:

    Oh, sure. he claimed it was a prophylactic, not that he used that big word. And we all know how well it worked.

    The odd thing is once he was treated for COVID, he wasn’t given hydroxychloroquine, yet many of his followers keep singing the praises of a misapplied antimalarial drug which has some effects on the immune system.

  33. CSK says:

    @charon:
    Strike Noem from the list of hopefuls. She waffled on a bill about trans students, which makes her a Commie Rino.

    1
  34. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @Kathy: I was just on the phone with my doctor’s office a few days ago and in the set up to put me on the phone tree, he was touting “recent new evidence” showing hydroxychloroquine, z-pack, and Vitamin D as the state of the art in treatment outside of vaccination.

    1
  35. Mr. Prosser says:

    @Gustopher: I didn’t mean to imply they were sane. They always voted the standard crazy line but voters who voted for Biden may return to one of them in a sort of Susan Collins way of saying, “Gosh they sound so sane.”

  36. CSK says:

    @Just nutha ignint cracker:
    A z-pack is zithromax, an antibiotic. What does an antibiotic do against a virus?

  37. Kathy says:

    @Just nutha ignint cracker:

    I’d look for a different doctor.

    @CSK:

    Many drugs, if not all, have effects other than those intended. Sometimes we call them side effects, sometimes they lead to new applications. For instance, livestock get fed antibiotics because it makes them gain weight faster (and also spread antibiotic resistance).

    It’s possible some antibiotics could have ancillary effects that may treat the symptoms of non-bacterial diseases. As far as COVID goes, I’ve heard of none.

  38. CSK says:

    @Kathy:
    That’s the point, really. No one has heard of any for Covid-19.

    1
  39. @Scott F.: That is a counter-factual that is hard to answer, and would depend very much on when in the past we are talking.

    I am not arguing, FWIW, that centralized control of the party now would solve the Trump problem-although I do think that centralized nomination control would have prevented him in the first place.

    I do think that if all the parties had more control over their labels we would have more parties, because the only way for a new actor or faction to break into politics would be to form a new party (instead of capturing an existing one via the primaries).

    1
  40. @Kylopod: HRC is an interesting case, since much of her sway over the party was the direct result of having been married to a popular two-term Dem president. It made her a quasi-incumbent that helped clear the field.

  41. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @CSK: I haven’t the slightest idea. He’s touting zinc as an anti-inflammatory related to Covid infection treatment, too.

    @Kathy: He runs a large clinic that he inherited from his dad and most of the actual medical practice happening is being done by his staff. From what I’ve been able to see, he’s much better at hiring than he is at doctoring. All but one other practitioner that I’ve used at the clinic have been really good.

    The biggest danger for the business is that there’s no one to take it over after he’s done and he’s in his 70s now. His son became a PA and his nephew is a dentist, so there’s nobody with the licensing necessary to own the clinic after him. That’ll make a big hole in the community’s health care matrix.

    1
  42. Kathy says:

    @Just nutha ignint cracker:

    He’s touting zinc as an anti-inflammatory related to Covid infection treatment, too.

    Hydroxychloroquine is used to treat some auto-immune conditions, such as arthritis. In many diseases, the damage done to the body is partly caused by the pathogen, partly by the immune system. Fever, for instance, is a bodily reaction to infection. So I can see why someone thought to look at it for COVID, it just didn’t work.

    I know far less about zinc, other than it’s one of the necessary minerals the body needs to function. If used with known effective treatments like dexamethasone and such, it’s probably harmless at worst.

    1
  43. Gavin says:

    @CSK: Much like everything Trump ever did, the actual content of his book was executed by somebody else – in that case, ghostwritten by Tony Schwartz.

  44. CSK says:

    @Gavin:
    Who deeply regrets his part in it now.