Forbes featured a headline last week that announced, “Less Than Half of Republicans Would Back Trump in 2024 Primary, Poll Finds.”
So why would Donald Trump think he could win the Republican presidential nomination in 2024? Why, just days after a midterm election in which his handpicked candidates lost so many races that a promised “red wave” turned into a ripple, would Trump decide that it was time to present himself again as his party’s standard-bearer?
Because Trump knows something that D.C. pundits and what remains of the perpetually out-of-touch Republican establishment has always failed to understand. The defeated former president has never needed the majority of Republicans to control the Grand Old Party. And he won’t need it in 2024. “Trump has his base. He has a 30-to-35 percent hardcore base that will not leave him,” explained US Representative Fred Upton, a retiring Michigan Republican who is one of the last moderate members in his caucus. “You can’t discount where he is, whether you like it or not.”
Two years before the 2024 election, Trump launched his third presidential bid with a historically unfounded and frequently conspiratorial rant that reminded his critics of everything that has unsettled them about his political career. They rushed to dismiss him as a has-been. But they’ve been doing that for the better part of seven years.
The fact is that Trump’s promises to target immigrants, fight crime with “quick trials” and executions, and take on “the globalists, the Marxist radicals, the woke corporations” speak to the Republican base that nominated him in 2016.
Reprising the “American carnage” rhetoric that he brought to the White House after he defeated Democrat Hillary Clinton in his first presidential bid, Trump told his flag-waving supporters, “We are a nation in decline. We are a failing nation for millions of Americans.”
The former president claimed that Americans rejected Republican candidates in 2022 because they didn’t understand just how bad things are in America. Complaining that voters had failed on November 8 to recognize “the total effect of the suffering” created by Biden and a Democratic Congress, Trump declared, “I have no doubt that by 2024, it will sadly be much worse, and they will see clearly what has happened and is happening to our country—and the voting will be much different.”
Plenty of top Republicans doubt this calculus, especially after a midterm election that Trump alone seemed to see as favorable to the GOP. They believe that if the Republican Party’s losing candidate in 2020 is nominated once more, the presidency will be out of their reach.
But Trump has never taken political counsel from Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell or House Republican leader Kevin McCarthy, and he’s not about to do so now. Instead, he’s jumping ahead of the Republican primary field and promising that “our campaign” will be a “quest to save our country.”
If that rhetoric sounds familiar, it’s because Trump is replaying his greatest hits.
And why not? As he competes with a new generation of Republicans such as Florida Governor Ron DeSantis and Missouri Senator Josh Hawley; retreads such as former New Jersey governor Chris Christie and former secretary of state Mike Pompeo; his estranged vice president, Mike Pence; and his even more estranged former congressional ally Representative Liz Cheney, Trump is quite certain that he will again secure the Republican nomination.
Trump may be delusional about a lot of things, but he’s not delusional about this.
The last time he faced a crowded field of Republican contenders, in 2016, Trump frequently received less than half the Republican vote.
Trump lost the Iowa caucuses that year to Texas Senator Ted Cruz, and barely finished ahead of Florida Senator Marco Rubio.
Trump won the New Hampshire primary, but only with 35 percent of the vote.
Trump ran slightly worse in the South Carolina primary, where he won, but with only 32 percent of the vote.
In the Nevada caucuses, Trump won, but finished far short of 50 percent.
On Super Tuesday, Trump failed to win a majority of the GOP vote in all 11 primaries and caucuses. In fact, he didn’t win a majority in a major statewide contest until April 19, months after the voting had begun, when he carried his home state of New York. But even there, 41 percent of Republicans rejected the reality-TV star turned partisan interloper.
But none of those results slowed him down. Trump won most of the primaries and caucuses with around a third of the vote. He got the delegates he needed. And, ultimately, he claimed the nomination.
Could that happen again? Journalist Carl Bernstein noted Tuesday night that a big field “helped Trump win in 2016.” And, while the media is currently fascinated by DeSantis, the governor of Florida will not be Trump’s only Republican rival in 2024. There will be a gaggle of them. And just as he did in 2016, Trump will attack them one-by-one, giving them demeaning nicknames—he’s already calling his Floridian foe “Ron De-Sanctimonious”—and reinforcing his grip on enough of the Republican electorate to be the dominant player in the contest.
“Everybody who wants to write Trump’s political obituary right now is doing so at their own peril,” said former US representative Joe Walsh, a Republican from Illinois, as he reflected on Trump’s announcement. “Donald Trump has a hold on 30-to-35 percent of Republican voters, and until that hold breaks, he’s the leader of that cult.”