Political Headwinds for the GOP

Dr. Malcolm Cross

Is the Republican Party deliberately trying to lose the 2024 presidential election?  Recent events in the news would almost make one think so.  This column will itemize several of the problems the GOP is likely to face in the upcoming election cycle.  Future columns will offer potential remedies.

If there’s one point on which Donald Trump and Joe Biden agree, it’s that Trump should be the 2024 Republican presidential nominee—Trump, because he can’t win back the White House without the nomination, and Biden because he believes he can most easily defeat Trump.  So whatever helps Trump win the GOP presidential nomination may well help Biden win re-election as well.

No doubt Trump’s current and prospective indictments will alienate some Republican and many independent voters in the general election, but to date they’re helping Trump in the primary stage.  His legal troubles are causing his supporters to strengthen their resolve to stand by him and increase their campaign contributions.  Trump, with his loyal base and his universal name recognition, would be the odds-on favorite for renomination under any circumstances.  With his burgeoning campaign war chest, he’ll easily be able to outspend any other candidate or prospective candidate unless a potential rival somehow catches fire very, very soon.  After all, in every election cycle since World War 2, the Republicans, for better or worse, have always nominated the candidate who’s raked in the most in campaign contributions at the beginning of the primary season.

Trump’s position becomes even stronger each time someone else declares his candidacy for the GOP nomination.  The greater the number of candidates who enter the GOP primary race, the greater the likelihood that Trump’s divide-and-conquer strategy, so effective in 2016, can be successfully repeated—to Trump’s advantage in the primaries and Biden’s advantage in the general election. 

And then there’s the problem of the GOP’s messaging.  Trump’s economic protectionism, anti-immigrant nativism, and oft-expressed skepticism of America’s involvement in international affairs played well with his base of white working-class and conservative Christian voters, but his natural base is shrinking as a percentage of a growing and more diverse electorate.  Even if the GOP nominates Ron DeSantis or someone else espousing “Trumpism without Trump,” the limited appeal of the message will reduce the GOP’s chances for success.  Yet while some GOP presidential candidates, such as my current favorite, former Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson, are advocating a return to Reaganite conservatism, there seems little support for such a message or its potential messengers thus far.

Of course, the biggest messaging problem will probably concern abortion.  The GOP rank and file remains adamantly opposed to abortion under most circumstances and nobody can win the GOP presidential nomination without advocating strong pro-life policies (fun fact:  the last strong pro-choice candidate for the GOP presidential nomination was “America’s Mayor,” Rudy Giuliani, in 2008; he won a grand total of 1 delegate).  But the general electorate remains strongly pro-choice:  About two-thirds of the American people favor an unlimited right to abortion at least during the first trimester of pregnancy, and Biden and the Democrats will no doubt emphasize abortion in 2024.  

And finally, for the time being, there’s Joe Biden’s own political strength.  His poll numbers remain under water—only about 42% approve of his presidency while over 50% disapprove, and most Democrats don’t want him to run for re-election anyway.  But no incumbent president has been denied renomination by his party since 1884, and no Democratic President has been denied renomination since 1860.  Biden’s position makes him the overwhelming favorite for renomination, should he, as expected, decides to run again.

And despite his underwater approval ratings he may prove to be more formidable than anyone expects, especially if Trump is renominated by the GOP, but even if someone else wins the GOP nomination instead.  Jimmy Carter’s ratings in the low 40s at a similar stage of his presidency foreshadowed his overwhelming re-election defeat in 1980.  But both Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama also had ratings in the low 40s in the runups to their re-election bids, yet both Reagan and Obama nonetheless won re-election anyway—Reagan with 60% of the popular vote while carrying 49 states, and Obama with somewhat less impressive, but still healthy, popular and electoral vote majorities as well.

The 2024 general election is still 18 months away.  But the first primary contests are only 8 months away and the first presidential debates are only 4 months away.  If the GOP is to have a decent chance of winning the White House it must recognize and begin to develop strategies to cope with the problems it will face NOW.  How it may do so will be discussed in future columns.

Malcolm L. Cross has lived in Stephenville and taught politics and government at Tarleton since 1987. His political and civic activities include service on the Stephenville City Council (2000-2014) and on the Erath County Republican Executive Committee (1990 to the present).  He was Mayor Pro Tem of Stephenville from 2008 to 2014.  He is a member of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church and the Stephenville Rotary Club and does volunteer work for the Boy Scouts of America. Views expressed in this column are his and do not reflect those of The Flash as a whole.

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