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Republican opposition to Trump is a classic coordination problem | #211 - March 19, 2023
The former president currently commands too much loyalty, among opinion leaders and voters, to easily be dethroned. But his opponents may soon have an opening
Happy Sunday everyone,
A lot of the news this week has big implications for the 2024 Republican presidential primary. We’ll get there, but before we do, leave a comment below or send me an email on what you’ve been thinking about or reading this week. I get the most out of this newsletter when I get to interact with y’all—and I think it makes the blogging better for you, too.
This week, a new poll from CNN/SSRS ran with the headline “Most Republicans care more about picking a 2024 GOP nominee who agrees with them on issues than one who can beat Biden.”
This ought not to surprise you at first; The Pew Research Center, for instance, has long found that Republican voters favor candidates for office who subscribe to ideological orthodoxy over those who “compromise to get things done”—as the typical poll wording goes. Not to mention that the entire mythology of Donald Trump’s original appeal to voters was that he would play the role of an authoritarian strongman who stands up to people who might do them harm—Mexican immigrations, Democratic politicians, and China among those at the top of the list.
Yet the poll is notable for two reasons. First is that it sets Republicans apart from the Democrats. Remember that the 2020 Democratic primary was all about “electability” and who was best poised to beat Trump in November. A poll from September 2019 found that 45% of Democrats and Democratic-leaning registered voters believed Joe Biden would provide the party with their best chance to beat Trump, whereas only 24% thought he would be “the best president for the country.” Yet this provided him with enough ammo to win an outright majority of Democrats’ votes in the various nominating contests that happened that year.
Republicans, on the other hand, want an ideologue, not a winner—or, not necessarily a winner. The CNN poll “finds that most Republicans and Republican-leaning independents would choose a candidate who agrees with their views on major issues (59%) over one who has a strong chance to beat Biden (41%).” Majorities of potential Republican primary voters say their nominee needs to oppose cuts to Medicare and Social Security, “ support government action to oppose ‘woke’ values” and “attract support from outside the party.” 63% of Republicans believed Joe Biden stole the 2020 election.
The poll has Donald Trump earning the support of 40% of respondents, while Ron DeSantis, the governor of Florida, is on 36%. And there is a familiar educational and economic divide in the primary, with high-education, high-income, high-status (mostly white) Republicans preferring DeSantis, and non-whites and non-college whites preferring Trump. The latter group makes up a much larger share of Republican voters today.
All of this is to say that Donald Trump is still the clear leader of the Republican Party. And his leadership comes despite all that he is guilty of and cost the party in the past.
One unknown here, however, and the second notable suggestion from the poll, is how voters will react to a potential indictment of Trump in the near future.
The former president said on Saturday that he expects to be arrested in connection with the yearslong investigation into hush-money payments he allegedly funneled to Stormy Daniels, a pornographic film star before he ran for office in 2015. He beckoned for his followers to “Protest [and] take our nation back.”
So far, Republicans have fallen in line. Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy tweeted that arresting Trump would be “an outrageous abuse of power”; Mike Pence said the investigation by the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office. “reeks” of “political prosecution.” And all the other usual suspects have come to his defense online, too.
It does not take an expert to read these tea leaves. Trump commands an enormous amount of loyalty from the masses, the Republican Party’s rank-and-file elected officials and its leadership. That loyalty is not absolute nor (perhaps) unconditional, but it is higher than for any other potential nominee. That is why he is the odds-on favorite to win the 2024 GOP nomination, and why any political consequences of an indictment are likely to be relatively muted.
Here is your occasional reminder that people can run for president from prison.
If there is an opening for Republicans to oppose Trump, however, they will not seize on it unless they do so together. It will require coordination from a large majority of them: Potential presidential nominees will have to step aside and unite behind an alternative; leadership will have to whip both rank-and-file Congressmen and regular Americans to suppress the supply of votes for a third-party bid; the right-wing Murdoch-owned media apparatuses will have to direct all of their weight against him.
Even then, it may not be enough. But anyone hoping for Trump to simply implode has not been paying attention. A post-January 6, 2021 poll found that 75% of the party still thought Trump was a loyal patriot, and 70% viewed him favorably. Support of that magnitude does not miraculously just fade away.
Talk to you all next week,
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