Beating Trump: Lessons from the GOP Primary
Dems can learn from where Republicans went wrong in trying to stop Trump in the GOP primary
At the end of 2022, Ron DeSantis was ascendant in the polls and in conversations among political operatives and donors. The Florida Governor had just won a decisive reelection victory in Florida and was the heir to the MAGA movement. Trump, on the other hand, was being blamed for the Republican Party’s stunning failure in the midterms and disowned for hosting Kanye West and a Nazi for dinner at Mar-a-Lago. At that moment, DeSantis had surged in the polls and was within striking distance of Trump. After Trump’s hurried, lackluster campaign announcement in November of 2022, his future in Republican politics was in doubt..
Flash forward, Trump is on the cusp of securing the Republican nomination with historic ease. Trump spent the second half of 2023 up more than 30 points in the polls and became the first non-incumbent Republican to win both the Iowa Caucus and the New Hampshire primary.
Nikki Haley is still in the race and running a well-funded and (sorta) vigorous campaign, but she is down 30 to Trump in her home state of South Carolina, and the map and delegate rules only get more challenging from there. Absent a massive exogenous event, Trump will be the Republican nominee.
Maybe Trump was always going to win. For large parts of the GOP base, he is the incumbent president. Trump has powerful media allies, and the bulk of the party belongs to his extremist MAGA movement. Ultimately, Republican voters love Trump, and the voters — not party leaders or billionaire donors — pick the nominee. However, Trump’s easy dispatch of an existential challenge is notable. Even with the challenges of running against someone like Trump, DeSantis, Scott, and the anti-Trump forces within the GOP marshalled a particularly feckless effort to defeat Trump. There have been some very fun pieces detailing the implosion of the DeSantis effort. The New York Times has an excellent story about the Trump campaign’s strategy for winning the primary. Reading about Ron DeSantis’s implosion is truly enjoyable and we all deserve to savor every morsel of his public defenestration. But beyond our well-earned schadenfreude, I think the failed Republican effort to bring down Trump can be instructive for Democrats as we prepare to battle Trump and a series of down-ballot candidates created in his image.
Here’s what Democrats can learn from the GOP losers:
1. Trump Won’t Beat Himself
I feel like this hardly needs to be said, but the main lesson of the 2020 (and 2016) Republican primaries is that Trump will not fall on his own accord. His lack of shame and self-awareness are an evil superpower that allows him to spring back up after the most embarrassing failures and catastrophic misdeeds. The Access Hollywood Tape, siding with Nazis in Charlottesville, trying to blackmail Ukraine, January 6th, and 91 felony indictments didn’t bring down Trump. While polling shows that a criminal conviction would damage Trump (thank God), we should not assume that a conviction alone will defeat him. Up until Nikki Haley found a modicum of courage after Iowa, none of the leading contenders for the GOP nomination actually made an argument against Trump. At times, they tried critiques that were so subtle that you needed a magnifying glass and a cryptograph to understand their point. Reminding people that Trump exists and has a lot of personal foibles is not enough. A clear, compelling story about who Trump is and why he is the wrong choice is necessary.