Friday, March 17, 2023

BTRTN Election 2024 Point/Counterpoint: Who Will Win the GOP Nomination, Trump or DeSantis?

Tom and Steve took to the podium recently to talk to a local group about the 2024 race.  It was a 'Point Counterpoint' debate about who would win the Republican nomination. We reprise our roles in this written version, with Tom arguing that Trump will get the nod, Steve countering with DeSantis.   

Point:  Don’t Count Trump Out…Math and Logic Rule

Donald Trump has not been having a good stretch over the last five months or so, and he is undoubtedly a damaged candidate in 2024 as compared with 2016 or 2020.  You know the litany of his troubles, but schadenfreude is sweet, so here is a brief recap.

He was widely blamed for blowing the midterms for the GOP.  What should have been a GOP rout – yes, a red wave – was radically diminished and ultimately a GOP loss in the eyes of public perception.  Trump handpicked inept, underqualified and/or radically conservative Senate candidates in Pennsylvania, Georgia and Arizona, when more mainstream and qualified candidates -- who were available – would have likely won all three races, which would have handed the GOP the Senate.  The midterms are usually a referendum on the sitting president.  Less focus on the Big Lie and more on Joe Biden surely would have translated into more GOP House seats, giving Kevin McCarthy a margin he could work with, rather than be embarrassed by.  The midterms gave Biden a “better than expected” boost, the perfect way to kick-off his reelection campaign.

Then Trump announced his candidacy at the worst possible time, right when finger-pointing at Trump for the midterms failure was at full force, and just weeks before the crucial Georgia Senate run-off election.   Instead Trump should have worked to build back some capital from the midterm debacle, and done whatever he could to help Hershel Walker (even simply shutting up would have been better).  Instead Walker, one of his hand-picked candidates, lost in Georgia, setting off yet another round of Trump recriminations on two fronts:  the choice of Walker and the deflection of attention caused by his launch timing.

Worse still, the launch speech itself was about the last thing one might have expected:  it was...boring.  Some advisers got it into his head that Trump needed to be more, um, presidential, somehow.  But that is one thing he is incapable of, and his tepid delivery of conservative talking points did not fool anyone among mainstreamers and disappointed the base, who crave the grievance-laced rants of the madman.   Just a few nights later, Trump hosted an infamous dinner with the notorious Ye and Nick Fuentes, seemingly with the incredulous goal of burnishing his credentials among white supremacists and anti-Semites. 

Then came the mountain legal troubles, with near-certain indictments soon to be announced in Georgia (for actions taken to overturn the 2020 election); and in New York (for buying the silence of Stormy Daniels in the weeks before the 2016 election); and the machinations of a heat-seeking missile named Jack Smith, who is barreling forward apace on the two federal cases related to January 6 and the theft of classified documents. 

At this point, the big money started fleeing, as the Koch family and other super PACs announced they were all in in 2024 for anyone in the GOP save Trump.

Sounds bad, right?  Well, for a general election, sure.  But for the GOP nomination – not so much.  Apart from the boring speech, none of this run of misfortune particularly bothers the Trump base one bit.  In fact, accusations and indictments only add fuel to Trump’s victim-based rantings.  He has and will continue to maintain that everyone is out to get him – a “witch hunt” by the deep state, the elites, the Democrats and even the mainstream GOP.  He will continue to tell the base that he is fighting for them, and that is why all of those evil forces are out to get him.  This is the core belief of the base:  that Trump buys into their own grievance, he identifies with it, his enemies are their enemies, and he is the only one on their side.  And who needs the large donors?  You watch:  if the indictments come, Trump will turn those indictments into massive small donations faster than you can say “Leavenworth.” 

Don’t underestimate Trump.  He may be wounded but he is hardly done.  In fact, Donald Trump will be the GOP nominee in 2024, barring some truly incredible unforeseen circumstance or event.  And by “unforeseen” I don’t mean an indictment or even jail time.  Those, at this point, are foreseeable.  I mean something truly unforeseen.  And it is hard to imagine just what, at this point, that could possibly be.

It all boils down to two essential facts:

1)     Trump has unshakeable control over roughly 40% of the Republican Party, and those “Unshakeables” are far more likely than other Republicans to vote in primaries. 

2)     Trump’s opponents, including Ron DeSantis, cannot afford to attack Trump at will, because they need those Unshakeables behind them to have a prayer of winning in November, 2024.  But here's the catch -- how you can defeat Trump without attacking him?  .

The numbers don’t lie.  Below is a summary of the Republican presidential nomination polls during a variety of periods over 2021, 2022 and thus far in 2023.

There is a lot going on in this simply chart.  First, Trump’s lead, while showing modest slippage over the past two years, remains formidable.  He still leads DeSantis by about 15 points (averaging all polls in calendar year 2023).  Second, it is a two-person race as of now – the others are mired in single-digits.  Mike Pence has actually slipped a bit, Nikki Haley’s announcement hasn’t increased her standing materially, and the rest of the “big” names in the field, all unannounced, barely register a heartbeat.  Third, while DeSantis has made impressive progress over these two years, tripling his support from about 10% to 30%, including a nice jump after his big win in November, only half of that gain has come from Trump’s support; the rest has come from the others or the undecideds.  Fourth, while DeSantis did make that nice jump at the end of 2022, that momentum appears to have stalled in 2023, despite all that bad news for Trump.

There are two other factors about the polls that are important (though not revealed by this chart).  Polls in the year before the primary tend to be stable.  There are not too many “catalysts” for change, apart from how candidates “break from the gate” (how they appeal on the campaign trail at the outset) and how they do in the debates.  For someone as well-known as Trump, it is hard to imagine his 2023 performance revealing anything new.  Once Trump joined the field in late June, 2015, he led the GOP field with between 25% and 30% for the balance of the year (until he jumped to 35% in December) – and that was when he was brand new.  Back then, the other candidates – notably Jeb Bush, Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio and Ben Carson -- rose and fell in the “non-Trump” lane.  But the Trump base formed early and stuck with him, and has ever since, through thick and thin, for eight years now.

The “non-Trump lane” reference leads to the other factor.  In polling so far, DeSantis does far better versus Trump, running a few points ahead, when the preference question is framed as a two-person race.  But when the question is framed with a longer list of candidates, Trump’s numbers remain as they were, while DeSantis’s drop precipitously.  Thus the conclusion that a larger field helps Trump, because it divides the non-Trump lane. 

Put all this together, and you can see why Trump’s position is so enviable and perhaps impregnable.  He has 40%+ of the party under his thumb and there is little likelihood that that will change.  They’ve stuck with him thus far, and it is hard to imagine what could possibly make them change their minds.  They tend to vote in primaries.  Bad news that would normally destroy a political career only energizes his base.  News of affairs, lies, truly horrible statements, and likely criminal activity are all simply fundraising opportunities to him – gold mines, in fact.

What is truly ironic is that Trump tried to browbeat potential challenges to prevent them from entering the race, as a loyalty test, yet he is the one who benefits from the larger field.  DeSantis is clearly the lead choice to unify the non-Trump lane, yet he has been slow to enter the race, giving others an opening.  Haley is already in, and Pence, Pompeo, Tim Scott and others are likely to enter.  DeSantis has essentially lost his best chance to try to limit the field.

Let’s not diminish what DeSantis has already accomplished in crashing the field, which is impressive.  It is rare for a non-VP to command 20% or more support of party support a year away from the primaries in a first time run for the White House.  Those that have achieved that in the last 50 years include Ronald Reagan (‘76), Ted Kennedy (‘80), George W. Bush (‘00), Barack Obama (‘08), Rudy Giuliani (‘08), Hillary Clinton (‘16) and now DeSantis in 2024.  Kennedy, Bush and Clinton all had famous lineage and high profiles and Giuliani achieved unique fame post 9/11.  That leaves just Reagan and Obama as comparative with DeSantis.  Both essentially became legendary politicians with remarkable personal charm and charisma.  Is that Ron DeSantis?

No, of course not.  The DeSantis package is void of charm and charisma.  The better parallel may be Scott Walker, the former governor of Wisconsin who was the darling of the 2015 field, having achieved a national reputation for standing up to the teacher’s union in swing state Wisconsin as a true conservative.   Eight years ago, Walker, then 47, was leading the pre-Trump GOP field, despite being a rather drab and dull retail politician.  He entered the race and promptly stumbled, going from “first to worst” in just 70 days.  He dropped out well before the Iowa caucuses.

Outside of Florida, not too many people know Ron DeSantis.  He has put himself in a solid position, but he still trails Trump by a healthy margin.  Soon many voters – in Iowa and New Hampshire in particular – will be assessing him, and they will quickly find his personality is more Walker than Trump.  He is never going to fill arenas like a rock star.  The media will begin their deep probes.  He will not be able to attack Trump directly – he can’t inflame the base -- but the reverse is not true.  Trump will try to define DeSantis and then crush him.  And every one of those single-digit candidates will be focused on destroying DeSantis, not Trump, to lay claim to the non-Trump lane throne, and avoid ticking off the Trump base.  The oppo research will come. DeSantis is walking an extremely difficult tightrope.

Trump-Haley 2024. You can print the bumper stickers.


Counterpoint: DeSantis Will Beat Trump By Beating Him at His Own Game

Donald Trump has no idea what is about to hit him.


Sure, the current wisdom is that Ron DeSantis will be eaten alive by the vicious, candidacy-destroying venom of Donald Trump, just as Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, and Ted Cruz found in 2016.

Well, there’s a case to be made for pretty much exactly the opposite: that Trump has never been put on the defensive by a hyper-aggressive, uber-ambitious killer with an instinct for the jugular. Trump has never faced an opponent who is as natively cruel and soullessly Machiavellian as Ron DeSantis. This is going to be a battle to the death between two velociraptors, and this bet is on the younger, more prepared raptor.

Sure, Trump looks good in the polls. Current poll numbers are mostly knee-jerk reaction and brand name recognition. A year from now?

Let’s start with a key fact: America hates losers. The last time a major political party renominated a candidate who lost a prior presidential election was 1968.

In today’s radically polarized political landscape, there is only one criterion that the party out of power uses to select its nominee: who can win? For the Democrats in 2020, the prospect of four more years of Trump was so terrifying that the party quickly settled on the one candidate who seemed best positioned to beat him.

Now Republicans ask the same question, and it is Trump’s kryptonite. If Trump hosted a reality show today, it would be called “The Biggest Loser.” He is widely viewed as the man who dragged the GOP down to underwhelming performances in 2018, 2020, and 2022.  

Big-time donors see it. American Prosperity Group CEO Emily Seidel announced “to write a new chapter for our country, we need to turn the page on the past. So the best thing for the country would be to have a president in 2025 who represents a new chapter.” Have you noticed all the big-name Republicans who have endorsed Trump for 2024? Neither have we. 

Perhaps you believe that the Republican faithful do whatever Fox News tells them to. Well, Fox began to bail on Trump after the mid-terms. Rupert Murdoch’s New York Post called DeSantis “De Future,” and DeSantis was granted a fawning Tour de Fox to shill for his new autobiography.

Let’s talk about that supposedly uber-loyal Trump base. The percentage of Republicans who favored Trump as the 2024 nominee of the party had slid from 54% in 2021 to 46% in January/February 2023. That’s right… the “non-Trump lane” is now bigger than the “Trump lane.”

By mid-year, there will be indictments on the Stormy Daniels case, Mar-a-Lago documents, the Georgia election interference, and – at the rate Jack Smith is flying – the monster: Trump’s criminal role on January 6. Throw in an actual felony conviction on any of the above, and by primary season, Donald Trump looks more toxic than the fourth reactor at Chernobyl.

Trump’s base will be loyal to the end, but criminal investigations will keep reminding Republicans of the essential issue: can he win? By the time Iowans head to the caucuses, Trump will have more baggage than a Tumi warehouse.

Ok, fine… so that’s why Donald Trump will lose.

Why will DeSantis win?

In 2016 – the last time Donald Trump competed in a primary, he was a political unknown with no track record to defend. He toyed with his opponents with previously unfathomable personal insults, brazen lies, and shockingly racist, xenophobic, and misogynist rants that thrilled the hard right.

Eight years later, Trump is slower, and this time everybody is ready for him. Some say it will be to Trump’s advantage if many candidates enter the GOP primary, arguing that it will splinter the “anti-Trump” lane. But they fail to realize that if a half-dozen or more candidates chant in unison that Donald Trump is too old, too tainted, and too responsible for too many losses, it can’t be good for Trump.  Sure, the Nikki Haleys and Tim Scotts   the ones who are actually running for VP – won’t risk a head-on confrontation with Trump. But when Mike Pence goes ballistic on Trump at the Gridiron Club Dinner,  you know that the sands are shifting.

The hunch here is that Ron DeSantis is savvy enough to know that direct confrontation is the only formula for beating Trump… that if you challenge the King, you have to take him down.  And DeSantis is working all fronts to prepare his assault.

DeSantis will take the risk of saying nasty things about Trump that could well anger Trump’s base, but DeSantis figures that if he wins the nomination, Trump’s base will fall in line… knowing that sitting on their hands will only result in Biden’s re-election.

One reason that 2024 will be different than 2016 is that nobody has ever successfully put Donald Trump on the defensive. Trump was always in “attack mode,” and he had no record to defend. Not this time.

DeSantis has already begun to talk about his governorship as “no drama,” emphasizing a record of disciplined, effective leadership that gets stuff done. The clear implication: Trump is all talk, all chaos, and no action. You can expect to hear Ron DeSantis talk extensively about a wall that never got built, and a country that never paid for it.  

Between now and May – when he is likely to announce -- Ron DeSantis is on a holy crusade in Florida to prove to the right-wing base that he is vastly more effective in passing conservative legislation than Trump ever was. An entirely new fusillade of “anti-woke” laws – building on the base of barely-veiled racist and anti-LGBTQ legislation of his first term – will be rushed through by DeSantis not simply as proof of his right-wing fealty, but of far greater effectiveness than Trump in implementing a right-wing agenda. 

For all Ron DeSantis wants to talk about “woke,” there are far bigger, far more important issues that he can and will lean heavily into once the campaign is cooking. First, he can speak to a record of strong economic vitality during his stewardship. And when Jamie Dimon goes on the record about how “business friendly” Florida is, you know the governor has a story to tell. Who knows where inflation will stand in 2024, but a strong message on economic stewardship is solid campaign gold.

Second: he is a huge, proven winner in what is still by most measures a “purple” state. The man beat a perfectly respectable Democrat – a former Governor – by nearly 20 points. In today’s polarized politics, that is simply unheard of in a swing state. If the only criterion is “who can win,” DeSantis has a vastly better story to tell than Trump.

If Ron DeSantis implements a sound messaging strategy, he has a helluva story to tell… particularly against a President who failed to keep key campaign promises.

Once the campaigning starts in earnest, any gap between the two men will narrow.  A key reason: Ron DeSantis will annihilate Trump in debates. DeSantis may be an asshole, but he is a Yale undergrad and Harvard Law asshole. Watch him behind any podium in Florida. He comes prepared, thinks on his feet, is skilled at reframing a debate to his favor, and only loses his cool for theater. He is a wonk who knows the details. He is constantly on attack mode with the press.  He can do to Trump what Trump used to do to everyone else – initiate the attack, and put Trump on the defensive.

Trump, of course, never met a policy detail he couldn’t ignore, famously needed pictures and single page summaries to cope with intelligence briefings, and blithely blustered his way through significant public appearances by lying, hopelessly meandering, and – in crucial situations – reading from a teleprompter as if on quaaludes.  Trump was appallingly bad in the 2024 debates when facing Biden, himself a leaden debater at best. Donald Trump is a lazy man who will not do the hard work of campaign debate prep. And he will pay for it.

Just wait until Ron DeSantis starts talking about “winners” and “losers” on a debate stage as Donald Trump seethes with rage. I can already hear DeSantis: “We Republicans are tired of losing! We can’t be the party of losers! We lost in 2018, we lost in 2020, we lost in 2022! We need a proven winner!” Watch as the camera pans to Donald Trump, sweating, smoldering, and absolutely losing his, uh, composure under the scorching, humiliating, withering assault.

If Ron DeSantis is smart, he will take one further step… he will aim at the myth of Donald Trump. As we speak, Ron DeSantis surely has a team of oppo pit bulls combing through the 80s and 90s footage that reveals Trump to have been a classic New York City liberal right up until he ran for President.  DeSantis will draw a hard line between his own consistent right-wing orthodoxy and Trump’s Johnny-Come-Lately, opportunistic, and calculated conservatism.

Let’s rest our case with one final point: Ron DeSantis truly is the coldest, most calculating, most Machiavellian foe Donald Trump has ever faced. This is the man that cruelly forced frightened and vulnerable immigrants into an airplane and flew them to Martha’s Vineyard as a political stunt. How depraved do you have to be to manipulate the poor, the vulnerable, and the powerless for a childish political gag?  Donald Trump does not know what is about to hit him.

Have doubts? Here are the specifics on how this goes down.

Flash forward to the Iowa Caucuses. Trump edges out DeSantis in Iowa by 40% to 35%. Also-rans (led by Haley, Pence, and Scott) are in single digits. The poorest performing also-rans have the oxygen of funding cut off, and must drop out.

But thinning the field just a bit will give DeSantis enough mojo to squeak out a win in New Hampshire.

With each side claiming a win, it is on to South Carolina… where Ron DeSantis swings the deal that seals the deal. He offers his VP slot to South Carolina hometown favorite Nikki Haley. Trump does not take the bait, as he not-so-secretly lusts for the uber-loyal election denier Kari Lake to be his VP. Buoyed by the locally popular Haley, DeSantis scores a big win in South Carolina. Instantly, the wheels come off the “inevitability” of a Trump nomination.

More single-digit losers drop out, giving more and more of the “anti-Trump lane” to DeSantis.  By Super Tuesday, it is Trump v. DeSantis mano-a-mano in a sprint to the convention… and DeSantis has all the momentum.  Then it is just a matter of winning by thin but discernable margins, and DeSantis cleans up the delegate count.

DeSantis closes the deal by offering Trump a face-saving exit. They will cut a secret agreement in which Trump’s doctor supposedly orders Trump to drop out for “health reasons.” (That is, anything but an admission that he is losing!) In turn, DeSantis promises to do everything in his power to cut off all Federal prosecution of Trump, and he will name Jim Jordan his Attorney General so that Trump gets his “retribution,” which is the only reason he has given thus far for running in 2024.

DeSantis-Haley 2024. You can print the bumper stickers.

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