Partial to the Republican Underdogs? Do ‘Em a Solid
Bucking conventional wisdom, a bloated GOP field doesn't have to be terrible.
In my last piece, I wrote about the enormous challenges that underdog Republican presidential candidates must overcome if they are to stand a chance of defeating Donald Trump for their party’s nomination. Some of the feedback I received on the column came from readers who largely agreed with my diagnosis and prescription, but worried that the GOP field has already gotten so large that Trump has effectively already secured the nomination. Others weren’t as hopeless, but wondered what they could do, as regular folks, to help chop Trump down to the size.
I figured I’d address both concerns in today’s column.
The Field is Too Large
Yes, it is. No doubt about it. As of the time I’m writing this, I believe there are 13 officially-declared Republican candidates. I would have much preferred a field of no more than six or seven, but as I often say, the GOP rarely gives me what I want.
What’s additionally frustrating is that I’m convinced a good chunk of these candidates entered the race to either help Trump win the nomination (some probably at his urging), serve in a second Trump administration, or launch a commercial brand to MAGA consumers. There’s definitely some overlap in these categories, and to avoid sounding needlessly coy, I’ll just go ahead and name names. These “Trump hopefuls,” as I’ll call them, are Vivek Ramaswamy, Nikki Haley, Tim Scott, Perry Johnson, and Larry Elder.
I’ll offer this caveat: I think Haley and Scott would be more than happy to retool their campaigns and go for the win in the unlikely event that something from outside of the race, whether it’s a legal matter or health episode, knocks Trump out of contention. Both are capable people who I don’t doubt have presidential ambitions; I just think they view the vice presidency, at this point, as their most realistic shot of reaching the White House.
I don’t know enough about Doug Burgum or Francis Suarez to venture much of a guess as to what’s going on in their heads, but my hunch is that they’re approaching this race from a “you only live once” mindset. I could certainly be wrong.
That leaves Ron DeSantis, Mike Pence, Asa Hutchinson, Will Hurd, and possibly Chris Christie who I think are trying to win, even if some of them stand virtually no chance of doing so. I say “possibly” for Christie, because it’s entirely possible that his out-in-the-open plan for torpedoing Trump includes sacrificing his own candidacy in the process.
Regardless, in my estimation, the Republican field is offering no more than half a dozen serious alternatives to Donald Trump. Some of you will disagree, of course; I’m just expressing my view.
What I don’t think is in dispute is that a large field benefits Trump. Similarly to the memorable “We have a Hulk” line from the Avengers films, Trump supporters can credibly boast, “We have a cult.” At least a third of Republican primary voters will vote for Trump no matter what. Their loyalty to him in unconditional. And in 2016, a third was more than Trump needed to win the nomination. That’s because there were too many other candidates divvying up the non-Trump “normie” vote.
So, is history repeating itself? Are Ron DeSantis supporters right to be as aggravated as they are about this situation, being that they see their guy as the only viable alternative to Trump?
Maybe… but not so fast.
Political analyst Chris Stirewalt has been saying for months that a bloated field isn’t a problem. It can become one, however, if candidates refuse to drop out in a timely manner once it’s clear they aren’t catching on and have no path forward. Stirewalt believes around Christmas time, right before we head into the election year, is an appropriate cut-off date. Until then, he thinks the candidates can — and should — shoot for the stars. I was skeptical at first, but after some consideration I think he’s probably right.
Some may recall that there were still a number of active Republican candidacies going into 2016 — 11 in fact, and that’s not including Trump. And it was clear that most of those candidates weren’t going anywhere. If all but two or three had dropped out by then, I think we could have had a different outcome.
Which of those candidates would have risen to the top, and gone head-to-head with Trump? I don’t know, just like I’m not sure if Ron DeSantis has the chops to do it this time. He has a good story to tell, but he relies far too much on the anti-woke stuff, and often doesn’t seem comfortable in his own skin. The polls show that he’s viable now, but what about in a few months?
I remember volunteering for Rudy Giuliani’s presidential campaign in 2007, and thinking at this point in the election-cycle that he was invincible. He was polling more than double of what DeSantis currently is — just under what Trump is at the moment. By early 2008, he was a non-factor and dropped out of the race.
Things can change pretty quickly, and unlike a lot of candidates in 2016, Giuliani knew when to bail. I think everyone learned something from 2016, but the application of that lesson is something I have less confidence in. “Trump hopefuls,” after all, may be perfectly willing to stay in past their expiration date specifically for Trump’s benefit.
For now, let’s not dwell on that. My point is just that a large field right now should be far less worrisome than a large field later.
And speaking of now…
What Can Regular Folks Do?
If you’re a rightie like me, and you understand that Trump is terminally unfit for office, detrimental to conservatism, and morally and electorally toxic to the Republican party, there are simple things you can do right now to help whittle away at his chances of becoming the nominee.
The big one is to help hand his Republican opponents — those you believe are worthy of the office and good advocates for your beliefs and positions — a louder megaphone. It doesn’t have to be just one candidate. In fact, at this early stage, it makes perfect sense to lend a hand to all such individuals.
Trump’s bravado and controversies reliably earn the former president a ton of free press that well-adjusted adults — including most of his primary competitors — just don’t generate. It’s been a huge political advantage for Trump all along, but there’s a way of helping to even the playing field a bit by getting those other voices on the stage in the upcoming Republican debates.
The RNC is requiring that each debate participant have at least 40,000 national contributors (as in donors), and that they poll consistently above one percent. The deadline for those donations is August 21 — about two months from today. The dollar-amount of those donations doesn’t matter. A one-dollar donation counts the same as a maximum donation of $3,300.
I don’t know about you, but one dollar per candidate feels like an absolute bargain for elevating the voices and ideas of serious, competent individuals vying to become the leader of the free world.
Though 40,000 donors may not feel like a lot in a country of 332 million, it’s worth considering that most Americans aren’t nearly as politically engaged as you and me, and have no clue how these debates work. They’re not going to give a dime to a politician they’ve never even heard of, and that’s where those of us who understand the situation, and believe our country can’t afford a 2020 rematch, can pick up the slack.
The poll requirement may be an even steeper challenge for some Republican hopefuls. In fact, at least one of the individuals I just mentioned is currently polling at under 1%. It’s tough for someone without name recognition to gain traction in the polls, just like it’s tough to build name recognition without the type of exposure that comes from getting on a national debate stage. Chicken and the egg.
Once upon a time, Republican candidates could rely on the right-wing media for some good-faith exposure, but most of those outlets these days, including Fox News, are downright hostile to Republican politicians who don’t align with their current programming.
Of course, there are other ways for regular folks to help get out the word: campaign volunteering, bumper-stickers, yard signs, etc. But without national exposure lighting the way, the impact of such things is very limited.
You’re Not as Powerless as You Think
Make no mistake about it. The non-Trump candidates have a tough road ahead. Trump is the heavy favorite, and it’s his race to lose, but the man’s not inevitable. There’s time for others to catch on, and as I’ve described, there are easy things that primary voters and others can do right now to assist with that effort.
So if you want to make a difference, what are you waiting for?