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Opinion
Jonathan Bernstein

Is Donald Trump a Lock for the 2024 Nomination?

He’s doing all the things that candidates do. And Republicans voters like him. Even so ...

One more time?

One more time?

Photographer: Allison Joyce/Getty

I expected to discuss all sorts of things with political scientists in Chicago last week, but I’ll be honest: When it came to current politics, people were mostly talking about the 2024 presidential nominations — especially the Republican one. And folks I spoke with were split right down the middle: About half thought that former President Donald Trump would be the Republican nominee, and half threw up their hands and said they had no idea what would happen.

I’m in that second group.

The argument that Trump has the nomination locked up is pretty straightforward. No, we don’t know for sure that he’ll be running in 2024, but he certainly is running for 2024 right now. That is, he’s doing all the things that candidates for president do — holding rallies, campaigning, raising money and, in his own fashion, putting together a policy platform. Sure, the platform begins and ends with complaining that people are unfair to Donald Trump, but that’s pretty much all he did as president anyway.

Trump, the case continues, has strong support from primary voters and is liked by almost all of them. That’s usually a winning combination. Yes, a significant group of party actors, including many elected officials, appear to oppose him — at least in theory. But only a very small subset of those who tell reporters off the record that Trump is a disaster for the party are willing to say so publicly. There’s no reason to think that they’ll be any better at coordinating against him than they were in 2016, or that they’ll be any better at convincing Republican voters to follow their lead.

That’s not all. In 2016, Trump’s big vulnerability was that he had no apparent commitment to the normal Republican policy agenda. That shouldn’t be a problem for him after four years in the White House. The first time around, Christian conservatives were skeptical; now, they’re among his strongest supporters. The most notable difference he had with Republican orthodoxy while in the White House was on foreign policy, and in 2024 a lot more party actors are on his side — and few voters care about it anyway.

So why wouldn’t he win?

I can’t speak for everyone who took this position. But for me, it’s less one big thing than many, many small ones. To begin with: I was wrong about 2016, and while I think I understand what happened, I’d hesitate before making confident predictions about Republican nomination politics again.

Beyond that? I’ll note that while Republican voters by all accounts like Trump, that’s not actually saying that much; most voters like politicians from their own party once they get to know them. There’s just no way to know how strong their attachment is to Trump — how strong any voter’s attachment is to any politician — until it’s put to the test. We’ll learn a little more about this when primaries resume in coming weeks. Should the candidates Trump endorsed do badly, it’s possible that the fear of opposing him will dissipate.

Then there’s Trump himself. Yes, he certainly seems to want to be president again. But the idea that he’s invincible among Republicans is far from proven. His 2016 nomination was a narrow one, aided by all sorts of odd events — including a fair amount of luck. He also has an electoral record now, and it’s not exactly an impressive one; after all, he lost re-election, and Republicans lost the House (in 2018) and the Senate (in 2020) while he was in office. His tantrum over losing the presidency and his false claims about fraud have widely been credited for the loss of two Senate seats in Georgia. Republicans may trust Trump more on policy than they once did, but they should have even less confidence that he’ll be a team player now. That could mean more opposition from party actors than last time.

That leaves the question of whether voters would listen if party actors tried to oppose Trump. They certainly didn’t in 2016. Would it be different this time? It might depend on which party actors; if Fox News hosts and talk radio turned against Trump (or, perhaps, just strongly supported some other candidate) I could imagine it mattering.

And that’s without getting into the possibility that Trump’s various legal entanglements catch up to him. Or that he’s less interested in being president again than he is in extracting money from Republican donors, a process that might be disrupted if he formally declared a run for office. Right now the nomination looks extremely valuable, given President Joe Biden’s low approval ratings. But that could change, and if so Trump might shy away from the risk of a worse loss than he had in 2020.

Besides, we’re still almost two years from the first caucus or primary. At this point in the 1992 election cycle, incumbent president George H.W. Bush was so overwhelmingly popular that most high-profile Democrats passed on the race; by the time of the New Hampshire primary, Bush was so unpopular that a fringe candidate took 37% of the vote against him.

None of this is to say that Trump won’t be the nominee. It’s just a case for uncertainty. Perhaps Trump’s triumph against all odds (and most expert opinion) in 2016 really does mean that the party is his as long as he wants it to be. Or perhaps it means that the party, the process or both are just a lot less predictable than I and others once believed. Which is true? Sorry. I have no idea.