The limits of party elites’ influence on presidential primaries.
Republican Party elites are gearing up to try to stop Donald Trump from winning the GOP presidential nomination — again.
Both the Club for Growth — an anti-tax group — and the donor network created by the billionaire Koch brothers plan to intervene in the GOP presidential primaries, the New York Times recently reported, and both hope to turn the page on the former president. But it’s not clear whether they will endorse one specific alternative to Trump and, if so, who that would be, with several other Republicans expected to enter the race.
As many are pointing out, that would be a familiar scenario. The Atlantic’s McKay Coppins writes that “a sprawling cast of challengers could just as easily end up splitting the anti-Trump electorate, as it did in 2016, and allow Trump to win primaries with a plurality of voters.”
Politico’s David Freedlander opened a recent article citing an anonymous Republican donor’s worries “that once again Donald Trump will prevail over a splintered Republican field.” The New York Times’s Shane Goldmacher, too, wrote that “a fractured field” could “clear the way” for Trump to win with just “a fraction of the party base.”
This nods to a common piece of conventional wisdom in some political circles: that Trump’s 2016 nomination was somewhat of a fluke. That, if only there weren’t so many other candidates in the race, or if only those candidates hadn’t spent so much time attacking each other, or if only GOP elites coordinated more competently to back one challenger, Trump would have been stopped.
But that smacks of wishful thinking that underestimates the sources of Trump’s strength and understates the weaknesses of his opponents back then. The failure to stop Trump in the 2016 primaries wasn’t an issue of elites playing their cards wrong or opposing campaigns making poor strategic choices.
Party elites aren’t puppet masters who can rig the outcome. They’re not entirely powerless either — but they’re constrained in their choices, and trying to influence a dynamic that can be to a large extent determined by forces out of their hands.
In 2016, GOP elites’ problem was that there wasn’t a Trump alternative in the race who had credibility with both the party’s elites and its voters. There are already signs, though, that 2024 may be different.
How Trump won the GOP nomination in 2016
The 2016 GOP nomination contest began in confusion with the question: Who was the frontrunner?
Polls taken throughout the second half of 2014 and the first half of 2015 (before Trump’s entry into the race) showed that a rotating cast of several candidates had roughly even support, but that nobody had all that much.
The candidates who polled above 10 percent at some point in this period were Jeb Bush, Scott Walker, Marco Rubio, Chris Christie, Rand Paul, Mike Huckabee, Ted Cruz, and Ben Carson — but none of them topped 17 percent in the RealClearPolitics polling average. Some of these candidates were raising lots of money, but none of them had broken out of the pack in polls, or in endorsements from other Republicans, which were remarkably few in number.
Could this have been solved by greater party elite coordination around one candidate early?
Well, there’s a bit of a chicken-and-egg question — is the problem that the party failed to coordinate, or is it that there was simply no candidate running with the stature and skills to win widespread party support?
Compare this to contests where one frontrunner “clears the field” of all but a few rivals — as Hillary Clinton did in 2016, and George W. Bush and Al Gore both did in 2000. All three of them had large poll leads long before their campaigns officially started, which helps explain why so many didn’t bother to run against them, and why they racked up endorsements — politicians like to back the likely winner!
In the 2016 GOP contest, when candidates eventually did break from the pack in polls, they were, notably, different. Trump himself took the lead about a month after he entered the race in June, and held onto it for almost all of the race afterward. The only candidate to briefly tie him in national polls was another outsider — retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson — but Carson’s numbers declined by the late fall of 2015.
He was replaced as the second-place Trump alternative by Ted Cruz, a sitting senator who loved to gleefully trash the GOP establishment and was widely loathed by them. By the eve of the Iowa caucuses, Trump and Cruz together were pulling about 56 of the vote in national polls of Republicans, and Carson was getting another 7 percent. A veritable parade of noteworthy Republicans criticized Trump and said he must not win the nomination, but GOP voters were unmoved.
This wasn’t an accident — rather, most Republican voters thought their party’s existing leaders were doing a bad job, and they were inclined to support outsiders.
Meanwhile, several more establishment-friendly candidates — Marco Rubio, Jeb Bush, John Kasich, and Chris Christie — combined for about 20 percent of the national vote just before the Iowa caucuses were held. So, yes, they were splitting the establishment-friendly vote — but the establishment-friendly vote was very small. The claim that the problem was no establishment candidate had unified party elite support seems to miss the reality that voters just didn’t care about that support.
It’s also a mistake to treat the establishment-friendly candidates as interchangeable. Indeed, there was widespread skepticism all along in the party that Bush, Kasich, or Christie — each of whom had a moderate streak — could ever appeal to conservative Republican voters nationally.
So really, the hopes that some establishment-friendly candidate could beat Trump hinged on just one person who many felt hit the sweet spot, and could appeal to all factions of the party: Rubio.
And as early state balloting approached, Rubio’s team referred to what became known as the “3-2-1 strategy” — he wanted to finish third in the conservative-dominated Iowa caucuses, then second in New Hampshire, and then win South Carolina, and with that momentum, the party’s voters would flock to his banner before Super Tuesday.
If there was a chance to stop Trump, it probably came after the Iowa caucuses, which Cruz won (and in which Rubio, as per the plan, came in third). And if the crowded field had an impact at all, it was probably in this specific moment.
In New Hampshire, Trump won with 35 percent of the vote, with his next closest competitor being Kasich with about 16 percent. Cruz, Bush, and Rubio each got about 11 percent, and Christie followed them with 7 percent. So if you combine the Kasich-Bush-Rubio-Christie New Hampshire vote, that totals about 44 percent of the vote, enough to top Trump. And in the next contest, South Carolina, the Rubio-Bush-Kasich vote (Christie had dropped out) was 38 percent, enough to top Trump’s 32 percent victory.
But the assumption that all those candidates’ voters were one coherent “establishment” bloc that was dead-set against supporting Trump, and would have unified around any of those candidates, is wrong — some of those voters had Trump as their second choice!
Rubio would surely have improved his position somewhat if Bush or Kasich had dropped out earlier. The evidence is mixed on whether he would have done so enough to win these states — some polls at the time suggested Trump would have lost one-on-one contests with other candidates, and others suggested he would have won head-to-head matchups with anyone else running. Yet we don’t have to imagine what would have happened if Rubio tried to take on Trump: We saw it, and it didn’t end well for the Florida senator.
By Super Tuesday, Rubio and Kasich were the two remaining establishment-friendly candidates. Of the 11 contests that day, Trump won seven, Cruz won three, and Rubio won one. Yet the combined Rubio-Kasich vote, if united around one candidate, would only have been sufficient to flip two Trump states — Virginia and Vermont. Rubio quit two weeks later after Trump beat him by nearly 20 percentage points in his own home state of Florida.
Some argue that, if Rubio had only managed to win an early state, it all could have been different, as he would have seemed more credible to Super Tuesday voters. We’ll never know that for sure. Yet the Super Tuesday results largely resembled the polls before the early states even cast their ballots — Trump winning, Cruz in second, and Rubio in a distant third.
This suggests the contest’s dynamics were pretty entrenched, and it would have taken something quite dramatic to shake them up. But party elites had no power to create the perfect candidate from thin air — or to change its voters’ inclinations from anti-establishment to pro-establishment.
The 2024 race looks dramatically different than 2016
If there’s anything political pundits are famous for, it’s fighting the last war. In 2016, so many commentators assumed the GOP race would play out the same way as it did in 2012, when various “outsider” candidates surged in the polls but then declined, as GOP voters settled for the establishment candidate, Mitt Romney. Now, pundits are assuming 2024 will play out just like 2016, with Trump triumphing over a divided field.
But the polling for the next presidential contest is already incredibly different than that for the 2016 contest. Rather than no frontrunner, there’s Trump, polling a little above 40 percent nationally. Then, though, there’s a clear second-place contender: Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who’s polling a little above 30 percent nationally, far above every other potential candidate (all of whom poll in the single digits if they get any support at all).
Recall that, in 2015, no candidate managed to top 17 percent in RealClearPolitics’s polling average until Trump’s rise. But now there are already two candidates well above that number, and looming well above the rest of the field — and one of them, DeSantis, isn’t even officially running yet.
In a sense, DeSantis already solved the problem Rubio, Bush, and Kasich couldn’t solve. That is: In the eyes of Republican voters nationally, he’s already made himself the clear leading Trump alternative. (Nikki Haley’s entry into the race was generally greeted with intense skepticism about her prospects of winning.)
Now, DeSantis also faces a different problem than those past candidates — Trump is starting off in a much stronger position than he did in 2015. So DeSantis winning 35 percent likely won’t cut it — he needs to win more, and to the extent other candidates being in the race do lower his ceiling, that could be a problem.
Still, this is a very different scenario from 2016, when it really wasn’t clear who the main alternative to Trump and Cruz was for quite some time. If polling very clearly shows a Trump versus DeSantis contest, voters will understand that, and they’ll adjust their strategic choices accordingly.
So who’s responsible for DeSantis’s prominence? On one hand, you could argue that it’s a creation of party elites. Fox News heavily promoted DeSantis to its national audience starting in 2021, and there has been a long and deliberate effort by conservative commentators and activists to hype DeSantis. It could be viewed as a long-running GOP elite effort to foster and promote a Trump alternative who could be credible to both the party’s leaders and its base — something they simply did not have in 2016.
But you could also say it just comes down to DeSantis’s own actions. He built a political profile that resonated among national conservatives, cultivating Fox and other right-wing media outlets with strategically chosen culture war fights. There was certainly some anointing of DeSantis going on, but the anointed one has to be someone to whom voters will actually flock.
So it’s too simple to say party elites could make DeSantis the nominee if they wanted. They have some limited influence in a larger process that also depends on choices by individual candidates, media outlets, and feedback from voters as expressed in polls.
Early presidential primary punditry has a way of going awry. The GOP contest could well look totally different later this year than it does right now. Unexpected candidates could rise, and the two front-runners could fall. But what’s already clear is that this contest looks quite different than 2016’s inchoate, divided field — and we shouldn’t expect it to follow the same track.