Will Republicans Learn From the Democratic Primary Like Democrats Learned From the Republican Primary?
Despite the fact that "learning nothing" seems to be the GOP's default setting?
Let’s return to the dark days of the 2020 Democratic Presidential Primary. It’s late February. The candidates have spent the campaign debating whether everyone’s medical expenses should be paid in full until the end of time, or paid in full merely until the sun burns out. Those who took the latter position were deemed “moderates”. There had also been sharp exchanges over race and gender, with candidates like Kamala Harris and Kirsten Gillibrand scoring major Twitter points before realizing that election boards don’t count Twitter points, they count votes, and nobody wanted to vote for them.
In late February, there were six serious candidates in the race (if you don’t count Tulsi Gabbard, and nobody except Tulsi Gabbard counted Tulsi Gabbard). The six were: Cranky Ol’ Coot Joe Biden, Charlie Brown Stand-In Michael Bloomberg, Precocious Li’l Lad Pete Buttigieg, Generic Sitcom Mom Amy Klobuchar, Filthy Beatnik Bernie Sanders, and Lady-Who-Hands-Out-Pencils-on-Halloween Elizabeth Warren. Four states had voted; Sanders had won the most votes in Iowa, New Hampshire, and Nevada. Biden’s big win in South Carolina had resurrected his campaign. Bloomberg seemed to be there just to be a punching bag, Buttigieg had a not-embarrassing delegate count, and Warren and Klobuchar’s delegates could fit into a Dodge Caravan. Fifteen states and territories were about to vote on Super Tuesday.
It really looked like Bernie Sanders might win. He was leading the delegate count and polling fairly well in the Super Tuesday states. This was troubling to Democrats like me, and also to Democrats who know people and matter. We could debate Bernie's prospects in the general election (dear God let's not), but I’ll simply summarize my view by saying that if I were doing a word association test, and the word was “electability”, my response would not be “79 year-old Jewish socialist from Vermont”. My opinion and the opinion of many Democrats was that Bernie was probably the least-likely candidate in the field to beat Trump.
I'll always wonder what would have happened in 2020 if the 2016 Republican primary hadn’t been fresh in everyone’s memory. But it was fresh in everyone’s memory (except maybe for Buttigieg, whom I’m not sure had been born yet). The GOP dynamic in 2016 was similar to the Democratic dynamic in 2020: An unconventional candidate with obvious general election liabilities had early success. There was a divided field of “normal” candidates (calling Ted Cruz “normal” is the biggest compliment I will ever pay him). The unconventional candidate won a plurality of votes in the pre-Super Tuesday contests, but nowhere near a majority. Party bigwigs worried that the normal candidates would split the moderate vote and hand the nomination to the firebrand.
In 2016, the normal candidates — Cruz, Rubio, and Kasich — stayed in through Super Tuesday. In fact, all three stayed in for several contests after that. By the time the first of the three (Rubio) dropped out on March 15, 33 states and territories had voted. At that point, the three normal candidates had more cumulative delegates than Trump (731 to 691), but the closest to Trump was Cruz at 415. By the time Rubio finally called it quits, Trump had won 56 percent of the delegates that he needed to clinch the nomination. And from there, his victory was basically a foregone conclusion.
How much did the 2016 GOP primary influence Democrats’ thinking before Super Tuesday in 2020? It’s impossible to say, but I’d guess “a lot”. Reports at the time were that party leaders were very worried that Biden, Buttigieg, and Klobuchar would split the moderate vote. And we should recall that Trump’s candidacy was a seismic event for the American left; it left a deep imprint on our brains. When they make The West Wing: The Next Generation in 2034 — which they surely will if we’re not still on strike — the seminal event that motivates C.J. Cregg Junior will probably be watching Trump win in 2016.
The week before Super Tuesday 2020, Buttigieg and Klobuchar dropped out and endorsed Biden. Warren and Bloomberg were still hanging around, but at that point, their campaigns were the Hindenburg and the Titanic, and the only debate was over which one was which. On Super Tuesday, Biden won 684 delegates to Sanders’ 563. When the campaign became a two-candidate race in the weeks that followed, Biden beat Sanders’ delegate count by a nearly two-to-one margin.1 Sanders only won North Dakota and the Northern Mariana Islands during that time. Also, as you may have heard, Biden became president.
Countless bricks were shat by Democratic operatives in early 2020 before Biden came roaring back. The primary, to that point, had been a disaster. A large portion of the field had been infected with Twitter Brain, arguably the second-worst virus of the early 2020s (*arguably*). The party’s left wing had pressured the candidates into taking unpopular positions, hence the joke about their hilariously implausible heath care plans that I made in the first paragraph. Several once-promising candidates (Harris, Booker, and O’Rourke) had flamed out, and the obvious successor to the Obama legacy — Biden — was, frankly, getting his wrinkled old ass kicked.
Every plausible Sanders alternative seemed to have a fatal flaw or two. Biden was too old, and he generated no enthusiasm among the far-left 20-somethings who assumed that they were the party’s base. Buttigieg was about as popular with Black voters as Imagine Dragons. Elizabeth Warren was Sanders Lite and made Buttigieg look like Jamie Foxx in terms of appealing to Black people. Klobuchar was flirting with being sent down to the Tulsi Gabbard Division: She finished last among the serious candidates in three of the first four contests. There had to be a Sanders alternative…but who? Every alternative seemed like a non-starter.
That dynamic is repeating itself again. Trump is still Trump (arguably more so!). As analyst Nate Cohn notes, a majority of the Republican electorate (62 percent) would consider a candidate other than Trump. But the non-Trump vote is being split several ways. A non-Trump alternative could have a shot, but people can’t just write “a non-Trump alternative, please” on their ballot.
Can any candidate unite the non-Trump vote? Maybe not, but if anyone does it, it’ll be one of three people. And a quick glance at the Republican field reveals who those three people are. Thirteen candidates are running. Four were so inconsequential that they didn’t make the stage for the first debate; their Q rating is officially sub-Doug Burgum, which is a number that usually only exists in theoretical mathematics. Of the eight candidates who made the stage, three are running to improve their future job prospects (Burgum, Hutchinson, and Ramaswamy). Two are GOP heretics (Christie and Pence). So, there are only three candidates left: Ron DeSantis, Nikki Haley, and Tim Scott. If anyone unites the anti-Trump vote, it’ll be one of those three.
Right now, it’s hard to imagine any of those three seriously challenging Trump. DeSantis is fading like a spray-on tan. Haley typically polls in the single digits. Scott has yet to show any mojo whatsoever. Trump has a Secretariat-sized lead if half the other horses weren’t trying to win and just wanted Secretariat to give them a job. You can point to any of DeSantis, Haley, or Scott and make a strong argument that their candidacy is deader than Elvis.
But we should remember just how dead Biden’s candidacy seemed in early 2020. When Biden finished fourth in Iowa and fifth in New Hampshire, most people started carving his campaign’s tombstone. Jonathan Chait called Biden’s candidacy “a disaster for liberalism and the Democratic Party”; CNBC’s Jake Novak flatly declared: “This is over.” The other moderates were struggling, too: Klobuchar (fifth in three of the first four states) and Buttigieg (three percent of the Black vote in South Carolina) had Franz Reichelt-esque trajectories. Then, like now, it looked like the unconventional candidate would win without facing a real challenge.
But South Carolina made Biden suddenly viable. And Buttigieg and Klobuchar did what Cruz, Kasich, and Rubio didn’t do: They dropped out before Super Tuesday. It turned out that there was a viable Sanders challenger in the field. And, actually, there may have been more than one; if voters had given early momentum to Buttigieg or Klobuchar, then they might have been able to beat Sanders. The belief that none of the moderates were viable was objectively wrong.
It’s way too early to count out any of the three normal Republican candidates. Politically-oriented people should always remember that most people don’t give a fraction of a rat’s ass about politics, and they’ll start looking at the candidates a day or two before they vote. The most common response to any poll at this point is “whatever answer will make the pollster go away”. And that gives a huge advantage to any loud, orange candidate who occupies far too much real estate in all of our brains.
Eight states2 will vote before Super Tuesday 2024. Those eight contests should be sufficient to determine which of DeSantis, Haley, and Scott is the most viable. If anti-Trump Republicans learned anything from 2020, then they’ll take every step short of murder to force the two least-viable candidates out of the race before 15 states and American Samoa vote on Super Tuesday. The Republican candidates have repeatedly been asked if they’ll endorse whoever the party nominates; if I was an anti-Trump GOP donor, I’d be posing a different litmus test question to DeSantis, Haley, and Scott. I’d ask: “If you’re not the most viable non-Trump candidate prior to Super Tuesday, will you drop out and endorse whoever is?” I think 2020 teaches us: That has to happen if Trump is going to lose.
Will that work? Hell, I don’t know. Probably not. But I know that if the non-Trump vote gets split three ways, then Trump will definitely win. And if Trump is nominated, then America loses no matter what happens after that. If he wins the general election, then we have to white-knuckle our way through another erratic Trump presidency and then hope that he steps down at the end of his term. If he loses, then he’ll try once more to have the election results thrown out, and then he’ll run yet again in 2028. From where I’m sitting, this nightmare only really ends when Republicans tell Trump “no”.
The belief that DeSantis, Haley, and Scott aren’t viable might have been correct in the political climate that existed as recently as a decade ago. DeSantis lacks charisma. Haley lacks conviction. Scott lacks any identity beyond being the most prominent Black Republican since Sammy Davis Junior. But in a field where all candidates are flawed, the least-flawed candidate is the most viable. And never forget that the guy they’re running against has flaws that include “lost the popular vote two times out of two,” “is facing multiple criminal indictments,” and “looks really dumb playing tennis.” Any of those would have been career-killers very recently. We all need to adjust to the reality-optional political landscape that exists today. Luckily, there are lessons from the recent past that can help us navigate that world.
In the 11 contests between March 10 and April 7 — which are the only contests in which it was a head-to-head race — Biden won 567 delegates (64.3%) and Sanders won 315 (35.7%).
Well, seven states and one very plucky federal district. But I happen to live in that district, so I’m rounding us up to “state”.