Why Trump could lose the 2024 Republican presidential nomination even if his legal troubles energize his base

Former President Donald Trump speaks at the Conservative Political Action Conference at the Hilton Anatole on August 06, 2022 in Dallas, Texas.Brandon Bell/Getty Images

  • Former President Donald Trump keeps teasing another White House run.

  • Most Republicans think he’ll win the nomination if he wants it.

  • But a few scenarios and arguments from GOP rivals could have a shot at upending that.

Former President Donald Trump is dealing with considerable legal and political problems, from scrutiny of his activities during the January 6, 2021, Capitol riot, to a DOJ investigation into whether he improperly took classified materials to his Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida.

But ask most Republican insiders and they’ll tell you what they think Trump would easily win the GOP nomination if he were to run again in 2024. Many of the scandals, they argue, make Trump even stronger given how Republicans race to defend him.

But what if the conventional wisdom about Trump 2024 is wrong? Can Republican rivals make any persuasive arguments or tactical moves to peel away Trump’s fervent support?

That’s the question Insider posed to GOP operatives given the growing list of potential Republican candidates who could challenge Trump in 2024, including Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis.

Other possibilities for the ticket include former Vice President Mike Pence, Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, former UN Ambassador Nikki Haley, Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas, Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming — although it’s not clear whether she’d run as an independent.

Here’s what six operatives said about how to outdo Trump in a primary.

Homing in on how Trump could have only one term

Trump has been president once before. That means he only has another four years in the Oval Office if he wins another term. Because presidents historically tend to lose their party’s majority in Congress after two years in office, Trump likely could only pass most of his agenda during his first two years.

Other Republican candidates would be running for president with the possibility of serving two terms. Republican rivals could regularly use that fact to contrast themselves with Trump. It would be a way to differentiate themselves without bashing Trump’s policies or criticizing him personally.

“At the end of the day people will be looking through the prism of electability,” said Sam Nunberg, who worked on Trump’s 2016 campaign. “Ultimately, he can only serve one term. That’s a reason that some voters may be skeptical of voting for him. He’s a lame duck by around June of 2025.”

Underscoring Trump’s propensity for drama

Some Republican insiders think there might be a lane for someone who might be able to appeal to Trump’s base but without his political and legal baggage.

“They’re tired of the drama all the time,” said a GOP operative who works for a potential 2024 candidate.

Trump fatigue was beginning to show up in focus groups after the House January 6 hearings, said Gunner Ramer, political director for the anti-Trump Republican Accountability Project.

“As these groups became concerned about electability and finding a Republican to beat in 2024 they were starting to look around for other candidates that don’t have the baggage Trump has,” Ramer said.

The strategy would be similar to the playbook President Joe Biden used when he ran in 2020, when he presented himself as having the experience necessary to lead the country. The argument was persuasive to voters who appeared weary with a news cycle constantly focused on Trump.

Criticizing how Trump handled the pandemic

No Republican should challenge Trump in 2024 other than DeSantis, Nunberg told Insider.

The biggest way that DeSantis could distinguish himself, he said, is by pointing out how he pushed aside the advice of federal health officials during the COVID-19 pandemic to reopen schools and businesses far earlier than other states.

Trump, Nunberg said, was too deferential to Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institutes for Allergy and Infectious Diseases, who is now Biden’s chief medical advisor. DeSantis regularly criticizes Fauci and chose to ignore his advice.

“One handed his presidency to Fauci and the other fought against all the intelligentsia and was a shining beacon for the country,” Nunberg said. “I think there’s a major political difference.”

Criticizing Trump’s support for the COVID-19 vaccine

Trump backed Operation Warp Speed ​​— a historic government undertaking that resulted in COVID-19 vaccines being delivered in record time.

But when Trump goes to rallies and encourages people to get the shot, his supporters have booed him.

Some Republican insiders, like Nunberg, said Trump’s vaccine push could be a political liability. Data show that voters in heavily red states do not plan to get vaccinated.

Some signs show people fervently opposed to vaccines might agree. Earlier this month Alex Jones, who hosts the InfoWars conspiracy theorist radio show, bashed Trump for supporting the vaccine and praised DeSantis for raising concerns about it.

Ron DeSantis

Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks during a press conference at the Broward County Courthouse in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, on August 18, 2022.Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Using the months ahead to soft-campaign

Republicans have until the summer of 2023 to announce their candidacies. Those in Congress or in governors’ mansions can work to grab headlines through introducing legislation and touting efforts that get passed. Those ideas can help set a vision for what the future of the GOP could be.

The strategy could be especially effective for DeSantis. As long as DeSantis wins reelection in Florida in November, he’ll have the start of his second term to lay out an agenda for Florida. The legislature, which has largely followed the governor’s lead, would then be able to approve many of his ideas.

Already the governor has promised to proposes the largest tax cuts in Florida’s history.

One longtime GOP operative who has been close to Trump said if DeSantis plans to run, he should wait until May or June 2023 to announce.

“If he’s smart he’ll use that legislative session as a messaging tool for all the things he wants to accomplish or lay out,” the person said.

Arguing that Trump is in the past if Democrats blow out Republicans in the 2022 midterms

DeSantis or another Republican could have an opening in 2024 if their party loses big in November, particularly if most of the Trump-endorsed candidates lose their races.

Democrats are starting to feel more optimistic about their midterm prospects, even though historically the party that controls the presidency tends to lose seats in Congress.

But Democrats say the Trump-endorsed candidates don’t stand a chance against their nominees. They also think voters will be motivated you their side by the issue of abortion after the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade.

John Thomas, founder and president of the political advertising and strategy group Thomas Partners Strategies, said the midterms could shake up the 2024 nomination. But he added that he thought it would be better for DeSantis to avoid getting into a primary that had Trump in it.

In the case of a disastrous midterm for the GOP in November, Thomas’ advice to DeSantis would be the following: He “could make an argument saying, ‘Trump is wonderful, he’s the grandfather of the party, but we need somebody who is a fighter and a winner, and Trump doesn’t have that mojo. We have got to take back power, and I’m Trump 2.0. I share Trump’s values.’

“He can push Trump aside basically by saying, ‘We have got to win and that’s the No. 1 thing here, and you’re not going to be sacrificing anything on the agenda.'”

Winnowing down the list of alternatives

One of the biggest ways for a Republican to replace Trump at the top of the ticket in 2024 may be for the party to decide that it will unite behind one person early on.

During the 2016 presidential race, Trump was able to capture the nomination through winning a plurality of votes in state primaries. One of the main undercurrents from Insider interviews in recent weeks was operatives’ acknowledgment that if numerous candidates enter the race in 2024, Trump would once again have the ability to splinter the vote in his favor.

Pointing out he already lost

Michael DuHaime, CEO of MAD Global Strategy who was a strategist for Christie’s 2016 presidential campaign, said the biggest argument is that Trump lost to Biden before.

“We don’t need a guy who already lost to Joe Biden to run against him again,” DuHaime said. “He proved he can’t beat Biden. If he wants to soothe his soul by lying to everyone and saying he really won, he can, but the reality is he lost. Joe Biden is president now. Republicans have a chance to take back the White House. They can’t risk running someone who already lost to Biden.”

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