In 2020, Democrats made a pragmatic if uninspiring choice in nominating Joe Biden. If this month’s Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) is indicative of the Republican base’s mood, the ultra-MAGA crowd is still in middle-finger mode. Bernie Sanders wasn’t prepared to burn down the Democratic Party and trash all the other candidates to get the nomination in 2020, but Trump has always loved scorched earth.
His followers need to get real before it’s too late.
Trump’s ardent fans lapped up his hour-and-forty-five-minute CPAC address, in which he portrayed himself as the only person capable of saving the country and averting World War III. Trump won the conference’s annual straw poll by more than forty points, with Florida Governor Ron DeSantis in a very distant second with just 20 percent of the vote. It’s still early and DeSantis is performing well in a variety of other polls. But there are worrying signs for those who would like to see DeSantis or another more electable conservative win the GOP nomination.
It takes an active imagination to conclude that polarizing Trump, who will turn seventy-eight in 2024, is best positioned to beat Biden. The Morning Consult polling firm recently looked at Trump’s grim numbers in key states and concluded that DeSantis is more electable. In Arizona, Trump is sixteen points underwater in favorability, while DeSantis is plus nine. In Georgia, Trump is minus fifteen, while DeSantis is plus eight. Trump is at negative twenty-two in Michigan, while DeSantis is at negative three. The picture is much the same in Nevada (Trump -15, DeSantis +4), North Carolina (Trump -20, DeSantis +13), Pennsylvania (Trump -17, DeSantis +10), and Wisconsin (Trump -14, DeSantis -2).
In a recent Marist poll, Republicans told pollsters that their party has a better chance of winning with someone else as the nominee by 53 percent to 43 percent, and independents said the same by a 59 percent to 39 percent margin. But 43 percent of the Republican Party might be more than enough to win the nomination so long as the ultra-MAGA wing of the party remains in denial about Trump’s liabilities. One would think that people who follow politics closely enough to attend a conference like CPAC would grasp the importance of nominating a more bulletproof candidate. Instead it appears as though many of these no doubt sincere CPAC people have bought into Trump’s baloney talking points about being the only person on the planet capable of saving us from becoming Venezuela or North Korea.
Many of them dismiss the electability argument out of hand. Matthew Boose, for example, writing for American Greatness, neatly summarizes the ultra-MAGA crowd’s delusions. Boose says Trump was “robbed of a second term” and calls the 2020 election a “sham.” He concludes that it would be a “fatal mistake” to trust candidates like DeSantis who fail to echo Trump’s dubious claims about the “stolen” election.
In other words, any candidate who isn’t chugging the stolen election Kool-Aid is just what Trump says they are: RINOs, globalists, neocon freaks. While there are such people in the Republican Party, branding DeSantis as such is ridiculous. But it seems as though some in Trump’s fan club have lost touch with reality and might believe it, potentially damaging DeSantis’ ability to turn out the Republican base if he wins the nomination.
I have far too many friends and family members who detest Trump to be bullish on his 2024 chances, even though he’ll likely run against an extraordinarily weak eighty-two-year-old president. But I’m afraid too many Trump fans are so eager to dunk on liberals and vindicate Trump that they’re not considering his many flaws, including his temperament, his age, his polarizing personality, his track record of backing losing candidates, his fixation on the 2020 election, his role in the January 6 riot, and the fact that most of his signature policy achievements were quickly undone by Joe Biden.
Democrats are salivating at the prospect of Trump winning the nomination. They nominated a polarizing candidate, Hillary Clinton, in 2016, and her unpopularity enabled Trump’s win. Biden’s biggest liability — his age — would be glaring if he stands on a debate stage against a young rival like DeSantis. But it would be negligible against Trump, who will turn eighty before the 2026 midterms. Even if Trump wins in 2024, I’m not sure I can take another four years of drama. With DeSantis, the fights would be policy-related and worth having. With Trump, they would be personal, like a bad movie that should never have been made into a trilogy.
DeSantis’s favorability could suffer as the media steps up its attacks against him. But the media in Florida, where I live, has been savaging him for years, and their attacks have backfired. And besides, the national media has been pummeling him since the start of the pandemic.
DeSantis won re-election by nineteen points in a closely divided state by winning over some Democrats and a lot of independents. Many Americans haven’t reached a verdict on him and other potential GOP nominees. But few are undecided about Trump and too many have turned on him in the key states he won in 2016 to feel confident he can thread that needle again.
DeSantis and other Republicans won’t win over the ultra-MAGA types by being deferential to Trump. Instead they must illustrate his liabilities with candor and humor. They must make the GOP primary, not the general election, Trump’s final battle, his Stalingrad, in order to give hope to those of us who have had enough of delusional, egomaniacal eighty-something-year-old presidents.