I confess I didn’t invite George F. Will, because I figured he writes exclusively in taut 750-word increments. But I gathered the rest of the right-leaning — though not, in the minds of a vocal subset of our readers, right-thinking — columnists at Post Opinions for a conversation over email about the state of the 2024 Republican presidential primary.
Ron DeSantis is finally in. So is Tim Scott. Nikki Haley, Asa Hutchinson, Vivek Ramaswamy and Donald Trump were already there. Here comes Chris Christie next week, and soon enough he’ll be joined by Mike Pence and, we assume, Chris Sununu. So, I asked: We have, at last, a field! Are you happy with it?
I’ll let them take it from here.
Jim Geraghty: In a normal political environment, Republicans would be thrilled with the emerging 2024 presidential field. But this is not a normal political environment, is it? So far — and yes, it is early — most Republicans don’t appear to be the slightest bit interested in any candidate not named Donald Trump or Ron DeSantis.
Henry Olsen: It looks like a two-person race for one simple reason: Only DeSantis and Trump have credibility with the MAGA majority of the primary electorate. Unless that changes, any seeming surge by someone else (hello, Tim Scott!) will simply be a sign that person is consolidating the non-MAGA minority.
How do you know which side of the party’s divide you are on? A few simple tests suffice. Are you upset rather than blindingly furious about cultural change in America? Do you think smaller government, not just lower taxes, is a central conservative value? Do you remain passionately pro-free trade and eagerly pro-Ukraine? If you answer yes to all three, congrats! You are part of the minority.
Jason Willick: If Trump had lost in 2020 like a normal president, leaving office uneventfully without inspiring a riot, there probably wouldn’t even be a 2024 primary of consequence. Republican voters loved Trump’s performance in office by huge margins. In retrospect, if Jan. 6 hadn’t happened, Trump’s pitch — who’s ready for round two? — would face little resistance.
But Trump’s conduct after the 2020 election — including his damage to the party in the 2022 midterms — has created the possibility of a competitive primary by damaging the former president’s standing with party elites and a segment of the conservative electorate. Trump is still favored, and I agree with Henry that only DeSantis is likely to be able to compete against him. (If he runs, Glenn Youngkin might be the next most plausible.)
Hugh Hewitt: Any pundit should be cautious when assessing the GOP field. Will the future nominee even be on the debate stage in Milwaukee in August when the Republican National Committee kicks off the first in a schedule of candidate gatherings? We don’t know for sure yet whether former president Trump will deign to join the group that assembles that night. We also don’t know when the Iowa caucuses will gather or when New Hampshire voters will vote.
We don’t know much yet except two things: President Biden is very underwater in his approval ratings as they hover around an awful 40 percent, and Biden is thought by a supermajority of voters to be too old to run again, with as many as 70 percent of folks thinking he ought to decline to seek reelection.
Every would-be Republican nominee is younger than Biden and far, far more energetic. Trump and DeSantis are, as Jim and Henry note, the front-runners — with Trump ahead significantly. But we have not even reached the first turn, which will be that Milwaukee debate. “Nobody knows anything,” William Goldman remarked on the vagaries of box-office success and it is an applicable conclusion about 2024. Everything in politics is out of joint and aching but — like the GIF of the dog amid the fire — this is fine. Everything is fine.
I’d take a bet on the Republican field right now over President Biden. I wonder if my colleagues would as well?
Ramesh Ponnuru: I suspect that Jason is wrong about what would have happened if Trump acknowledged his defeat in 2020. Modern parties are pretty unforgiving toward losers, which helps explain why Mitt Romney couldn’t even find a way into a crowded field in 2015 and John Kerry’s occasional post-2004 presidential musings have been taken seriously by almost no one. If Trump had acted like a normal defeated candidate, the party’s conversation would have turned to why he lost — and the answers would have mostly had to do with his personal defects rather than bad luck or structural forces. If he wins in 2024, it will be because of his election lies and not despite of them.
Will he, or some other Republican nominee, win in November 2024? Tell me what the economy looks like a year from now before asking, please.
Marc Thiessen: The GOP primary electorate breaks down into three big blocks: 1) “Hard MAGA” (about 1/4 of the vote) who will only back Trump in the primary; 2) “Soft MAGA” (about 1/2 the vote) who are deciding between Trump and other candidates; and 3) “Not MAGA” (another 1/4 of the vote) who won’t consider voting for Trump at all. The question for those challenging Trump is: How much of the Soft MAGA vote is separable from Trump — and how best to separate them from him?
These Soft MAGA voters don’t hate Trump — to the contrary, almost all tell pollsters they approve of him. And they tend to rally around him when he is under attack by the left, as we saw after his indictment in New York when his poll numbers began to rise. So attacking his character is not the way to go, because that will seem like piling on with the left’s attack. Criticizing his record in office? DeSantis might be able to do that, by contrasting his record opening up Florida while criticizing Trump for putting Anthony S. Fauci in charge of our economy. But fundamentally Soft MAGA voters think Trump was a great president.
The big wedge issue with this group is electability. Can Trump beat Biden? Or has his post-election behavior so alienated swing voters as to render him unelectable? If these Soft MAGA voters can be convinced that Trump can’t win — and that nominating him will produce four more years of a Biden (or worse, a Harris) presidency — then they may be willing to turn to other alternatives. This is why you hear DeSantis talk a lot about being a winner and ending the GOP “culture of losing.”
Gary Abernathy: I’m not sure enough Republicans hold Trump accountable for losing. They just think he needs more help against the “deep state.”
Marc Thiessen: Trump campaigned in 2016 by saying that Americans were tired of losing and that if we elected him, we’d win so much we’d be sick of winning. Well, most Republicans are sick of losing. I think Hard MAGA believes Trump won twice, but Soft MAGA is not so sure.
Hugh Hewitt: About 30 million votes were cast in GOP primaries and caucuses in 2016, so I think it’s just flat-out impossible to predict what message will resonate with the folks turning out in 2024. I do think Biden’s age — it’s scary — will drive a lot of voters to the polls, and the idea that age matters is going to favor the young candidates. I continue to put almost no stock in polling until after two or more debates. They changed everything in the fall of 2015 and will do so again this year. If a candidate is on the stage, they are in the hunt.
Gary Abernathy: The Trump supporters I know — and who claim to be considering other candidates (I doubt they really are) — say they want someone from outside the establishment, someone who will “take on the system.” That (conveniently) virtually disqualifies the rest of the field so far. Vivek Ramaswamy appeals to most Republicans, but he’s cursed by the Catch-22 that everyone likes him but no one thinks he can win.
The path for anyone else — DeSantis, Scott and maybe Nikki Haley — still runs through MAGA Land. Asa Hutchinson, Chris Sununu, Chris Christie — and Mike Pence, unfairly — are done before we start. This is a MAGA party for the foreseeable future.
Megan McArdle: I am tempted to make the case for Ramaswamy, an urge that is mostly explained by the fact that I just wrote a column on Ramaswamy.
Everyone in this race wants to run a modified Trump playbook: New and improved! With 33 percent less vulgarity, and 25 percent more of whatever it was you liked about him! Only no one actually understands which parts of the Trump playbook worked. So DeSantis is trying to run the culture war part, only with more administrative competence. Scott is running it too, only with upbeat Reaganite insouciance instead of the gloomy Götterdämmerung vibe. And Ramaswamy is closest to having the full package, because in addition to the anti-woke stuff, and a soupçon of “Gee isn’t America Great?” optimism, he’s running the media piece. He’s accepting hits promiscuously and making good television.
Now, that said, my personal problem with Ramaswamy is that he uses his clear intelligence and verbal skills to generate political solutions that are simple, intuitively appealing and wrong. The idea of a brave outsider reforming Washington is bunk.
Henry Olsen: Tim Scott is an appealing figure, a fresh face, and someone who’s running as an updated version of the 1984-era Ronald Reagan. That could have a lot of appeal to the non-MAGA minority, which in turn could fuel a fast summer rise. Trump showed that the summer can be decisive in primaries. He started the summer of 2015 upside down in favorability with Republicans and ended Labor Day right side up. If DeSantis, Scott or someone else can replicate that feat, the race will look very different on Labor Day than it does today.
Gary Abernathy: The wild card might be Scott. A lot of Trump voters I know consider Scott their second choice. He’ll be given every chance to make his case.
Jason Willick: If the 2016 Republican primary is your reference point, Ron DeSantis is a hybrid of Marco Rubio, Chris Christie and Ted Cruz. Like Rubio, he’s a young Floridian who clearly is influenced by the latest conservative intellectual ideas. Like Christie, he is a combative executive, not a legislator. Like Cruz, he’s more or less an ideological purist or at least has increasingly become one.
I'd say DeSantis needs to lean into his inner Christie qualities — that is, ideological pragmatism combined with ruthless political instincts — to have a shot. Republican voters want leadership. Trump gives it to them, and purist conservative or “online” ideas are no substitute.
Gary Abernathy: What we learned in 2016 with Rubio, Cruz, Jeb Bush, etc., is that you cannot win an insult contest with Donald Trump. He’s too good at it.
Going forward, whether in interviews or, eventually, on a debate stage, DeSantis should kill Trump with kindness and express confusion about Trump’s attacks — which is frankly what most Trump supporters feel about them. Even people who prefer Trump over DeSantis find Trump’s attacks on him baffling. DeSantis should acknowledge, “Yes, I’m following in Trump’s footsteps. He blazed the trail. He showed us the way. Unfortunately, he was unable to finish the job. We gave him a chance and he blew it. But where he failed, I’ll succeed, and I already have a track record of success.”
DeSantis should acknowledge and for the most part agree with what Trump (and Haley) are saying about him: Trump is responsible for his rise. He should express sadness and confusion over why his mentor has turned on him. Trump voters can relate and empathize with that, and it would paint Trump as a sore loser, a vindictive person who will turn on anyone, even his most ardent followers.
Megan McArdle: I think launching on Twitter Spaces was probably a mistake for DeSantis, but also that it won’t matter. It is a sign of a campaign that is Too Online — but by the same token, the only people who really care are also Too Online, and not much like a normal primary voter.
That said, it is a problem that DeSantis is Too Online! And he’s not the only one in the field who is. They are all in on pandemic recriminations and culture-war beefs.
I don’t think that either pandemic policy or “woke” is pressing even Republican voters the way it was last year. The cancel-culture fever seems to have abated somewhat, and while that’s good for the country, it’s bad for any Republican who thought that their path to the presidency ran through youth gender clinics and the classrooms where the 1619 project is taught.
Marc Thiessen: Right now, DeSantis appears to be the candidate best positioned to be sufficiently MAGA for Soft MAGA while also acceptable to the Not MAGA voters. It’s far from certain that any one candidate will be able to forge a coalition of enough votes from both groups to beat Trump. But it’s possible. It will require discipline on the part of those who fail to forge that coalition to recognize it and step aside. Whether that kind of selflessness will be on display during the 2024 campaign is uncertain, to say the least.
Ramesh Ponnuru: I am skeptical that DeSantis will make much headway using an electability argument against Trump. A lot of Republican voters think Trump has already won two presidential elections!
I think Gary’s idea of Trump being past his prime has some promise, though. So, too, the argument that DeSantis has been more effective at delivering conservative victories than Trump has. DeSantis has also suggested that he might take aim at Trump’s sense of entitlement. With Trump sending out fundraising emails urging Republicans to “wrap up the primary” — on the supposed grounds that having a contest will help only George Soros — it’s a justified criticism.
Jason Willick: I think the GOP field says something good about the party. Between DeSantis, Haley, Christie, Sununu, Pence and even Youngkin, it could showcase competent Republican executive leadership in a range of states. Tim Scott is a good senator, but it’s probably for the best that he’s the only one in the race — the upper chamber has become too much of a forum for presidential auditions.
We don’t really have a field, however, so much as a Trump-against-all throwdown. If the electorate were limited to voters with college degrees, it would probably select someone other than Trump. Non-college voters, who are more numerous, are simply less exercised by Trump’s flaws than most Republicans in Washington are.
And Trump's dominance of the race so far isn’t just about getting voters to overlook his flaws. It’s about his distinctive ability to alternate between a politics of “retribution” and cultural moderation. He’s pro-vaccine. He’s probably the most moderate candidate on abortion — and his Supreme Court appointments, far from discrediting his abortion position, probably make it easier for many conservative voters to forgive him for it.
Trump has managed to be ideologically flexible without being perceived as squishy or moderate. Instead, his ideological unpredictability is perceived as authentic by his supporters — and I have to say, DeSantis’s scripted delivery on his Twitter launch didn’t give me confidence that he can compete on that level.
Marc Thiessen: The polls show that the vast majority of Americans do not want a Trump-Biden rematch. If you take them both out of the picture and put our bench up against the Democrats’, the future is very bright. We have an embarrassment of riches. Unfortunately, our system seems poised to give the American people exactly what they don’t want.
Jim Geraghty: Kentucky GOP congressman Thomas Massie made this observation about how the tea party and Ron Paul fans could abandon their libertarian views and suddenly embrace Donald Trump: “But after some soul searching I realized when they voted for Rand and Ron and me in these primaries, they weren’t voting for libertarian ideas — they were voting for the craziest son of a bitch in the race. And Donald Trump won best in class, as we had up until he came along.”
For a long stretch now, a growing percentage of voters in the Republican presidential primary — and in some cases, gubernatorial and senatorial and House primaries — have wanted the craziest person in the race.
This observation is not going to make me popular, but “pick the craziest one” is a dumb way of picking nominees and presidents. You would not want the craziest person to be your child’s pediatrician. You would not want the craziest person to be admiral of a Naval fleet. You would not want the craziest person to be your boss. And you would not want the craziest person to be your child’s teacher, although maybe you’ve watched the feed of Libs of TikTok and discovered that your child’s teacher is, in fact, crazy.
By normal measurements, Republicans have a terrific selection of options this cycle. Alas, there’s still a strong appetite for the craziest candidate in the race, and I think we all know which dining companion of Ye, formerly known as Kanye West and Nick Fuentes wins on that criteria.
Marc Thiessen: I don’t know. Just over 50 percent of Republicans are backing Trump — and it was below 50 percent until the New York indictment, which caused a rallying effect. That means about half don’t want the rematch, and many more are on the fence. There’s a struggle for the soul of the GOP. But there are a lot of ways that Trumpism and Reaganism are compatible. When you take Trump the man out of the picture, it will be possible to build a coalition of Trump and Reagan Republicans.
Gary Abernathy: Honestly, I don’t see a struggle for the soul of the party. Trumpism won, and that won’t change by 2024. There are Never Trumpers who want to cling to the hope that there’s a chance of returning to the pre-Trump party. I hope you’re right that there’s some chance of uniting the Trump and Reagan factions — and that if you take Trump himself out of the picture it’s easier to attract the old guard, even if the alternative candidate is basically still a Trumpist. That united coalition is necessary to win in November.
Hugh Hewitt: I’m not seeing that “struggle for the soul” either. I’m watching a brand new, never-before-conducted political experiment of many excellent candidates taking on a former president in the era of social media. Given the huge uncertainties out there, it’s just too early to venture even guesses on what the fall will look like after debates begin and special prosecutor Jack Smith is heard from. Alvin Bragg no doubt gave former president Trump a boost, but that was an absurd abuse of power and polling reflects that.
Ramesh Ponnuru: Gary is, I think, correct to suggest that some Republicans — or Republicans on their way out the door of the party — want the pre-2016 party to return, and it will not.
At this point what passes for an establishment in the party is not working for a Reagan restoration. Much of it is with Trump, the guy who, after all, is the one demanding a coronation.
Whether Trumpism has won in the party is a different story. Is Trumpism a desire for less immigration, or more? Trump has — here Jason’s point about his flexibility comes into play — been on both sides of that issue. Is it a robust industrial policy of the type Trump didn’t pursue in office or the conventional tax cuts he did? Does the party want to shift imports from China to its neighbors or try to drive imports down overall? Is it committed to the defense of Taiwan? To what extent is Trumpism about combativeness and conspiracies, to what extent about a different policy agenda?
I don’t expect this primary race to settle these questions, but I think they are very much open ones.