Tom is back with his mid-month look at the latest in the 2024 campaign.
This has been a surprisingly consequential month (since our last update) in the 2024 campaign. A spate of events occurred that have tipped the electoral environment for 2024 markedly in the blue direction.
· Trump’s felony indictment in New York has energized his campaign and materially expanded his lead over his main challenger, Ron DeSantis, who has had troubles of his own. The indictment set Trump's faithful afire and is clearly a positive for Trump in his battle for the GOP nomination. But the indictment, and others likely to follow, will almost surely be a negative for the GOP in the general election in 2024. Trump’s candidacy will inflame the Democrats, his indictment(s) turn off independents, and Trump-weary Republicans, of which there are many, will be further demotivated to support him. A Trump nomination has massive consequences not only for the White House, but also for control of the Senate and House.
· Apart from the indictment, there have been a series of extraordinary, even shocking, political events in the past few weeks that also bode poorly for GOP prospects in 2024, including Democratic victories in key elections in Wisconsin and Chicago; the Nashville shooting and subsequent expulsion brouhaha in the state legislature; and the verdict in Texas to revoke a decades-old FDA approval of a medication abortion drug.
The only surprise in the Trump Indictment Effect is the speed with which it rippled – in entirely predictable fashion – through the GOP nominating process. We, and others, have been saying for months – even years now – that the day Trump is indicted would be the biggest single event in his impressive fundraising history. That may or may not have been true, but what is indisputable is that Trump raised a whopping $12 million in the first five days after news of the jury decision leaked on March 31.
But more impressive than the monetization of the indictment has been the abrupt change the indictment has wrought in GOP presidential nomination polls. It takes rather momentous events to jolt polls, which have congealed in the tribalism of modern times – even intraparty tribalism, as with the GOP with its Trump- and Anti-Trump “lanes.” The indictment in New York was just such an event, and in short order New York Southern District D.A. Alvin Bragg’s indictment turned what had been a steady ~15-point Trump advantage over Ron DeSantis into an astonishing 30+ point lead. We carry over this chart from last month, updated with April polling data, which includes five polls from across a range of pollsters.
Trump’s pickup of roughly 10 percentage points has put him back at his highest level of support since 2021, and, significantly, came almost entirely at DeSantis’s expense. DeSantis has not achieved lift-off yet in his yet-to-be-announced campaign and has faced a triple dose of troubles in the past month. He is not connecting with the major donors, who have been concerned with his public statement on Ukraine, which echoed Trump’s “America First” diatribes. He has not exactly been a firecracker on the stump in Iowa. And Trump has been lacerating him, particularly on DeSantis’s positions on Medicare and Social Security, while DeSantis has yet to find an effective message to attack Trump in return -- mainly because he would ultimately need the Trump-loyal voter’s supports to get to the White House, so he cannot afford to offend them by attacking their idol.
All of this begs the question of whether DeSantis should run at all. It surely seemed like his time after he won reelection in Florida last November by an unheard-of 20 points. But logic tells you – particularly after a flat start – that he might be wise to hold off in 2024 and wait for 2028, when both Biden and Trump will be gone. DeSantis’s two biggest obstacles are the former president (with his iron grip on at least 40% of the primary voters) and the current one (an incumbent with a record). At 44, DeSantis could pass, back Trump, and thus likely count on Trump’s support in 2028 in return. His only risks are that some other GOP contender might pull off a win in 2024, but that seems incredibly unlikely, or that someone new might emerge by 2028.
One apparent impact of the Trump indictment was the annoucement by Mike Pompeo that he is going to sit it out. One wonders if others who are making pre-announcement noise might do the same. Right now only four candidates have formally thrown their hats in the ring: Trump, Nikki Haley, Asa Hutchingson and Vivek Ramaswamy. Plenty of others have yet to do so, among them DeSantis, Mike Pence, Chris Sununu, Tim Scott, Glenn Youngkin, Kristi Noem, Liz Cheney and John Bolton.
What remains to be seen is whether the surge that followed the New York indictment – the weakest case of them all, and served up rather poorly by Bragg at that – will be replicated by indictments that are likely to come in Georgia and by the DOJ that will likely offer far more compelling evidence of far more serious crimes. At some point, the scales could tip against Trump as he is hauled off to more hearings, looking more morose, weak and vulnerable with each trip.
The essential problem for the GOP is that the local crazies whom the GOP has worked so hard to elect since the Tea Party revolution in 2010 cannot keep from firmly grabbing various third rails of national electoral politics. Let’s be clear: national Republicans, whether they support Trump or someone else, want to talk about only three things, the economy, immigration and crime. These are the issues they see as advantageous, regardless of the merits, the ones where they believe Biden is vulnerable. Here are the issues they want to avoid: abortion, guns, climate change, Trump/election denial/Jan 6/indictments. They know that the majority of the country does not agree with the GOP positions on those issues, period. So the goal is to manage the national conversation around the economy, immigration and crime. So imagine when members of their own party take some inflammatory action on any of the GOP’s vulnerable issues that forces national candidates to take a position – this is beyond the pale, and it is easy to see why
This happened in spades over the past several weeks. The Trump indictment sent GOP politicians scurrying for cover, because what are they going to say? Well, on this one, at least, they can point to Bragg and his alleged connections to Soros, his weak case and so on. But even this one is tough, because while the esoterica of the law may be on their side (at least until Bragg shows compelling evidence that links the hush money to a felony like campaign finance or tax fraud), the basic facts are hard to defend. Trump had an affair with a porn star (Trump denials aside); he tried to buy her silence weeks before the 2016 election through the tried-and-true “catch and kill” method with David Pecker; Pecker refused, so Cohen paid her off and Trump had to come up with some way to re-pay Cohen on a tax-neutral basis and cover his tracks in the bookkeeping. Ugh, imagine defending that to Swing State Middle America night after night on the campaign trail!
But even THAT is more palatable than talking about guns. There are more than twice as many mass shootings in the U.S. as there are NFL football games (647 of the former in 2022, 272 of the latter). The GOP game plan for mass shootings is simple: express sympathy, talk about mental health, and wait for the hysteria to die down. But in Nashville, the scene of the last mass shooting, the local GOP-controlled legislature decided to try to expel three Democratic members who violated a few norms in protesting the shootings. Talk about killing the ant with an elephant -- suddenly it was national news, real time. Then they managed to expel the two young Black guys while sparing the white woman on national TV. Then the districts that had been disenfranchised voted to replace the expelled Black legislators with….the very same two Black legislators! So the locals took a terrible look – another mass shooting featuring an AR-15 – and managed to add free speech and racist overtones to it, all apparently for symbolic purposes only! Imagine trying to defend that on the campaign trail?
But even THAT pales when compared with the insanity in Texas over abortion. Unless the economy roars in 2024 – and it might - there is no more potent campaign issue for the Democrats than abortion. Ever since Roe became law in 1973, the GOP crazies have conspired to bring about its downfall. Epic twists of fate and bad-ass cold-blooded politics (as practiced by Mitch McConnell) gave Trump and the Federalist Society the opportunity to select three conservative judges, who, joining with two other conservative SCOTUS judges, made the ultimate judgment to overturn Roe with Dobbs in 2022. Dobbs was a clarion call, the galvanizing force that propelled the Democrats to hold the Senate in November of that same year, and come damn close to doing the same in the House. As recently as two weeks ago was the deciding factor in a crucial Wisconsin state supreme court race that flipped that body into progressive control. (A progressive Democrat also won the mayoral race in Chicago in the same week.)
So imagine how Mitch McConnell – who desperately wants to regain Senate Majority Leader status in 2024, and has a remarkably favorable GOP Senate map to pull it off -- feels about Texas federal judge Matthew Kacsmaryk. That judge singlehandedly decided that his medical chops were superior to the FDA’s in overturning a ruling that body made 23 years ago. Kacsmaryk, a Trump appointee, ruled that the drug in question, mifepristone, had been unwisely approved and should no longer be available to effect medication abortions – which account for more than half of all abortions performed in the US. It is difficult to grasp the magnitude of this ruling, which has already been blunted (in part) on appeal. So the one issue that no GOP lawmaker wants to discuss, abortion, is now the major issue on the table, thanks to a solitary crazed Trump judicial appointee.
These events – the Trump indictment, the Nashville violence and crazed aftermath, and the Texas judge’s verdict – illustrate Republican values in bold relief. They epitomize what the Republican Party has become, the vision of the country they desire, with fear-driven, anti-everything, authoritarian regimes striking down decades of progress in the last gasp of their gerrymandered-based power. This bodes poorly for the GOP in 2024 because it is all in plain sight. They are going to nominate a disgraced ex-president, who will likely be a convicted felon by November 5, 2024, who wants to lead the country to this dystopian future. Democrats hate it. Independents do not like it. Mainstream Republicans are unenthused by it. And the Trumpian base to whom it speaks is only about 20% of the electorate.
This is not going to end well for the GOP in 2024 – and beyond. Much can happen in 19 months, and will. But a Trump nomination, in plain terms, means this: a recipe for a Biden reelection, a Senate hold for the Dems (overcoming that map), and a blue retaking of the House – a.k.a., the reestablishment of a Dem trifecta. Think what Biden might accomplish with such control and absent the pressure of reelection. And who knows what might happen with SCOTUS, with the two oldest and most conservative members, both GOP-appointees (Thomas and Alito), approaching their 80’s during that four-year term. I wish no ill to anyone, but the reality is that Biden may yet get his chance to reshape the Court as well. Every mainstream GOP politician recognizes that these are the stakes of a Trump nomination, yet they appear helpless to prevent it from happening.