THE ELEPHANT IN THE ROOM
The Republicans, 2020-2024
A real-time examination of how the Republican Party interpreted Trump’s 2020 defeat and decided on a nominee for 2024, and the extent to which Trump took over the party.
Donald Trump remains a very strong contender to be the Republican presidential nominee in 2024. Yet this would be a substantial departure from history — no major party has renominated a losing presidential aspirant since 1956, and none has renominated a former president since 1892. The process by which a party “learns” from an electoral loss seems upended for Republicans in the wake of 2020, with many rejecting the idea that there could be better candidates, and some even rejecting that the loss occurred.
This book project examines the extent to which Donald Trump has taken over the Republican Party. I engage with the post-2020 Republican Party from numerous approaches – interviews with longstanding party activists, examinations of county party chair elections and censures, analyses of news coverage and Twitter discussions, studies of election returns from midterm primaries, survey experiments of Republican voters, surveys of party chairs, and more. This book is at its core a study of the Republican Party, not Donald Trump, although a key motivating question is how and to what extent he engineered a hostile takeover of the party and remade it in his image.
I am conducting the research for this book essentially in real time. Preliminary findings suggest that there is a legitimate contest going on within the party for the 2024 presidential nomination, with a large field of candidates visiting states, meeting with influential locals, seeking funds and endorsements, and more, and that interpretations of the 2022 midterm election outcomes have made the contest more competitive. Yet it remains unclear whether the anti-Trump forces within the party can coordinate around an alternative candidate or if they’ll be divided as they were in 2016.
I expect to publish this book in early or mid-2025.
Takeover and Consolidation
- This chapter reviews what happened within the Republican Party from 2015 to 2020, with a focus on how Trump managed to win the 2016 presidential nomination with much of the formal party arrayed against him. I draw some comparisons and contrasts with Barry Goldwater’s 1964 nomination; he was an unlikely candidate, but largely achieved that goal by his supporters taking over local party organizations in the years leading up to the election. By contrast, Trump mainly took over the party after winning its nomination.
Key to the Trump takeover of the Republican Party was work at the local level. With the help of loyal lieutenants like Steve Bannon, Trump supporters ran for and won many county-level party positions between 2016 and 2021, with a particular drive to do so immediately following the 2020 election. One indicator of increased radicalization of local parties is their use of censures. County parties have occasionally censured officeholders, but only sparingly, with just two or three per year across the country. In 2021, county Republican Party organizations censured more than 20 GOP officeholders, all for a failure to support Donald Trump in his impeachment trial or in his efforts to overturn the 2020 election. These efforts were concentrated in counties with a shrinking white percentage of the population, suggesting this has much to do with racial anxiety among whites.
Narratives and Electability
My previous book suggested that published narratives about why the 2016 election came out as it did affected Democrats’ thinking for the 2020 nomination, altering the sorts of candidates they believed could win. Did this apply to Republicans between 2020 and 2024? I use a survey experiment to see if different news coverage of Trump’s election loss changed what Republicans thought about him as a potential nominee for 2024. Importantly, the findings showed that Trump was still a favorite regardless of the type of media coverage he received or what kinds of media were covering him. However, Republicans who heard critical Trump coverage from a conservative publication tended to assess Trump’s electability poorly – they still wanted him to be President but were less sure he could win. The study suggests that depending on what sort of messaging they heard, Republicans were open to the idea that the party should pick a different nominee for 2024, not because they didn’t like Trump, but because they saw him as an electoral under-performer.
The Fox Primary
One of the things that distinguishes the modern Republican Party from the modern Democratic Party and even from the GOP of just a few decades ago is the central role of conservative media. Fox News, in particular, has become not simply a conservative-leaning news organization but rather an arm of the party, playing a critical role in the nomination of candidates. In 2018, Ron DeSantis became the Republican nominee for Governor in Florida despite running against a primary opponent with greater funding and broader party support in large part because Fox News gave him extensive promotion – he won the “Fox Primary.” This chapter examines the attention given by Fox News to various candidates in Republican Senate and gubernatorial primaries in the 2022 cycle and in the 2024 presidential cycle, examining the role the network plays in picking nominees.
The Invisible Primary
How did the Republican Party ultimately select a 2024 presidential nominee? This chapter looks at the “invisible primary,” the process by which party elites converge on a nominee prior to the first primaries and caucuses of 2024. I make use of a survey of county Republican party chairs starting in early 2023 to understand how these figures were leaning and what information they were using to make a decision.
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