Instead of The Apprentice, Donald Trump should have called his reality TV show “Survivor.” For seven years, he’s been doing things that would have wiped out other politicians. In each case, he’s bounced back from controversy and held his Republican base.
Now that he’s officially running for president in 2024, can he keep doing it?
There are reasons why Trump could be a weaker nomination candidate next time than he was the last two times. In 2016, he was the Republican disrupter, the non-politician who offered conservatives what they wanted: sweeping change. In 2020, he was the incumbent president with solid party support.
But in the 2024 nomination battle, Trump could have a deadly weakness: electability.
It’s not a question of whether Trump can win — many politicians theoretically can win races they ultimately lose — but whether Republican leaders and rank-and-file voters believe the former president would be their strongest candidate against Democratic opposition.
Republicans can’t stand the thought of another four years of Democratic rule. They want a winner. If it looks like Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, or perhaps a new face such as Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin, has a better chance, they could switch from Trump to a more likely winner. Electability is nothing new as a presidential nomination issue. Remember 2020?
After terrible showings in Iowa and New Hampshire, Joe Biden’s campaign appeared to be collapsing. But his big win in South Carolina gave him new life. Within 72 hours, the Democratic Party collectively decided the best path, maybe the only path, to defeating Trump was nominating Biden. All of a sudden, Biden’s nomination came together. Electability was the trigger.
The 2022 midterm election was an eye-opener for Republicans. It showed the inherent risks of allowing Trump, with his heavy baggage and high negatives, to loom over the party. It has caused staunch Trump supporters to rethink their next move.
To assess Trump’s appeal among his Republican base, we must understand an overlooked reality: His supporters hate his enemies more than they love him. Most conservatives despise the media, the “woke” left, the Washington Establishment, “deep state” bureaucrats, liberal judges, international organizations and left-leaning interest groups, think tanks, and nonprofit groups. These are the enemies of Trump’s voters — and they see Trump as the one guy in politics who takes the arrows meant for them.
But what happens if another strongly conservative Republican leader comes along with the same enemies and less baggage? What if that candidate is younger, more politically effective, and is perceived to be more likely to defeat the Democrats? That’s where DeSantis, or some other GOP prospect, comes in.
Other than beating Hillary Clinton, who spent most of her 2016 presidential campaign under federal investigation, Trump’s record of defeating Democrats is in question. Even against Clinton, he lost the nationwide popular vote, and his party lost seats in both houses of Congress.
On Trump’s watch in 2018, Republicans lost control of the House to Nancy Pelosi’s Democrats. They also lost seven governorships, 350 state legislative seats, and six legislative chambers. That led to 2020 when Trump lost both the popular and electoral vote. He was defeated in key states a Republican nominee needs to win in 2024 — Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, Arizona, Nevada, and Georgia. Trump never exceeded 46.9% of the nationwide vote in his two prior presidential campaigns, which is a problem for Republicans who need much wider support to enact a conservative agenda and defeat down-ballot Democrats.
Trump’s desire to prove he actually won the 2020 election served his purposes for a while. But the 2022 midterm elections showed that election denialism is a losing issue — it puts Republican candidates on the defense when they need to be on the offense.
Pundits still quote Trump about shooting somebody on Fifth Avenue and getting away with it. But in doing so, they’re missing the point. While Republicans may not abandon Donald Trump because of the substance of his controversies, they may abandon him because his controversies have made him unelectable. That, more than anything, could be his Achilles’ heel.
Ron Faucheux is a nonpartisan political analyst. He publishes LunchtimePolitics.com, a nationwide newsletter on polls and public opinion. He’s the author of Running for Office.