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Opinion The GOP’s path to dumping Trump will be torturous

A Trump supporter holds of a MAGA hat with pins during a 2021 “Save America” rally in Perry, Ga. (Demetrius Freeman/The Washington Post)

It’s become clear that there’s a path to defeating former president Donald Trump in the 2024 Republican primaries. But that path will be torturous for the GOP to navigate.

Trump’s own rise in 2016 showed that the party’s voters, not its elites, decide who lead it. While pundits rightly note that the elites were fatally split among many contenders, it’s notable that virtually none endorsed Trump even as the race narrowed to its final stages. Trump’s triumph demonstrated that messaging and marketing are more important in presidential primaries than money and maneuvering.

A sensible analysis of 2024, then, must begin with an overview of where the party’s voters stand. American parties contain many factions that roughly organize themselves around questions essential to the party’s identification. Knowing what those questions are and how many people are arrayed into which factions is crucial to grasping what could unfold.

The GOP’s central question for decades had been the extent to which the party should be a vehicle for movement conservatism. That factional breakdown, which I outlined in a book co-written by University of New Hampshire professor Dante Scala, showed that the party’s central and largest faction was the “somewhat conservatives.” These people’s ideals were tempered by pragmatism and focused on business issues. They were the sort who preferred House Speaker John Boehner to the tea party, and it was their large numbers rather than their representation in the party elite that guaranteed their choice was always the party’s nominee.

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Trump’s rise replaced that old question with a new one: To what extent should the Republican Party be the personal vehicle for Trump?

The new Republican Party breaks down into four rough factions in response to this query, and none has a clear plurality. Instead, the party has three factions of nearly equal size and a fourth tiny one whose votes might be decisive.

The three lions are Mega MAGA, the Old Guard and the MAGA Adjacent. I estimate each are about 30 percent of the party’s voters and are numerous in virtually every state. The minnow is the Never Trump group, which constitutes about 10 percent of GOP voters. They are strongest in wealthy suburbs and major metropolitan areas such as New York and D.C.

Mega MAGA is Trump’s base. They want Trump because they love his combative style. They want to “own the libs” and never tire of his antics. Indeed, as my colleague Megan McArdle recently observed, they view his high jinks as proof that he is sincere in his opposition to their political enemies. He captured their hearts over the past six years, and they will remain faithful till death or defeat do them part.

The Old Guard is composed of traditional Reagan conservatives. They prefer a less combative style and liked Trump’s presidency mainly when he governed according to their wishes. They want a restoration of the old party in substance and style, with as few deviations to accommodate the Trumpian interlude as possible. These are the people who look longingly at leaders such as former vice president Mike Pence, former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin.

The third group, the MAGA Adjacent, is the one that’s hardest for most observers to pin down. That’s because these people like Trump for both his style and substance but are not eternally devoted to him personally. They won’t look first to leaders favored by the Old Guard for that reason, although they might consider one if that person adopts a more aggressive posture. For now, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis is their man of the hour, and that’s why polls show he is emerging as Trump’s biggest competitor.

Note how finely these forces are balanced. If DeSantis sours and some MAGA Adjacent voters go back to Trump, then the final two candidates will be Trump and whichever Old Guard candidate can solidify his or her position. But if DeSantis stays strong and the Old Guard remains split, then DeSantis will make it to the final round and the Old Guard voters have to decide who the nominee will be.

This could put the Never Trumpers in the driver’s seat. They might prefer someone such as outgoing Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan or Rep. Liz Cheney (Wyo.), but they should quickly realize their first choice has no hope of winning the nomination. Will they instead get behind an Old Guarder, propelling that person to the final two even if that means MAGA Adjacent voters might later coalesce around Trump? Will they back DeSantis as the lesser of two evils to send Trump packing, even if their hearts are elsewhere? Or will they effectively abstain in the early stages and let the crucial choice of the final two competitors take place without their input?

One can see from this that all Republican contenders, even Trump, must perform an intricate dance to prevail. The person who pirouettes to the winners’ platform will have to be skillful indeed.