Hope springs eternal, in baseball as in politics. We Cleveland fans happily took note of five Guardians players on the new MLB Network list of the top 100. Three of the five weren’t on the list last year. One, outfielder Steve Kwan, had never swung a bat in the majors before his breakout 2022 season. Things change quickly, and hope is surging in Cleveland. But as with mutual funds, so with ballplayers: Past results are not a guarantee of future performance.
Fans of the Republican Party have our most promising five in mind as well, as thoughts turn to choosing a 2024 presidential nominee. According to polling, they are former president Donald Trump, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, former vice president Mike Pence, former ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley and former secretary of state Mike Pompeo. Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.) registers in some polls, but I see no signs that he will run. Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas and Tim Scott of South Carolina are close behind the top five and could easily join the scrum below Trump and DeSantis.
Others could be in contention down the stretch if they get hot midseason: New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott and Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin are pet prospects of various preseason pundits. Maybe a player from seasons past will be a factor, such as former governor Chris Christie of New Jersey. A minor league phenom, the youthful biotech entrepreneur and investor Vivek Ramaswamy, an anti-woke author, declared his candidacy last month. Can he be the Republican equivalent of Kwan — a phenom who sticks? Unlike in baseball, only one player can raise the trophy on the stage of the GOP convention in Milwaukee.
What matters now, however, is not only the roster of would-bes but also the game plan. Which issues will drive the selection of the nominee? That will depend on the mood of the GOP electorate — and that’s a moving target. Approximately 30 million folks voted in Republican primaries in 2016. Their 2024 counterparts will decide the nominee, not elites or analysts. If 2016 taught us anything about presidential politics, it’s what Yogi Berra famously said of baseball: “Nobody knows nothing!”
To learn what will matter, would-be nominees have to get busy — right now — talking to voters, in person and on the air. They must “make impressions,” seek “touches,” “contacts” and, hopefully, bank small donors. But what to talk about? And in what tone?
“Strength and fearlessness,” one GOP senator (not a candidate) told me, “leavened by good cheer, poise, control. So, basically, Reagan!”
“A certain kind of combativeness?” I asked. Yes, indeed, came the reply, but not for combativeness’ sake. “That’s what I meant by ‘strength and fearlessness.’”
Republican voters will be looking for a vigorous candidate willing to take it to President Biden, who appears increasingly infirm to the GOP. The collapse in Afghanistan hangs heavy in conservative memories, as does Biden’s inability to deter Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine. The open border and the Chinese spy balloon are just the latest manifestations of Biden’s perceived weakness. Too negative? Hardly. “Voters rarely seek the replica of what they have,” observed strategist David Axelrod back in 2016. “They almost always seek the remedy, the candidate who has the personal qualities the public finds lacking in the departing executive.” Voters wanting a “remedy” to Biden will be seeking “energy in the executive” as Alexander Hamilton put it so long ago in Federalist 70.
Seniors have a disproportionate impact on primaries, and they are shocked by the economy. Under Biden, many have seen declines of 25 percent in the value of their retirement savings in just two years. They fret over their retirement nest eggs even as the costs of groceries and gas soar — and they are alarmed about the schools their grandchildren attend.
Candidate records will count. And for all candidates not named Trump, there’s a tricky tightrope to walk —praising the former president’s policies on everything from Supreme Court appointments to strength on Israel, which are highly popular with GOP primary voters, without making Trump’s case for him. The threat of a Cold War with China, along with our military’s lack of preparedness, will loom large.
My view is that all this will be baked into a primary cycle defined by the “resentful regular” — the always there, always attentive, reliable Republican voter who just doesn’t see his or her issue set discussed fairly anywhere but on conservative media. Their resentment isn’t based on class, race, or age, but on invisibility among elites: What the heck happened to the media in this country?
Resentful regular Republicans are growing in number. A strategist I spoke with confirmed that they feel excluded from the public debate. And more than just excluded. Branded. They believe that activists on the left and their elite media pals have unfairly deemed their views as “morally reprehensible.” Beltway professionals might find it absurd to claim that the right has been censored by Big Tech and canceled at every level, but the strategist’s data show that these feelings are deep and enduring.
This resentment transcends every set of issues. And no one tweaks it more skillfully than Trump — when he’s found his swing, that is. That means he enters the primaries somewhere between second and third base. The venerable political observer Charlie Cook thinks that Trump holds “a rock-solid lock base of about 30 to 35 percent of Republican primary voters.”
Trump divides the GOP primary electorate into four categories: “Never Trumpers,” “Sometime Trumpers,” “Always Trumpers” and “Only Trumpers.” My veteran Republican strategist tells me the “Only” and the “Never” groups are of roughly the same size — between 25 and 30 percent of the party — meaning the race may be decided in between those extremes, with a possible fissure in the party as a looming risk.
As Richard M. Nixon said long ago about right-wing supporters of Sen. Barry M. Goldwater: You can’t win with just them but you can’t win without them.
The “Only Trump” folks point to the former president’s 74 million votes in 2020 — the highest number ever for a GOP nominee. By adding people dismayed at Biden’s performance, they see a chance for a restoration. The “Never Trump” Republicans — not the talking-head professional Trump haters, but the regular Republicans who simply won’t vote for him again — point to Trump’s widely unpopular post-election and post-presidency tactics. The chaos swelled the number of Republican voters who won’t stomach four more years of the man from Mar-a-Lago.
If the “Nevers” come to be a significant and enduring percentage of the party, too large to be made up by newfound supporters of Trump, what then? Biden’s 2020 number was even larger than Trump’s — some 81 million. The general election math starts to look grim for the former president. The primary electorate knows this, even if the proverbial broken-glass Trumpists — who would slice themselves to shreds crawling after their man — are loud and proud. What can Trump do to offset his losses or woo back those he has repelled?
No answer here: That’s why they put on the uniforms and play the season.
Primary voters will decide the nominee over the next 15 months. The surprises will be many. There will be fast starts, prolonged slumps and breakout performances equivalent to four-hit, five-RBI games. But this is the view from spring training — roughly 25 percent “Only Trump” Republicans versus roughly 25 percent “Never Trump” Republicans — and it’s a worrisome prospect for people who cannot imagine another term for President Biden and Vice President Harris.