The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Why the Republican presidential field is so weak

Former president Donald Trump visits the Red Arrow Diner in Manchester, N.H., on April 27. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
4 min

If you watched Donald Trump’s grotesque CNN town hall on Wednesday, you might have marveled at his shameless dishonesty, cringed at the audience cheering his every repugnant utterance and reviled the network’s decision to create such a spectacle in the first place. But you probably didn’t given much thought to any of Trump’s GOP rivals for the 2024 presidential nomination.

Which highlights this fact: While there is no shortage of ambitious Republicans who dream of becoming president, the field of candidates opposing Trump is incredibly weak.

During the last open Republican presidential nomination contest in 2016, no fewer than 17 major candidates ran, including nine governors and five senators (current and former). When Democrats last faced an incumbent president from the other party, more than two dozen major candidates ran. Yet today, you could fit all the announced (or soon-to-be announced) Republican candidates other than the former president into a compact car. It consists of two former governors, one senator, one businessman and a radio talk show host.

A few more might enter the race, most notably Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. But it’s hard to recall a more feeble group of GOP presidential candidates.

The list of those who clearly would like to be president but appear to have decided against running is long. It includes Sens. Josh Hawley (Mo.), Ted Cruz (Tex.), Tom Cotton (Ark.), Rick Scott (Fla.) and Marco Rubio (Fla.), along with Govs. Glenn Youngkin (Va.), Brian Kemp (Ga.), Greg Abbott (Tex.) and former governor Larry Hogan (Md.). That’s not even all of them.

Almost any of them would have a greater claim to electability than Trump, who lost in 2020 and helped bring about disastrous elections for his party in 2018 and 2022. But Trump changed the worldview of the Republican electorate, convincing them that considering electability at all is a kind of betrayal.

After all, worrying about electability means you take the world as it is and ask how you might convince those not already on your side to join you. But Trump taught Republicans to thrill to the creation of their own alternate reality. When he insists that election losses are rigged or that he almost completed a wall along the entire southern border, the statements themselves are not the point. The very act of lying, then shouting down those who would correct you, is what creates the excitement the party’s voters crave.

Even the smarmiest of mainstream Republicans can’t muster that kind of performance. They may have charisma of one form or another — Hawley, for instance, is part-debate champion and part-non-denominational evangelical pastor when he’s in front of an audience — but they aren’t hot in the way Trump is. And heat is what Republican voters now expect.

Yet most of the GOP’s leaders are essentially the same people they were before. Some may have debased themselves in particularly colorful ways groveling before Trump, but they’re still mostly traditional politicians who are putting their ambitions on hold while waiting for the party to revert to its pre-Trump state. The few in the race simply believe that time will come sooner rather than later.

When they decline to criticize Trump for his latest indictment or jury verdict, it’s not just because they’re cowards; it’s also because they understand that anything that earns Trump criticism from Democrats or the media enhances his credibility among the primary electorate. That electorate’s reaction to any new development is built around loathing for their enemies, so if Trump is under attack for something, he must either be innocent, or the thing for which he’s being criticized is actually something to be admired.

That means that for Trump’s opponents, even saying it’s bad to sexually abuse women would drive a wedge between them and the voters, rather than driving a wedge between the voters and the guy who a jury just ruled is liable for sexually assaulting a woman. So they keep quiet.

If those are the rules of the game, it becomes extraordinarily difficult for a Republican to find a way to distinguish themselves from Trump. So it isn’t surprising that candidates such as Hawley and Cruz would decide to wait until the game changes.

There’s no telling when that might be. The CNN town hall will surely intensify fears among Republicans about how weak Trump would be in the general election. Yet at the same time, it underscored his strength with the party’s core voters, who will continue to look askance at competitors who can’t bring them to the same heights of emotional fervor.

His competitors’ weakness is becoming a self-reinforcing dynamic, and it’s not clear the party has any answer to it.