The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

So will Democrats try to boost Trump in the 2024 primaries, too?

President Donald Trump departs after speaking from the White House to a crowd of supporters on Oct. 10, 2020. (Alex Brandon/AP)

“He’s a little too polarizing,” one woman told the reporter. Another man lamented that “he upset too many people, and he upset them really bad, so I don’t think he’s good for the party.”

“I’d like to see him not run,” said another. And another: “I prefer somebody different.”

The sorts of indictments no politician would want to see, certainly. But, as always, we should take such anecdotes with a grain of salt: These are the views of a handful of people in one place — in this case, Arizona. Their hesitancy is not necessarily reflective of voters broadly.

What makes these anecdotes interesting, though, is the combination of whom those voters were talking about and where their thoughts were presented. That’s because those Arizona voters were offering skepticism not about the current president but the last one, Donald Trump, and the news outlet presenting their skepticism as representative was Fox News.

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The network ran a three-minute snippet asking self-identified Republicans in Maricopa County how they felt about the 2024 nominating contest. One said she wanted to see Trump run again. But most said they didn’t, often worried that his toxic tenure had made reelection impossible. Asked whom they preferred, there was near unanimity: Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R).

That the 2024 Republican nomination has drifted toward a two-man fight — Trump vs. DeSantis — is not new. National polling has repeatedly shown three tiers of candidates, with the former president leading the current governor by a healthy margin and DeSantis well ahead of the rest of the pack. At the state level, DeSantis has at times scrambled into a statistical tie with Trump. A new poll in Michigan, for example, shows the two essentially even.

We should not assume that this means that 2024 will come down to a Trump-DeSantis contest, certainly. The general election is more than two years away, and things will change. (In July 2014, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie led the 2016 Republican field, for example.) Instead, we should probably understand that the 2024 contest is shaping up to be Trump vs. Someone Who Isn’t Trump, and DeSantis is currently the preferred candidate for that second role.

This is not simply because he isn’t Trump. DeSantis has worked assiduously to ingratiate himself with the Republican electorate, embracing culture-war fights and playing to Fox News. DeSantis’s political career was famously boosted by Fox News; regular appearances on the network before the 2018 gubernatorial primary brought him to Trump’s attention and earned him the president’s endorsement. Now he has cut out the middle man, working Fox and its audience directly.

But it is also in part because he isn’t Trump. DeSantis is fairly deliberate about being Trump without the personal toxicity, which makes it easier for people to present him as a viable alternative to the former president: He does all the policy and culture-war stuff, but without the rude tweets! (Those, he leaves to his communications team.) The voters who spoke to Fox News elevated precisely that argument.

And Fox News ran the segment. One should not ascribe broad intent to individual news snippets; my articles, for example, are not reflective of The Washington Post’s broader views, whatever those might be. But the segment produced by (and stamped with) Fox News captures a very specific view of the upcoming primary. Voters, it suggests, want a transition to something saner. If you are responsible for getting a Republican elected as president in 2024, this is probably exactly the sort of message you’d like to see on Fox News.

After all, while polling is again both sparse and premature, there is good reason to think that President Biden’s best chance to be reelected is to face Donald Trump again in 2024. Polling released last week showed that most Democrats don’t want Biden to run again … but that Biden nonetheless maintains a slight (nonsignificant) edge over Trump in general-election polling. In a recent interview, Biden said he would “not be disappointed” should he win the party’s nomination and then have to run against Trump again.

One digital segment from Fox News is not going to reshape its viewership. The network still has an obvious reason to celebrate Trump’s candidacy, given its viewership’s predilections. But, again, if you’re trying to get Biden out of office, elevating the idea that Trump is too toxic and DeSantis a soothing balm is probably part of your current tool kit.

But now we consider the flip side of this idea: Is it in the raw political interests of Biden supporters to elevate Trump as a primary candidate?

Over the course of the year, there have been repeated examples of Democratic organizations and donors spending money to promote more-extreme Republican primary candidates. In Tuesday’s primary in Maryland, for example, the Democratic Governors Association is boosting a Republican candidate in the hope that his views will make it easier for a Democrat to win in November. This is an obviously fraught strategy, given the good chances that the electorate will be so favorable to Republicans that some of those extreme candidates win. The left appears to hope to find the sweet spot in which the electorate would be friendly to a Republican but unfriendly to a more right-wing Republican.

So what happens in two years? Let’s assume that Biden easily locks up the Democratic nomination (which is not a sure thing). Let’s assume, too, that this year’s elevation of right-wing candidates doesn’t backfire on Biden’s party. Would Democrats actively work to ensure Trump gets past Republican primary opponents? Would we see ads sponsored by deep-pocketed Democrats disparaging DeSantis as insufficiently MAGA in New Hampshire?

This is admittedly more of a thought experiment than anything. At what point do hyperclever political machinations undermine the party’s argument that democracy is under threat from a candidate’s election? Would the left see it as worth the risk of a second Trump presidency to shave a few points off general-election polling?

The likely answer is no, in part because of the obvious ways in which Trump challenged democracy — and in part because a variant of this specific scenario has burned the party before. In 2016, there was an element of the party that saw Trump as the ideal opponent for Hillary Clinton, figuring that his extremism would turn voters off and make Clinton’s election easier. Polling kept showing that people didn’t think Trump would be able to do the job, so how could they vote for him!

Oops.

Now we work backward. Was it worth boosting Doug Mastriano’s gubernatorial bid in Pennsylvania? Kari Lake’s in Arizona? It depends on how they fare in November and then what they might do in office, just as it did with Trump. But the downside risk, the outlier scenario, is always a possibility. Sometimes violent mobs storm the Capitol.

We’re at a weird moment in American democracy broadly and electoral politics specifically. Both parties probably see Trump as the less viable candidate in 2024, giving the Republican firmament a reason to diminish him, and Democrats and Biden a weird incentive to see him succeed.

The left is already running uncontrolled experiments that reflect that incentive, elevating candidates espousing MAGA-esque, Trumpian, right-wing rhetoric in state races in the hope that makes it less likely the Republicans will win.

It may not.

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