Donald Trump’s announcement that he will run for president again in 2024 could scarcely have come at a worse time for him.
Given that — and given that Trump backed himself into a corner by teasing an imminent announcement before the election went sideways — he had some accounting to do on Tuesday night. How could he go about arguing that he’s the guy to carry the torch forward, in light of the 2022 results?
He tried mightily. But even when his arguments weren’t based on falsehoods and oversimplifications, they basically amounted to a remarkable attempted bargain with GOP primary voters.
Trump, as he is wont to do, inflated his endorsement record. He claimed that he endorsed 232 winning candidates to just 22 losers. According to Ballotpedia, he actually endorsed twice as many losers as he claimed, in both primaries and the general election. What’s more, Trump padded his stats by endorsing in myriad uncompetitive races the GOP was never going to lose; his candidates lost most of the competitive Senate and governor’s races. And almost across the board, those candidates underperformed their fellow Republicans.
Trump also claimed Republicans won the House popular vote by 5 million votes. The actual number is already down to 4.5 million and will go on to drop significantly. He also claimed it was “the largest margin in many, many years,” though Republicans won by more in both 2010 and 2014. (The ultimate totals could wind up similar to 2016, when the GOP won the House popular vote despite Trump losing his.)
But perhaps Trump’s biggest — and bleakest — line came when he spoke about why the 2022 election wasn’t better for his party.
“The citizens of our country have not yet realized the full extent and gravity of the pain our nation is going through, and the total effect of the suffering is just starting to take hold,” Trump said. “They don’t quite feel it yet, but they will very soon. I have no doubt that by 2024 it will sadly be much worse, and they will see much more clearly what happened and what is happening to our country. And the voting will be much different. Twenty twenty-four. Are you getting ready? And I am too. I am too.”
This last part, notably, was the moment when Trump suddenly seemed to amp up what, up to that point, had been a pretty low-energy speech.
Let’s set aside that Trump seemed almost gleeful that continued suffering would open the door to his return to the White House. He’s basically arguing, to any Republicans worried about his electoral prospects, that things will be so bad that voters will have to recognize it — and then he’ll actually have a good shot.
But if voters didn’t recognize that things were bad this year, exit polls sure didn’t reflect it. Fully three-fourths of voters rated the economy as either “not so good” or “poor,” and voters said by a 14-point margin that President Biden’s policies were hurting the country. Pre-election polling showed that the share of Americans satisfied with the country’s state of affairs had reached one of the lowest points in decades.
Those are the very bad numbers for the party that holds the White House. And they suggest that very few people view how things are going — or the policies of the party in power — through rose-colored glasses.
The problem for Republicans wasn’t that people failed to recognize the gravity of the situation; it’s that they didn’t like the alternative. Fully 36 percent of voters who rated the economy negatively voted for Democrats, as did 62 percent who rated it merely “not so good” rather than “poor.” And among voters who “somewhat” disapproved of Biden, Democrats actually won by four points — perhaps the most striking stat in all the exit polls. That’s how Democrats hung tough with a pretty unpopular president.
The problem for Trump right now is that he just doesn’t have a good story to tell. The 2022 election was a clear disappointment for Republicans — a reality even Trump didn’t attempt to spin — but it was even more unequivocally a bad day for Trump.
It’s precisely the wrong time to begin asking Republicans to reinvest in him. So his message is apparently that they should count on Americans souring even more in two years.
At that point, apparently, the guy who lost the popular vote twice, who won the presidency in the first place only because he faced a historically unpopular opponent, and who helped squander both the House majority and Senate majority (twice) will apparently have a shot.
Republicans now must decide if they want to roll the dice on the bargain he’s proposed. They might do so, but after the rebuke that was 2022, that will involve even more faith than they invested in Trump six years ago.