The “invisible” 2024 primary to win the Republican Party’s presidential nomination is in high gear with a mini-bus full of wannabees not named Donald Trump. They are raising money, appearing on Fox News, speaking at GOP events — all the usual rituals expected from potential candidates in the permanent campaign more than three years from Election Day.
However, there are uniquely historic circumstances surrounding this election cycle due to a question with multi-dimensional answers that every player is forced to contemplate: If the former president runs again, should I drop out or challenge him in a primary fight that could jeopardize my political career?
One high-profile contender was quick to answer. On April 12, Nikki Haley, the former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and former South Carolina governor, announced, “I would not run if President Trump ran, and I would talk to him about it.” Does “it” mean Haley would interview to be his running mate? Probably yes, since Trump would strategically benefit from having a distinguished woman of color on his ticket.
For now, the rest of the field ignores “the question,” turning the early horse race into an unprecedented, bizarre waiting game. Yet, the 2024 field is forced to acquiesce while a defeated, elderly, twice-impeached former president who presided over the GOP losing control of the White House and Capitol Hill decides whether to run again. (Sounds more like the lead character from a political comedy series imagined by a scriptwriting team at the cannabis café.)
Meanwhile, Trump’s “unscripted reality show” aired on Fox News this week. The former president, continuing to play his 2024 teasing game, told Sean Hannity’s viewers, “So I say this, I am looking at it very seriously, beyond seriously.” But beyond the audience and aimed at the ears of presidential hopefuls, Trump is really saying, “I’m in total control of this race.” And he will be as long as GOP leaders continue to kneel at his throne.
If Trump decides to run, he is likely to officially announce after the 2022 midterm elections (especially if the GOP wins back control of the House and or Senate) while claiming as much credit as politically feasible.
Conversely, as a master spinner, Trump could even leverage a losing midterm outcome to bolster his campaign message, saying, “The GOP failed to win back Congress because I am not in the White House!”
The GOP’s quandary is if Trump runs, will Republican leadership decide to surrender and “coronate” him? Well before Trump announces, the party must discuss that complex problem knowing full well his decision could hinge on their answer.
We can practically hear some party leaders and other presidential hopefuls on cable news shows saying, “Republicans don’t coronate. Trump must earn the nomination as he did in 2016. His strength with the base must be tested in primaries.”
Undoubtedly, after Trump has been the leader of the free world, it is hard to imagine him trudging through Iowa debating Ted Cruz at the Des Moines Rotary Club. More awkward is Trump slogging through New Hampshire snow to speak at town hall candidate events next to his former VP Mike Pence and former Sec. of State Mike Pompeo.
Hence why many political prognosticators believe that Trump is only flirting with a 2024 run to stay relevant in order to maintain his power position as king of the Republican Party.
Alternatively, other party leaders might argue, “Trump won a record 74 million voters in 2020. Let’s build on that base, continue to raise millions, and not waste time and resources with presidential primaries. Trump rallies will be the new primaries, so forget about debates and small ball retail politics.”
Conceivably, any remaining candidates who were bold enough to challenge Trump are strongly encouraged to drop out, and Trump is de facto coronated one rally at a time. Then, when not at rallies, he campaigns on Fox News and other Trump-friendly media platforms that gladly welcome his ratings boost.
But that rosy scenario is way too easy.
There exists the strong possibility that a Trump run fails to meet expectations. What if polls show that the GOP base yearns for a new, younger face with Trump-like fighting qualities? Is there someone who embraces “Trumpism” without all the baggage?
That sentiment appears to be on display at PredictIt — the political prediction “stock market” where shares are bought and sold based on the outcome of political events.
At this writing, the prediction market for the GOP 2024 presidential nominee shows Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis leading trading at 23 cents, with Trump at 22 cents. (A 23 percent probability that DeSantis comes out on top.) Far behind is Nikki Haley, trading at 10 cents, while Mike Pence, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), Gov. Kristi Noem (R-S.D.), Pompeo and Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) trade even lower. (And now former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie is rumored to be considering a run with or without Trump, so watch his trading value.)
PredictIt is an excellent indicator for gauging candidate strength, and Trump nearly tied with DeSantis signals that Trump is not a shoo-in. Ultimately, perhaps Trump will offer a grand excuse not to run or bow out if the going gets tough to save face and not show weakness, which he is known to loathe.
No modern former president has ever positioned himself into the upcoming elections as much as Trump is doing now and will over the next two to four years. But if Trump is forced into the 2024 background, we can bet that his behavior will launch another fascinating reality show and new problems for the GOP. Until then, coronate or primary is the question.
Myra Adams writes about politics and religion for numerous publications. She is a RealClearPolitics contributor. She served on the creative team of two GOP presidential campaigns in 2004 and 2008. Follow her on Twitter @MyraKAdams.