Seldom has such a short period 18 months before a presidential election had so many significant events crowded into it. After a sluggish start of the campaign came a frenzied three weeks; new state legislation restricting abortion, Friday’s Supreme Court intervention to permit continued availability of a popular abortion pill, the stunning indictment of former president Donald Trump, the emergence of new Republican candidates to challenge his 2024 run, and the imminent formal beginning of President Joe Biden’s own re-election bid.
These developments have unsettled the political world even as they have imposed a new architecture – tentative, perhaps, but discernible and significant – on the 2024 campaign. At the same time, they have prompted several consequential questions whose answers will shape the coming months:
Can Mr. Trump, who ran in 2016 as an insurgent and governed in the White House as a Washington intruder rather than as a capital insider, convincingly run a third campaign as an establishment figure?
The notion may seem risible on the surface, but the 45th president has so thoroughly recast the Republican Party in his rebellious image that he is the ultimate insider in a political institution that once regarded him as a barbarian at its gated community.
In an analogue to the Book of Matthew’s admonition that “the last shall be first, and the first last,” those who were insiders – state governors, senators, and banking and business executives who were establishment figures, comfortable at city clubs and imposing on the squash court, conservative in language and traditional in Brooks Brothers vestments – have lost their influence in the party. At the same time, those who would seldom have contemplated attending the Lincoln Day dinners that are part of the Republican calendar – blue-collar voters whose parents and grandparents were more apt to be at the labour-union barbecue – are the new base of the GOP.
An important nuance Mr. Trump must navigate in his third campaign: Can he be effective with the moderate voters who will determine the outcome of the 2024 campaign if he is seeking a restoration rather than prosecuting a revolution?
How important, in an age of social media and when the entire notion of “thought leaders” is passé, are the endorsements Republican candidates are assiduously seeking in this phase of the campaign?
Governor Ron DeSantis of Florida, the most prominent challenger to Mr. Trump, obviously thought endorsements had merit because he travelled to Washington this month to seek support from members of his state’s congressional delegation. Instead, Mr. Trump ambushed the Governor by sweeping in and gathering a basket full of endorsements, a mortifying defeat for Mr. DeSantis. So far, the Florida endorsement score – an estimate, because the exact definition of “endorsement” is squishy – is Trump 11, DeSantis 1.
That, of course, in part reflects Mr. Trump’s new profile as the unlikely but now undeniable establishment figure; ordinarily the establishment candidate reaps the endorsements. That is why former president Gerald Ford was endorsed in his 1976 campaign by, among others, 11 former chairs of the party; the entertainers Cary Grant, Ella Fitzgerald, and Zsa Zsa Gabor; and the athletes Terry Bradshaw (football), Peggy Fleming (skating), and Cathy Rigby (gymnast). It is why former vice-president Walter Mondale was endorsed by the teachers’, women’s, and labour groups that were the kingmakers in 1984 Democratic politics and by elected officials and machine bosses from coast to coast. Neither man won the White House.
Caveat: Most of Mr. Trump’s endorsements come from law makers in extremely safe seats and who thus are taking no risk in siding with him. Even so, as a former president with a well-known political and cultural brand, Mr. Trump does not need endorsements nearly as much as Mr. DeSantis does, because for the Florida Governor they would confer political legitimacy that Mr. Trump doesn’t need.
Does size matter?
In political contributions, size matters in two ways: the size of the exchequer and the size of the average donor.
Given the peculiarities of American campaign-finance laws and the presence of independent expenditures on behalf of, but not controlled by, outside groups, assessing the comparative size of political spending power is a perilous undertaking. But this much is clear: Though Mr. Trump faces enormous legal expenses, and though he had a tepid fund-raising first quarter of 2023, he remains a formidable money machine, as demonstrated by his haul of donations since his indictment: He raised about as much in the past three weeks as he did in the past three months.
Though Mr. DeSantis has at least US-$110 million on hand, it is a safe assumption that Mr. Trump will have more financial resources by the time Republican caucus and primary voters begin to focus, probably around the end of the year.
Mr. Trump also has the edge in an area with consequences that are more political than financial because the size of the average donation is indicative of popular rather than elite support. His average contributions (US$34) are small.
Both former United Nations ambassador Nikki Haley, who has been winning contributions from wealthy Republicans in recent weeks, and Mr. DeSantis, who has a record of success among millionaire donors, have targeted big donors. But the Florida Governor suffered a major setback last week when the US$1-million he hoped to reap from billionaire Thomas Peterffy went instead to Virginia Governor Glenn Youngkin, who may not even be a candidate.
Whither evangelicals, who accounted for a fifth of voters (and a third of Trump supporters) in the 2020 election?
Mr. DeSantis, former vice president Mike Pence, and former governor Asa Hutchison of Arkansas all are trying to peel away evangelicals from Mr. Trump, who despite three marriages and a libertine lifestyle has always counted this group as part of his base and who reminds these voters that he put three anti-abortion justices on the Supreme Court.
By signing legislation banning abortion after the sixth week of pregnancy, and with various policies limiting educators’ ability to speak about race and gender issues, Mr. DeSantis has enhanced his appeal among these voters.
But whether he can lure some of them away from the Trump campaign is one of the biggest of the unusually large number of unknowns of this young campaign.