To defeat Trump, stop calling him a loser


For some frustrated Republicans, the key lesson from a disappointing 2022 election is clear: Donald Trump has become a liability for their party. They may well be right — but it will be a tough argument to argue with their Republican compatriots, who tend not to place a high value on eligibility.

A growing number of party officials are accusing the former president of costing Republicans control of the Senate and the governors of Pennsylvania, Michigan and Arizona. And with Trump announcing that he will attempt to retake the White House himself in 2024, these critics are keen to convince Republican primary voters that the party needs a new direction.

“The quality of the candidates counts. Holy cow, we learned this the hard way,” New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu quipped, proposing a “great policy for the Republican Party”: Let’s stop supporting crazy, unelectable candidates in our primary. Former US Attorney General Bill Barr complained that Trump was wreaking “mischief” by backing “weak candidates for key Senate and House seats.” The midterms were “a great loss for Trump,” argued former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, proving that “his political instincts aren’t about the party, they’re not about the country — they’re about him.” Former House Speaker Paul Ryan recently described himself as a “never-again-trumper” in 2024 because “I want to win and we lose with Trump.

By basing their arguments against Trump (and pro-Trump candidates) on strategic calculations, these leaders are betting they can persuade Republican voters to opt for maximizing the party’s competitiveness rather than their devotion to the strengthen Trumpism. But that will not be an easy task. Historically, Republicans have been less likely than Democrats to see a trade-off between winning elections and achieving other party goals.

Eligibility is a well-known concern in the Democratic Party. After the defeats of George McGovern in 1972 and Michael Dukakis in 1988, Democrats decided they needed to vote for more dovish presidential candidates to increase the party’s popularity – leading to the more successful elections of Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton.

Joe Biden’s 2020 candidacy was similarly based on the simple premise that he offered the Democrats their best shot at victory. Many Democratic voters readily accepted Biden’s argument, setting aside their preference for a left-leaning, younger, female or non-white candidate to prioritize the goal of removing Trump from office.

Republicans don’t have the same story. Republican candidates are more likely to woo primary supporters by proclaiming their ardent allegiance to party doctrine than by touting their calling in the general election. Conservative activists and media figures rarely even acknowledge the possibility of a tension between partisan purity and electoral strength, instead arguing that voters will reward candidates who draw the sharpest differences to the left — after all, Ronald Reagan has not shown that a staunch conservative can win two national landslides? As a result, Republican primary voters consistently nominated weak candidates who were wasting important national races even before Trump entered politics.

Two other obstacles stand in the way of the Republican critics’ argument that “we lose with Trump”. First, as 2016 shows, Trump is perfectly capable of winning the presidency. Second, there is a widespread belief among Republican supporters that his narrow loss four years later was wrongful.

The belief that Democrats stole the 2020 election has allowed most Republicans to fail to acknowledge and address the policy flaws that have left Trump vulnerable to defeat. Instead, demonstrating loyalty to Trump by questioning the validity of Biden’s victory has become an important sign of conservative identity.

Trump’s comeback attempt could well succumb to the chronic unpredictability of the nomination policy. But by framing their arguments pragmatically, the anti-Trump Republicans are pursuing a strategy without a strong past track record in their party. It’s hard to convince Republican voters that their political calculations mean they must settle for a less emotionally appealing candidate than the one they’ve already once (and almost twice) elected president.

A safer approach for Trump’s Republican critics would be to argue that another contender would not only have a better chance of defeating the Democrats, but would also prove more effective in furthering the conservative cause. “Sorry, but the fun’s over” is rarely a winning message in politics — even when it could be true.

More from the Bloomberg Opinion:

• The most surprising thing about the midterms: Jonathan Bernstein

• Republicans misjudged the power of abortion rights: Sarah Green Carmichael

• Even Republicans are fed up with Trump: Julianna Goldman

This column does not necessarily represent the opinion of the editors or of Bloomberg LP and its owners.

David A. Hopkins is Associate Professor of Political Science at Boston College and author of Red Fighting Blue: How Geography and Electoral Rules Polarize American Politics.

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