Ben Roback: If not Trump, then who will be the next presidential candidate for the Republican Party?

30 Jun

Ben Roback is Head of Trade and International Policy at Cicero Group.

It is hard to think of the Republican Party without Donald Trump, such is his grip on the GOP. This is despite a clear culling of his reach of late. Banned by every mainstream social media platform and without even his own website to use as a blog – “From The Desk of Donald J Trump” flopped on launch – the 44th president has no form of direct communication with his supporters.

He has therefore made an eager return to the campaign trail, where big tech can’t “cancel” him. Speaking in front of a crowd of thousands in a small town in Ohio, a key swing state, Trump left the door wide open to running again: “We won the election twice,” he told supporters. “We may have to win it a third time.”

Obsessed with the size of his crowds since that infamous inauguration speech, Trump’s ability to draw numbers remains a useful measure of his support in the Republican Party. It is a bellwether, but not a science. Labour activists presumed Jeremy Corbyn would lead his party to victory in 2019 purely because he was adored at Glastonbury.

A presidential run by Trump in 2024 looks somewhere between obvious and entirely inevitable. Backroom operator does not suit Trump, whose obsession with attention means that it would not be enough to be the GOP kingmaker and have presidential hopefuls walk the gilded halls of Mar-A-Lago to kiss the ring.

Trump is still the Republican Party base’s favourite to run and win in 2024. If you follow the money, he is also the favourite with bookmakers. Having resumed in-person rallies in front of adoring crowds, and with a familiar script appearing that centres around a corrupt election, cancel culture and porous borders, the Trump 2024 campaign looks well underway.

Democrats hope to lay speed bumps on the road to the White House. Nancy Pelosi and her colleagues on Capitol Hill recognise that they have a political opportunity to use the riot at the Capitol on January 6 as a political tool against Trump. It is copied from the playbook deployed by Republicans who set up the Benghazi special inquiry that dogged Hillary Clinton in 2018.

Only 30 per cent of GOP voters blame Trump for the insurrection compared to 61 per cent of the wider population and Republicans argue that in order to “heal” the nation needs to move on from the attack on the Capitol.

Trump remains the darling of the GOP, but what about the others?

Nikki Haley

Haley boasts both an incredibly impressive CV and, crucially, worked for Trump in the White House but left the administration on good terms with her boss. While so many presidential appointments inevitably fell out with Trump and left in either embarrassment or disgrace, Haley resigned her post as US Ambassador to the UN popular with the president and his supporters. The former South Carolina Governor recently hosted Jared and Ivanka Trump at her home in Kiawah Island, signalling a desire to keep “the family” on side.

Notwithstanding the above, she has work to do to regain popularity with the Trump base. Having sided with Trump throughout his presidency, Haley pulled no punches in criticising his actions leading up the Capitol Hill riot in January. As a candidate, she will push her credentials and experience at the UN to further Trump’s “America First” mantra on the world stage. With a compelling background story that embodies the kind of diversity that the modern GOP lacks, in many respects she is the more developed and acceptable face of the Trump-wing of the Republican Party.

Mike Pompeo

The former Secretary of State will, like Haley, use his international experience as a springboard for greater ambitions. Pompeo lacks serious domestic political or policy experience to complement his track record abroad having only spent six years in the House of Representatives as a Congressman from Kansas.

Pompeo has effectively been running for the GOP nomination for months already. When it comes to fundraising and establishing a presence in the early-voting states like New Hampshire and Iowa, a head start is no bad thing. Pompeo left the CIA and then State Department having struggled to balance his deference and loyalty to Trump with the fact that his boss routinely turned against the US diplomatic and intelligence community.

Taken seriously in Republican circles, Pompeo lacks credibility beyond the core. If Trump runs in 2024, there would be few compelling reasons for the party to back Pompeo, a Trump-lite candidate without the showmanship or killer instinct.

Ron DeSantis

Ron DeSantis, the Florida Governor, is probably the most interesting Republican politician in the United States right now. He bucked the trend and rushed to open bars, barbers and businesses in his state when most other Governors were keeping the doors closed. As a result, he personified what “freedom” means in the context of the pandemic and Republicans elsewhere soon followed suit.

His willingness to engage in culture wars infuriates the Left and galvanises the Right. DeSantis has mandated patriotic education in schools and banned teaching critical race theory. DeSantis has ingratiated himself with the Trump base while remaining deeply loyal. When pressed about his own presidential ambitions, he is quick to back the former president, should Trump run. That had been reflected in the polling of Republicans, where Trump had consistently been the front-runner with DeSantis lagging in second.

At February’s Conservative Political Action (CPAC) conference, the biggest annual gathering of conservative activists and leaders, Trump was out front on 55 per cent with DeSantis second on 22 per cent. Not so anymore. In a straw poll of attendees at the Western Conservative Summit in Colorado last weekend, DeSantis edged Trump by three points with a slightly higher approval rating of 74 to 71 per cent.

A Trump-less GOP?

Thinking about a Trump-less Republican Party seems premature and perhaps moot given the former president’s busy schedule of interviews and rallies. The non-Trump candidates like DeSantis, Haley and Pompeo know they can only win the GOP nomination if Trump decides not to run. If he does, the best they can hope for is to balance the ticket as the vice-presidential nominee. If so, Haley and DeSantis are best placed given their home states of South Carolina and Florida respectively carry critical electoral college votes.

What odds then of Trump not running and opening the path to the also-rans of the GOP? Few have made money betting against Trump’s popularity in the Republican Party. If Joe Biden and Kamala Harris prove unpopular and struggle to propel the US economy into recovery after the pandemic, while the crisis on the southern border gets worse in parallel, Trump will almost certainly consider the opportunity too good to pass up.