Chris Sununu, the New Hampshire governor and potential presidential candidate who once joked that former President Donald Trump is “fucking crazy,” backpedaled and pledged recently to support Trump if he’s the nominee in 2024.
Nikki Haley, offered a similar chance to distance herself from the former president, insisted she doesn’t “focus” on him. Vivek Ramaswamy, the anti-woke entrepreneur and most recent entrant into the race, went so far as to say he’s “not running against President Trump” at all.
He is, of course. Every candidate in the emerging GOP field will be.
That they can’t quite acknowledge as much underscores one of the defining features of this very early primary and, more generally, GOP politics over the last six years: Trump’s base remains rigid, and even his critics believe it may be fatal to annoy them.
Despite his difficulties since he left office, about a third of Republicans and Republican-leaning voters still consider themselves supporters more of Trump than the Republican Party, according to a recent NBC News poll. Many of them aren’t going anywhere. Fully 28 percent of Republican primary voters are so devoted to the former president that they said they’d support him even if he ran as an independent, according to a national survey last month from The Bulwark and longtime Republican pollster Whit Ayres. Indeed, the “Always Trump” component of the party is so pronounced that it’s affecting how Trump’s opponents operate around him.
“All these folks are just hoping that Trump’s going to have a heart attack on a golf course one day, and that’s going to solve this problem for them,” said Fergus Cullen, a former New Hampshire Republican Party chair. “Not much of a strategy.”
It’s hard to fault them. Republican campaigns have calculated that they can’t afford to offend an entire swath of the GOP electorate still sympathetic to Trump. Instead, they’ve chosen to chip away at them through non-aggressive means.
In her announcement speech, Haley did not directly criticize Trump but called for “mandatory mental competency tests for politicians over 75 years old” — an age that would include both President Joe Biden, 80, and Trump, 76. Meanwhile DeSantis has either ignored or brushed aside Trump’s attacks, choosing to contrast himself by his 2022 results and Trump’s 2020 ones.
“I spend my time delivering results for the people of Florida and fighting against Joe Biden; that’s how I spend my time,” DeSantis said. “I don’t spend my time trying to smear other Republicans.”
It hasn’t gone unnoticed in Trump world. One Republican strategist close to the Trump campaign said potential candidates don’t want to directly go after Trump for fear of alienating his voters who they ultimately need to win.
“If a primary gets too nasty between Trump and DeSantis, I could forsee a chunk refusing to support DeSantis,” the strategist said. “Why were there ‘Never Trumpers’? Because of the nastiness of the primary. I do think that’s something other candidates need to be cognizant of. The voters loyal to Trump are a much more significant chunk than the Never Trumpers.”
A person close to Trump said the ex-president and his campaign do not take that core base of supporters for granted.
“He ran on a platform of the forgotten man and woman in America — they have been with him since he announced in 2015, they were with him in 2020,” the person said. “They won’t leave him.”
Trump, for his part, is actively weaponizing his hold on the party. While Ronna McDaniel, chair of the Republican National Committee, said Sunday that participants in the party’s first primary debate this summer will have to sign a pledge to support the eventual nominee, Trump has balked at that idea, saying “It would have to depend on who the nominee was.”
Even if Trump did sign a pledge, Republicans know there would be no holding him to it. Trump signed a loyalty pledge to support the eventual nominee in 2015. But like a TV character telling the GOP they have a “nice party” and “it’d be a shame if something happened to it,” he was openly raising the prospect of running as an independent just a few months later.
“That’s the threat,” said David Kochel, a veteran of six Republican presidential campaigns. “That’s the constant threat that he brings to the race, that if he wants to go somewhere else, if he were not to be nominated, what is the potential damage that he could do?”
Trump wouldn’t even have to run as an independent to inflict damage. He could do it from the sidelines, baselessly casting doubt on the legitimacy of elections, as he did in the Georgia Senate runoff following his loss in 2020, depressing Republican turnout.
That’s one reason few Republicans are going after Trump directly at all. Even if Mike Pence, Trump’s former vice president, insists “we’ll have better choices” than Trump in 2024, he’s careful to laud “the policies of the Trump-Pence administration,” avoiding anything close to a direct hit on his one-time running mate.
“What they’re so afraid of is him being out of the tent shooting in,” said Sarah Longwell, the Republican political strategist and Bulwark publisher who became a vocal supporter of Joe Biden in 2020. “That threat… is all the more puzzling why people aren’t taking him on early, trying to chip away at the ‘Always Trumpers.’”
It may be impossible. How much Trump will benefit from an expected large primary field has been a source of intensifying debate in GOP circles in recent weeks. It’s possible weaker candidates will drop out before the first caucuses in Iowa, fearful of a repeat of 2016, when a large number of more establishment and elected Republicans split the vote in early primary states, allowing Trump to advance with less-than-majority support. Trump himself has acknowledged the advantage a bigger crowd of candidates would have on his chances.
“The more the merrier,” Trump said.
Many Republican strategists doubt the field will be as large in 2024 as it was in 2016.
“I think there is more of an awareness on the part of people who are going to get into this thing that there’s going to have to be an off-ramp at some point,” Kochel said.
Requirements to make the debate stage may knock out some contenders who fail to qualify. Others polling poorly or underperforming in the earliest state contests may heed the lessons of 2016 — or 2020, when Joe Biden benefitted from an early consolidation around him after South Carolina.
If the field isn’t as crowded as 2016, that could change things. Scott Walker, the former Wisconsin governor and early frontrunner in the 2016 campaign, said DeSantis is in a stronger position to run against Trump than Walker himself was because “we weren’t viewed as the alternative or the one other person at the forefront, like DeSantis is today.”
But Trump, as polarizing as he is, can always expand his own base. Following Trump’s appearance at the site of a toxic train derailment in Ohio last week — a visit derided by the left and mocked on Saturday Night Live — Walker called it a “prime example of what got Trump elected in the first place.”
“If he does more of that, he’ll be the nominee and the president again,” Walker said. “But as you and I both know, too, he has moments like that that are both wonderful and brilliant politically, as well as just decency-wise. And then he’ll have other moments where other things happen, where he’s taking on fellow Republicans or God knows what.”