While Donald Trump’s candidacy as the Republican 2020 nominee had been a foregone conclusion, internal challengers have emerged. Even though the odds are stacked against them, the damage candidates could cause to Trump’s presidential campaign cannot be overstated. After all, primaries have been a death sentence for sitting presidents.
Last week, former White House Communications Director, Anthony Scaramucci, publicly opined his repentance for supporting the Commander in Chief. In his expostulation on National TV, Scaramucci urged Republicans to challenge Trump for the presidential nomination in a primary. This is a tall order, considering the fact that only one elected president amongst forty-four predecessors, President Pierce in 1852, was not granted his party’s nomination.
But Scaramucci’s proposition had been gaining traction amongst establishment Republicans for some time. What Scaramucci did not allude to, or perhaps was not cognizant of, is the fact that one Republican had already declared his candidacy. A second one entered the race yesterday.
Former Governor of Massachusetts, Bill Weld, initiated an exploratory committee in February, and has since officially announced his candidacy. Yesterday, former Congressmen and controversial talk show host Joe Walsh declared his desire to oust Trump. Other potential candidates such as former Ohio Governor Kasich, former Congressman Mark Sanford and even 2012 hopeful Mitt Romney are names that continue to circulate through Washington’s political grapevine.
How genuine these primary coquets are is difficult to quantify at this point. A primary provides a candidate with a national stage and thereby makes a bid particularly attractive for candidates who may be considered mid – or low – profile politicians. Hidden agendas are, therefore, not outside the realms of possibility.
Those who have either officially declared a challenge or are still contemplating a bid share one common trait: earnest resentment. Not only for Trump but for the ideological rift that the Republican Party has witnessed under his presidency. And while the GOP has had its fair share of multi-facetted fractions (e.g. Tea Party, Neoconservatives, the Christian right), the Trump presidency has transformed the GOP into a two-fraction party. On the one side, a major populist Trump wing, on the other the remains of what used to be the establishment Republicans. The latter appears to have seen enough and seeks to regain control over the party – with perhaps impeccable timing.
Meanwhile, the president continues to command an imperviously loyal base, but has nonetheless alienated many Republican voters. It resonates in current polls. These indicate mediocre approval ratings in key states such as Texas (41%), Pennsylvania (42%), Michigan (42%) and Florida (43%). Trump’s national approval rating of 44% may also lead to increased trepidation in conservative circles and raises the question of whether the 2020 election can be won with Donald Trump as the candidate.
Despite low ratings, however, the status quo implies that Trump will almost certainly obtain the nominee, as his approval rating with Republicans is at almost 90%. History has shown that a rating of 75% or less is required if a challenge is supposed to warrant any kind of feasibility. However, a successful primary is no guarantee for a general election win. Primaries for incumbents, traditionally, have correlated with the contrary.
In the past fifty years, three sitting presidents have faced a primary challenge. President Ford was challenged by then-Governor of California, Ronald Reagan, in 1976. Three years later, President Carter was challenged by Senator Ted Kennedy. The late George H.W. Bush faced Pat Buchanan in 1992. All incumbents won the primary and secured the party’s nominee. However, the internal competition yielded a rather unpleasant side-effect: all three lost the following general election.
The reason is simple. In a primary, rifts within the party are being exposed. In turn, the sitting president is portrayed as being weak, seemingly incapable of orchestrating even his party around the presidential agenda. This is never a promising sales pitch for a general election.
Thus, a plausible challenge needs to be founded on Trump’s shortcoming. A lacklustre track record could jeopardise the party’s chances in a general election. If a candidate was able to make a coherent case for this occurrence, Republican support for Trump could decrease. Ironically, Trump himself might become the prosecution’s finest witness. After all, he has been asking to be judged on the economy. Consequently, if the indications of a looming recession turn out to be accurate, the floodgates for a challenger are suddenly wide open, and a potential disaster in the general elections almost inevitable.
Nonetheless, a Trump primary win remains more probable than not. The connotations that an internal challenge carries are serious, however. Much will depend on the challenger’s pedigree and economic developments. Either way, the president’s main adversaries may no longer be Democrats, but members of his own party.