Today, I’m kicking off a 4-part series offering a broad analysis of the 2020 Republican Presidential Primary. I am a Republican who is a strong supporter of the idea, but I will try to analyze it from a somewhat detached perspective for this series. I’m sure this is a topic I will return to over the coming year, but I’m going to go ahead and kick off a quick series looking at this in broad strokes.
In this first part, I’m just going to go over the lay of the land as far as a primary challenge to Trump goes. I think that there is a hard but low floor of around 10-15% virtually any challenger could pull against Trump. I also think there are some candidates for whom the ceiling is not much more than that. The good news, though, is that the number of Republicans interested in a primary is going up. I suspect this is a result of massive Democratic gains in November, the government shutdown and negative reactions associated with it, and the Democratic primary gaining steam and igniting reflection on Trump’s electability and a Republican primary. That said, Trump is still broadly popular among Republicans, and would win in a landslide over virtually candidate were the election today.
That said, recent polls have started to show interest in the idea of a Primary challenge. Nationally, the most recent ABC News poll says 32% of Republicans nationally want a nominee other than Trump. To my knowledge, that is the best National number to date. In Iowa, per a CNN/Des Moines Register poll in December, 29% of Republicans would either definitely vote for or consider a Trump alternative, while 63% say they would welcome a contested primary. Additionally, in New Hampshire, an NHJournal poll has Romney already pulling 24% against Trump if they went head-to-head. It’s not a majority by any stretch, but if a generic candidate without a campaign is already polling in the 20s and 30s, then it is very possible to compete with Trump in a primary.
Finally, the media is beginning to take the idea of a primary more seriously at this point. While some Trump-skeptical outlets have been pushing the idea before these last couple of months (I specifically remember Charlie Sykes in the Weekly Standard), it has spread since then. The New York Times, Washington Post, CNN, National Review, the Bulwark, and other outlets have either reported concerns in the Trump camp over a primary, ran opinion/analysis pieces on the prospects of a primary, or covered Maryland Governor Larry Hogan’s recent moves that led some to believe he may run. Media isn’t everything, but it is a sign of weakness that we didn’t see for most of the past two years.
So what are the prospects for someone running against Trump? As an optimist, I think things are improving and shaping up so that someone will step into the ring. What the end result is, I don’t know. That said, the fact that it may even be worthwhile from an electoral perspective to have a primary challenge, based on poll results and momentum, is an encouraging development, and I expect that at least someone will decide at some point this year that it’s time to take the plunge.