In the News

Trump for 2024?

Mike McCartney

16th August 2021

And what does this say about the American electoral process?

There was a fine article by Jonathan Freedland in the paper recently, about the continued importance of Trump. Despite being out of office, and banned from mainstream social media outlets he still holds sway over the Republican Party. First, he influences results of Republican primary contests for congressional seats. Second, he has convinced the majority of Republican supporters that he won the election. Third, he is amassing a lot of cash. And as a a result of a confluence of factors, he is the favourite of many pundits to regain his party's nomination for a third tilt at the White House.

As Freedland writes:

"He [Trump] cannot yet be consigned to the past, because he is affecting the present and looms over the future.

The clearest evidence is the expectation that he will win the Republican presidential nomination for a third time and be the party’s next choice for the White House. You need only take a look at admittedly premature polls of the putative Republican field for the next election: he’s at the top, every time, with 76% of Republicans viewing him favourably. It was scarcely a shock when the Trump-backed candidate beat better-qualified rivals to win a Republican congressional primary in Ohio this week. Not for nothing does the former Bush speechwriter David Frum say of Trump, “Unless he’s dead or otherwise unable by then, he’s the likeliest 2024 nominee.”"

See the full article here:

Whether or not this is good for democracy in the USA or abroad is not the subject of this blog. What it made me think was that it is less than a year since the 2020 election, and even less time since Trump (just approaching seven months) gave his rambling farewell address from the White House's Blue Room, but speculation is already rife regarding the 2024 contest. (If you want to know, it's 1187 days between when I read Freedland's article and the date scheduled for the 2024 election - and they say a week is a long time in politics!). Thus this raises questions about the system used for electing the Commander in Chief.

As a reminder, basic arguments for and against the presidential primary process are below.

Presidential primaries: the case for

  1. Primaries are democratic and post 1968 have opened up selection to party supporters rather than party elders behind closed doors, in smoke filled rooms, as they did with Hubert Humphrey in 1968.
  2. Iowa and New Hampshire have relatively small populations therefore this gives voters the opportunity to meet candidates face to face and indulge in some old fashioned “retail politics”, a process that would not be possible if one of the bigger states was first or if there was a clutch of states voting on the same day.
  3. Primaries are expensive but when we bear in mind that McDonalds spend well over half a billion dollars per year on advertising in the USA then the figures seem much more reasonable.
  4. Those candidates deterred from entering the race due to inability to raise necessary funding most likely do not have what it takes. There is a strong argument to suggest that supporters are looking to back a winner, hence the flow of funding that went to the likes of Clinton, GW Bush, etc.
  5. Money does not necessarily buy success anyway. Most egregiously, Steve Forbes in 2000 spent $40m and failed to win a single state.
  6. Primary campaigns prepare candidates for the general election battle - eg the Hillary v Obama battle arguably sharpened up the Obama campaign and made him as the eventual Democrat nominee more battle hardened.
  7. Primaries can project relatively unknown candidates onto the national stage: Jimmy Carter, it is said, started in Iowa with just a suitcase.
  8. Complaints about low turnout are exaggerated, eg turnout in the 2008 campaign cycle hit record levels, driven by the competitive nature of the Democrat campaign.

Presidential primaries: the case against

  1. Primary voters are not politically representative of the voting population and candidates are forced to court polar opposites of the political spectrum, thus potentially harming their attempt to attract centrist voters post-convention.
  2. The need to campaign for the primaries makes the race for the presidency into a marathon, thus inducing voter fatigue and depressing voter turnout.
  3. The traditionally early state contests in Iowa and New Hampshire are unrepresentative of the wider US voting public. Iowa and NH are rural, conservative, and above average wealth.Therefore the concerns of voters in these states is out of alignment with the rest if the union, e.g. Iowa’s obsession with ethanol subsidies!
  4. Performance in early contests are unreliable indicators of who will secure the presidency, e.g. Bush defeated Reagan in 1980 in Iowa, and thus questions about their prominent place in the calendar remain.
  5. States often squabble about when their primary can be held, and this detracts from the substance of the issues, with the media turning its attention to the battle for state prominence rather than policy analysis.
  6. Contests can be bitter and divisive, e.g. McCain v. Bush 2000. Hardly the best springboard for a successful GE campaign.
  7. Many apparently well qualified candidates drop out due to their inability to raise pots of cash, e.g. Libby Dole in October 1999.
  8. The need for money. And lots of it. Primaries are enormously expensive. The need to campaign early, criss-crossing the US, hire campaign teams, and run expensive adverts necessitates huge funds.
  9. Turnout rates are usually low, with the examples like the 2008 contest being the exception due to a confluence of factors. More common figures are those like the Democrat primary in Connecticut in 2004, for example, attracted just 5% of voters.

We may be getting ahead of ourselves, but I think the focus on arguments number 2 and 8 might be relevant when discussing the virtues of the primaries the next time around.

Mike McCartney

Mike is an experienced A-Level Politics teacher, author and examiner.

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