Aug. 24—Why it matters: Ex-President Donald Trump maintains his dominance over the Republican Party.
It was a crowded stage Wednesday night in Milwaukee — seven men and one woman, all vying to be the Republican nominee for president next year.
But for all the people on the stage, the metaphorical spotlight was on an absence: Donald Trump, the former president who dominates the polls even as he faces 91 felony counts in four jurisdictions.
No votes will be cast in this contest for months, but Trump's strategy is much that of a football coach with a large late lead: He's running out the clock. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia, touted as a potential Trump running mate, says Wednesday's debaters are "just trying out for the Cabinet."
Trump sought to distract the Republican audience Wednesday night with a prerecorded session with Tucker Carlson, even as he prepares to be arraigned today in Atlanta on state felony counts.
The Trump-Carlson alliance is a curiosity, and an illuminating one. Texts and emails sent by Carlson and revealed as a result of Dominion Voting System's lawsuit against Fox News revealed a deep disdain by the TV host for Trump. But they have set aside their rift to nurture their shared animus for the Murdochs and Fox News, which each sees as having betrayed them.
Their mutual goal was to fracture the audience, thus revenging themselves on Fox News, the broadcaster for the debate.
By the same token, Trump's campaign benefits from the fractured field of rivals. Trump's supporters are by far the largest group in the party, but not a majority. This mimics the 2016 environment, in which Trump rode a plurality to the nomination.
And it contrasts sharply with the Democrats in 2020. In that primary contest, the party's establishment candidates (including Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar) read the room rapidly and coalesced behind now-President Joe Biden after just three state contests.
Divide and conquer may be an effective route to the nomination, and it may afford Trump the vengeance he seeks against erstwhile supporters who want to move on from him. But just as the early polling suggests Trump is a strong position for the primaries, it also suggests he is in a very weak position for a general election.
That is not surprising. His dominance over the GOP led to disappointing electoral results in 2018, 2020 and 2022. The majority of Republicans would prefer to win elections than appease Trump's personal grievances. But they can't settle on a candidate who isn't Trump — and even if they can, that candidate probably couldn't retain the die-hard Trump supporters whose priority is to "own the libs."
It is a dilemma the GOP can't resolve as long as Trump is in the race.