Republican strategists are worried that if former President Trump doesn’t secure the GOP’s presidential nomination next year, or if he is kept off the ballot because of his mounting legal problems, it could spell a voter turnout disaster for their party in 2024.
GOP strategists say there’s growing concern that if Trump is not the nominee, many of his core supporters, who are estimated to make up 25 percent to 35 percent of the party base, “will take their ball and go home.”
“The conventional wisdom is there’s concern that if Trump’s not the nominee, his coalition will take their ball and go home,” said Matt Dole, a Republican strategist based in Ohio, where Republicans are targeting vulnerable Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown.
“Folks are interested in how that plays out, and so I think right now, they would be happy if Trump’s the nominee — in Ohio, it’s not true across the country — because then his coalition will turn out in November,” he said.
A Pew Research Center analysis of the 2022 midterm election published last month found that higher turnout among Trump voters last year was a key factor behind Republicans winning control of the House.
The analysis found that 71 percent of voters who backed Trump participated in the midterm election, compared to 67 percent of voters who supported Biden.
Brian Darling, a Republican strategist and former Senate aide, said there would be significant political fallout for Republicans if federal and local criminal prosecutions derail Trump’s path to the nomination.
“If somehow he’s not the nominee, it will hurt turnout,” he said. “He’s got a unique coalition. He brings a lot of nontraditional voters to the Republican Party, and it will be difficult to win a state like Ohio” and other Midwestern states “if you lose all those Trump voters or make them disaffected voters, and they don’t show up.”
Darling said Trump, who is leading his nearest rival, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, by more than 30 points in national polls, has a “lock” on the nomination and “the only way he loses if he’s prevented from being on the ballot.”
Trump already faces three criminal trials in New York City, Miami and Washington, D.C., and Fulton County (Ga.) District Attorney Fani Willis is expected to bring a dozen more charges against him related to his efforts to overturn the 2020 election results in Georgia.
Trump is fueling concerns about a split Republican electorate in 2024 by refusing to sign a Republican National Committee loyalty pledge.
“I would say there’s two scenarios, either Trump’s the nominee and we just go with it and whatever, or Trump’s not the nominee and then we have a nominee that Trump’s going to be trashing,” said Bob Clegg, an Ohio-based Republican strategist.
Given the intense loyalty to Trump among many Republican voters, Clegg said there’s little chance any other candidate will beat him out for the nomination.
“I think Trump’s going to be the nominee,” he said. “Ever since Trump came down that escalator in 2015, the face of politics in the United States has charged dramatically, and we’re still in that” new dynamic.
Republican senators and strategists thought Trump cost them control of the Senate after the 2020 election, when he claimed without evidence that his he lost Georgia because of fraud, depressing GOP voter turnout in the 2021 special election, which Sens. Jon Ossoff (D-Ga.) and Raphael Warnock (D-Ga.) won.
A few days before the special election, Trump declared those Senate races “illegal and invalid.”
A Senate Republican strategist said the special election in Ohio last Tuesday, where voters overwhelmingly defeated a ballot proposition that would have made it tougher to protect abortion rights, showed that if Trump’s not on the ballot, it hurts GOP turnout in rural areas.
“What it says about the electorate more than anything is that without a presidential candidate — particularly Trump at the top of the ticket — rural voters do not turn out at the same rate,” the strategist said.
At the same time, the strategist acknowledged that Trump’s overwhelming popularity with blue-collar and rural voters is offset by his unpopularity with college-educated women and suburban voters.
Given the shift of college-educated women and suburban voters to Democrats since the Supreme Court’s reversal of Roe v. Wade, Republicans are counting on big turnout in rural areas and from the so-called “Trump coalition” to win the presidential and congressional races next year.
“With controversial issues like abortion in the suburbs, Republicans have to make up for it in rural parts of the state, and without Trump on the ballot, rural parts of the state just didn’t turn out at the same rate,” the strategist said of the election result in Ohio.
“For Republicans, the only hope is that when Trump is on the ballot in 2024 … he will turn out rural voters at a rate that overwhelms that phenomenon. It’s certainly possible,” the source said.
David Paleologos, the director of the Suffolk University Political Research Center, said about 40 percent of Republican voters who feel confident about whom they will vote for next year are solidly behind Trump.
“Conservatively, it looks like 4 out of 10,” he said of the so-called Tier 1 voters. “I haven’t seen many polls where he below 40 [percent].”
“The Trump voters, even from our polling, have pretty much said: ‘It’s Trump or bust,’” he said. “There’s a percentage of voters who won’t even vote Republican if he doesn’t get the nomination.”
Paleologos said it’s difficult for other Republican presidential candidates to “navigate” in this environment, and “Trump knows this.”
A New York Times/Siena College poll found that 52 percent of likely GOP voters are only considering Trump. Fifty-five percent of white voters without college degrees and 56 percent of nonwhite voters without college degrees said they were only considering Trump.
Trump has rejected entreaties from party leaders that he pledge to back the eventual Republican nominee for president if he fails to secure the nomination.
“I wouldn’t sign the pledge,” he told Newsmax. “Why would I sign a pledge? There are people on there that I wouldn’t have.”
Trump didn’t say which rivals in particular he couldn’t support over President Biden.
Darling, the Republican strategist, said Trump is the candidate best poised to win critical Midwestern states such as Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.
“Look what happened in 2016. He pulled together a unique coalition, and the Midwestern states of Wisconsin and Michigan were in play all of the sudden,” he said. “If he’s not the nominee somehow, I think those states will be much tougher to win.”