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A big question faces Republicans as they gear up to try and win back Congress and the White House. How much of former President Donald Trump’s appeal was based on his policies versus his larger-than-life personality?
Both party operatives running next year’s congressional campaigns and candidates mulling 2024 presidential bids must also contemplate the opposite question. For the voters who Trump repelled as the GOP lost both the presidency and the Senate, how much of that was driven by personality or policy?
Further complicating this inquiry is that Trump plans to be active in the midterm election campaign and may run for president again in 2024.
Trump was an unconventional candidate in many ways. A reality TV star and celebrity businessman who had been a household name since the 1980s, he dominated the airwaves via free media such as television news coverage rather than relying on his personal fortune to fund an advertising blitz. His combativeness and willingness to stay on offense helped him stand out from a field of 16 other Republican presidential contenders.
Yet, Trump also rejected several party orthodoxies that dated back to George W. Bush, if not Ronald Reagan. He was critical of most free trade agreements and willing to impose tariffs on foreign goods, especially imports from China. He opposed the invasion of Iraq and vowed to end “endless wars.” Trump promised not to touch Social Security or Medicare with Paul Ryan-style entitlement reforms and pledged to crack down on illegal immigration rather than offer a pathway to citizenship.
Trump won over a large number of white voters without college degrees, making the Republican ticket competitive in the Rust Belt for the first time since Reagan. But he also turned off college-educated suburban voters, especially women.
The result was that Trump defeated Hillary Clinton in 2016, thanks to narrow wins in Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin. He repeated his strength with working-class whites and made inroads with Hispanic voters and black men four years later, even after the pandemic ravaged the once-strong economy central to his case for a second term. But this time, it was offset by the revolt of suburban whites, which had already cost Republicans the House in 2018. Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin returned to the Democratic column by small margins, and President Joe Biden became the first Democrat to carry Arizona and Georgia since Bill Clinton in the 1990s.
Even in defeat, however, Trump remained competitive in battleground states, where Biden won by just 0.03 percentage points compared to 4.5 points nationally. Just 43,000 votes in three states — Arizona, Georgia, and Wisconsin — could have handed Trump victory in the Electoral College.
Republicans want to recapture the 2016 magic while avoiding some of Trump’s costly mistakes. But they disagree about whether populism or pugilism, amplified by fame, is responsible for what Trump got right.
“Far too many Republicans think that what made Trump popular with the base was solely about Trump the personality — so they try to simply imitate his style. This is a dramatic misread,” said conservative strategist Chris Barron. “What made Trump popular with the base is that he was the first nominee who ever reflected the policies the base cared about. Getting tough on immigration, rejecting the endless wars, fighting for fair trade deals, and defending the working class.”
“That’s what the base cared about and continue to care about, and Trump finally listened to them and fought for their priorities,” Barron added. “Frankly, no one in the base gave a crap about the Paul Ryan budget blueprint, and now we don’t have to pretend like we do.”
Republican insiders also say not to discount the perception of recent previous nominees like Mitt Romney and John McCain, who wanted to be seen as gracious in defeat rather than achieve victory at all costs. That is not a trait associated with Trump. Nevertheless, Trump’s sharp elbows turned off some voters.
“From the start of his political journey, it was Trump's personality that captured the attention and support of Republicans,” said GOP strategist Bradley Blakeman. “He was not afraid to speak his mind in ways that no politician in memory had done or dared to do. But, after a time as president, it always seemed to balance his rhetoric and results that supporters had to weigh. In the end, people grew weary of his rhetoric in spite of approving of his policies and results.”
Many Republicans linked to 2024 speculation have tried to do a little of both: imitating both the man and his message. For example, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has taken on Big Tech, illegal immigration, critical race theory, overbearing COVID-19 restrictions, and other Trump-friendly causes. He has also shown a willingness to wage tough political fights and, unlike Trump, is held up as a pandemic management success story.
Sen. Josh Hawley of Missouri is a more reserved personality, but he has regularly drafted legislation to push Republican policies in a more populist direction. He has also been quick to take up popular issues in pro-Trump circles but anathema elsewhere, including challenging the 2020 election results in some states ahead of the Jan. 6 Capitol riot.
Some party consultants note that down-ballot Republicans who have aped Trump’s populism but lack his wealth, celebrity status, or a particular brand of charisma have not always fared well. Examples include immigration hawks Kris Kobach in Kansas and Lou Barletta in Pennsylvania, who both lost statewide races, and a pair of pro-Trump candidates in New Jersey's Republican gubernatorial primary.
When Trump himself had to choose, he endorsed Tommy Tuberville in the Alabama GOP primary for Senate over his former Attorney General Jeff Sessions. Sessions was for Trumpism, but he broke with the 2016 winner on recusal from the Russia investigation.
Allies sometimes complain Trump did not take the advice of populist allies like former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon, pursuing a standard Republican program of tax cuts and Obamacare repeal rather than an infrastructure plan or a more ambitious approach to building the border wall.
“You just can't take away the fact that Trump is still the most popular figure in the Republican Party,” said a Republican strategist in New Hampshire. “This is going to be the most fascinating Republican primary in a long time.”
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Original Author: W. James Antle III
Original Location: GOP tries to decide if Trump's pull is personality or policies