Will Trump Cry “Stop the Steal” if DeSantis Wins the Primary?

July 19, 2023

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On Capitol Hill and in other Democratic circles, there are many Democrats who believe that Donald Trump would be easier to defeat in the general election than Ron DeSantis. Trump certainly has his weaknesses. Most of the country does not like him, for reasons that are too obvious and numerous to list here. He has also been indicted twice and likely faces further criminal charges between now and the election, although so far that hasn’t seemed to hurt him much.

In addition, Trump is seen as the candidate who will most mobilize the Democratic base, and also Democratic funders. And some see DeSantis as more of a threat because he is 44 years old, and Biden’s age has become a concern among a significant share of voters.

But Trump is unique in some ways that give him special powers. Ironically, one of these powers is something that stems from a personality trait that almost no politicians, demagogues, or even dictators would want to display in public. But Trump seems to flaunt it. This is his apparent disregard for most anyone other than himself. 

This suggests that Trump has the ability, and very possibly the willingness, to throw his party under the bus if he were to lose the primary. This doesn’t increase his own absolute strength as a candidate in the general election, but it could easily make any other Republican nominee a sitting duck.

Regarding his ability to do this: Trump’s large following among Republican voters, currently at about 52 percent, has been described as something of a cult following. But whatever the relationship between Trump and his voters, current polling indicates that millions of them would side with him in a fight with the party leadership. In an NBC poll last month, 34 percent of Republican or “lean to Republican” voters said that they were more a supporter of Donald Trump than a supporter of the Republican Party. 

What would happen if DeSantis — or anyone other than Trump — were to win the Republican primary? Would Trump accept the result, or would we see a repeat of “stop the steal?” If it’s the latter, it seems likely that significant numbers of Republican voters would stay home in the general election. In that scenario, current data indicate that Republicans would lose the White House. The 2016 presidential election was decided by a total of less than 78,000 votes, in three states.

If Trump loses the primary, there are a number of possible outcomes besides his outright rejection of the results that could also spell defeat for the Republican nominee. Given the size of Trump’s loyal base, and Trump’s inflammatory style, a primary won by another candidate is likely to be a close and very unpleasant race. If Trump refused to endorse the winner, a significant portion of his loyal base might stay home. Currently, Trump has not yet pledged to support the nominee, although that is a requirement for participating in the Republican presidential debates. And it’s not clear what his pledge would mean if he offered it; in 2015 he signed this pledge but then disavowed it.

Even if Trump gave a weak endorsement without sufficient and perhaps repeated appeals to his base, a significant part of his base could still stay home. Democratic attack ads, targeting Trump supporters, could help this along by highlighting some of the very mean things that Trump can be expected to have said about his lead opponent during the primary. 

In major media outlets, it has become common to present polling numbers for the general election that ignore these possible, and even probable, outcomes should Trump lose the Republican primary. For example, recent polling was reported as Biden leading Trump by 4 points (49-45) in a head-to-head match-up, but tied with DeSantis (47-47). But this measurement of preference in a hypothetical contest does not consider that voters might feel differently depending on how Trump reacts to a DeSantis win in the primary. 

It would seem wise to consider other contingent outcomes than those that would have occurred in past elections, taking into account Trump’s unique characteristics and relationship with the largest voting bloc in the Republican Party. The general election is 16 months away, and many campaign resources will be deployed before the Republican presidential candidate is chosen in July 2024. It does not make sense to look at Trump as though he were a normal candidate from the past. He isn’t. 

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