Sen. Lindsey Graham is calling it: the South Carolina Republican says former President Donald Trump will be the party’s 2024 presidential nominee if he wants to be. And he will win too, Graham predicts if he runs a “disciplined” campaign.
Graham didn’t bring up a third condition: Twitter.
Trump has been banned from the major social media platforms since the Capitol riot last January when his hardest-core supporters sought to disrupt the congressional certification of Joe Biden’s Electoral College victory. None of the alternative websites that have tried to cater to Trump’s audience, from Parler to Gettr, have the same reach.
How will this impact Trump’s ability to run a winning presidential campaign?
As a real estate developer and then a reality TV star, Trump has proven adept at getting attention. That hasn’t changed: his tweet-like email statements are often widely circulated, though less than his messages on Twitter. Still, Trump appears on the front pages more regularly than any former president in recent memory. Hostile cable news networks, like MSNBC and to a lesser extent CNN, broadcast almost as if he is still in office.
But Twitter played a big role in helping Trump bond with his followers in the run-up to his 2016 presidential bid. It allowed him to continue to engage in unfiltered communications even after his election. The removal of his account could be a big loss.
Consider that in 2016, Trump’s campaign was actually relatively underfunded relative to Hillary Clinton’s, despite his personal wealth. Trump closed the gap with earned — read: free — media. By some estimates, television news coverage, internet chatter, and yes, social media activity helped Trump generate $5 billion worth of publicity. That more than made up for any deficit in paid advertising.
As a sitting president, Trump proved a more prodigious fundraiser. But incumbency also conferred upon him considerable earned media advantages. You can’t ignore the president, no matter how hard Resistance and Never Trump types may have tried to not “normalize” him.
Twitter isn’t the most important component in earned media. But it is the one where Trump has the most control over the dissemination of his message, something that is especially important as he struggled as president to retain communications professionals who truly captured his voice.
It is also the case that many cable news networks are populated by liberals who feel guilty for the role they played in promoting his political career. They carried his rallies ad nauseum in 2015-16. They will be reluctant to do so again in 2024. The loss of social media access will make it more challenging to counteract whatever effect this has on his free media clout.
All that being said, there are benefits to Trump’s social media purge as well as costs. Twitter proved an obstacle to the kind of campaign and governing discipline that Graham posits is necessary for a Trump political comeback. His social media activity would then necessarily have to be laundered through third parties who are likely to be more conventional communications professionals (though the ex-president’s current statements offer a counterpoint to this assumption). Even a wait time before the equivalent of angry tweets emerge could be beneficial.
If Donald Trump remains a ratings and web traffic bonanza, it is unlikely that news outlets will be able to maintain their desire to cover him less. Many have seen reduced interest since Trump was succeeded by President Biden. Love him or hate him, people always wanted to see what Trump was up to next.
Any diminishment of interest in that area would probably be a bigger problem for Trump than his absence from Twitter. If the electorate, outside the MAGA base, begins to move on, he will have difficulty gaining traction in any event.
For his part, Trump is all but certain to keep people guessing on his presidential ambitions, stoking interest in a potential candidacy until the last minute. This could freeze the Republican field, or confine it to Never Trumpers and lower-tier candidates, for months. Aspirants like Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis will have to navigate this territory carefully.
DeSantis and company will have at least one advantage, however. They will still be on Twitter. Unless something substantial changes in the next two years, Trump won’t be and will have fewer avenues for teasing his will-he-or-won’t-he routine.
Donald Trump lived by Twitter. We may soon see if he can still prosper without it.
W. James Antle III is the Washington Examiner’s politics editor. He was previously managing editor of the Daily Caller, associate editor of the American Spectator, and senior writer for the American Conservative. He is the author of Devouring Freedom: Can Big Government Ever Be Stopped? You can follow home on Twitter: @Jimantle.