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Donald Trump Could ‘Crush’ the GOP

It will be the political battles over the next 13 months and the verdict of voters that will determine Donald Trump’s eventual fate – and with that, the future of the GOP itself.

By Gage Skidmore: Donald Trump speaking at CPAC 2011 in Washington, D.C.
Donald Trump speaking at CPAC 2011 in Washington, D.C.

Amid the legal and political drama of Donald Trump’s latest indictment, this time on four counts of attempting to overturn the 2020 election and disrupt the transfer of power, is a contest for the Republican presidential nomination. While Democrats will most likely unite around Joe Biden’s reelection bid in 2024, some Republicans seem unsure of what it is they now represent.

Trump, who denies all charges, invests his energies fighting the previous election, while another leading contender Florida governor Ron DeSantis has seen his stumbling campaign focus on legal fights with Disney and how the history of slavery should be taught in his state’s schools.

As a recent Financial Times leader column put it, the Republican party has “atrophied from the ‘party of no’ into the party of nihilism, defined not by what it stands for but what it stands against”.

Morley Winograd and Michael Hais, from policy organisation the Brookings Institution, have encapsulated these problems, writing: “The Republican party faces a difficult future with upcoming elections as the party leaders remain out of step with voters under 45 whose loyalty to the GOP is being sorely tested by a leadership more focused on yesterday’s battles than tomorrow’s challenges.”

Various polling samples from last summer showed that roughly a quarter of Republicans do not want Trump as their party’s nominee in November 2024. This will give some candidates hope that if they can secure this 25% it might give them the momentum they need to challenge the frontrunner.

A major problem for the Republican party under Trump’s authority has been his inability to expand the GOP’s coalition of voters. This was witnessed to the party’s cost in the 2022 midterms and could be significant in future elections. Democrats were able to portray Trump or Maga Republicans as threats to US democracy, a strategy that worked as many prominent Maga candidates lost their respective races.

But as it stands, Donald Trump continues to dominate the party and the nomination is his to lose. A recent Morning Consult tracking poll has him on 58%, with his nearest rival, Ron DeSantis, on 15%.

How does a politician maintain such a lead while charged on multiple criminal counts? Elaine Kamarck, senior fellow at Brookings, writes: “Trump is not your ordinary front runner … He has doggedly stuck to cultivating his (intense and loyal) base.”

Kamarck’s assertion is backed by detailed polling completed by the Bright Line Watch, a group of political scientists examining threats to US democracy. They found that about only half of Republicans believe Trump committed crimes on January 6 2021 during his alleged effort to overturn the 2020 election result. And a majority of GOP voters say they want to see Trump returned to the White House – even if he’s convicted of a crime.

Trump’s control over the GOP base demonstrates the loyalty he commands from a large swath of the party. Since his election victory in 2016, Trump has altered the course of Republican party politics in the US.

There was a time when nearly every Republican running for elected office wanted to align themselves to former president Ronald Reagan. He was a tax-cutting president who oversaw the rollback of federal government initiatives, reduced restrictions on business and stood as the bulwark against the Soviet “evil empire”.

But, as political analyst Rich Lowry has said: “Reagan left office 34 years ago. As of 2020, more than half of Americans were under age 40, meaning they have no real memory of Reagan.” So the question is: where is the Republican party going and who does it represent?

Core support for Donald Trump

With less than six months before the first Republican presidential caucuses and primaries, Trump will campaign and hold rallies while also making regular court appearances relating to his three criminal indictments. The former president will do this in the sure knowledge that his core support will not break with him and that he will continue to retain their loyalty.

Clifford Young, president of US public affairs with polling company Ipsos, has stated that Trump’s supporters view these charges through the prism of his defence – that he is the victim of a political witch-hunt: “His base believes he’s been wronged. They believe that the indictments are politically motivated.”

Another notable impact of Trump’s legal woes has been his ability to exploit them to bolster campaign fundraising. Following his first indictment in New York in April 2023 on charges of falsifying business records his campaign raised US$4 million (£3.14 million).

But, in June, after his second indictment in Florida relating to the classified documents case, the campaign collected only slightly over US$1 million. The former president’s campaign fundraising after this latest indictment will be monitored closely by the media and his Republican rivals.

What is becoming clear, however, is that Trump will continue to funnel funds from his campaign war chest to pay his legal fees. Between January and June 2023, the “Save America PAC” diverted more than US$20 million to the former president’s legal costs, including payments to 40 different legal firms.

The legal and financial challenges aside, it will be the political battles over the next 13 months and the verdict of voters that will determine Donald Trump’s eventual fate – and with that, the future of the GOP itself.

is a Teacher in International Studies, Queen’s University Belfast. This first appeared in the Conversation

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