9 min read

The GOP’s collective action problem

In 2016, the Republican Party mobilized too late to stop Donald Trump. They haven’t learned their lesson.
The GOP’s collective action problem
Nobody listened to Scott Walker’s prescient warning. (Gage Skidmore)

Good morning! It’s Wednesday, February 15, 2023. The 2024 elections are 629 days away.

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Has the GOP learned the lessons of 2016?

There’s a moment from the 2016 Republican presidential primaries that I often think about.

It actually happened in the fall of 2015, months before the first contests in Iowa and New Hampshire. That’s when then-Wisconsin governor Scott Walker — once heralded as the race’s frontrunner — dropped out and offered a prescient warning.

“Today, I believe that I am being called to lead by helping to clear the field in this race so that a positive, conservative message can rise to the top of the field,” he said at the time.

“I encourage other Republican presidential candidates to consider doing the same so that the voters can focus on a limited number of candidates who can offer a positive, conservative alternative to the current frontrunner,” Walker continued. “This is fundamentally important to the future of our party, and, more important, the future of the country.”

No one heeded Walker’s call. The GOP field remained split between 16 different candidates, allowing the unnamed “current frontrunner” Walker warned about — Donald Trump — to sail to the nomination while winning less than 45% of the primary vote.

As the 2024 Republican field begins to grow today with the entrance of Nikki Haley, Walker’s warning remains an important one. Haley, the former South Carolina governor who served as UN ambassador during the Trump administration, is poised to launch her campaign with a rally in Charleston, South Carolina this morning.

She is the first Republican candidate to officially announce her intention to take on Trump, who has been the lone GOP contender since kicking off his own presidential bid in November. But she will not be the last:

  • Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis is “actively preparing” for a presidential campaign, per Bloomberg, huddling with donors and interviewing potential staffers.
  • South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott is “taking steps” to run, according to the Wall Street Journal. He’ll embark on a “listening tour” of Iowa later this month and formed a new super PAC last week.
  • New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu also formed a new fundraising committee last week, a common early step before announcing a presidential campaign.
  • Former Vice President Mike Pence will be in Iowa today and is already running ads in the state.
  • Former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson will be in the Hawkeye State later this week.
  • Former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo just released a book, another time-honored campaign stepping-stone.

And those are just the politicos who have made moves towards running in the past few days. There’s also South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem, Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin, former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, former Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, and others who are considering entering the race.

Scott Walker himself told me in a brief interview last July that “probably 15 or 20 more voices” will enter the 2024 field.

In other words: there are no signs that Republican leaders have learned the lessons of 2016. Although dynamics could shift as the months march on — and candidates could still enter the race and then leave in the early stages, as Walker did — not a single GOP potential candidate seems prepared to subjugate their egos for the good of the party or the goal of stopping Donald Trump.

Notably, this marks a stark contrast to the Democrats of 2020, who fell in line behind Joe Biden in order to prevent a victory for Bernie Sanders. The Republicans, though, lack any Jim Clyburn or Barack Obama figure that could orchestrate such a maneuver.

It is hard to imagine any prominent Republican leaving a room, much less a presidential race, simply because Kevin McCarthy or George W. Bush told them to.

The GOP’s looming collective action problem was perfectly illustrated by two polls released last week. In both surveys, when Republican primary voters were asked about a head-to-head matchup between Trump and DeSantis, the Florida governor comes out ahead of the former president.

Per Monmouth, DeSantis wins 53% to 40%; per Yahoo/YouGov, he is ahead 45% to 41%.

But when you add in Pompeo, Pence, and all the rest, the story changes. In the Monmouth poll, the contest shifts to a tied race, with Trump and DeSantis each taking 33% of the vote, losing 7% and 20%, respectively, to the rest of the field.

In the Yahoo/YouGov poll, Trump pulls ahead once the field crowds up, taking 37% of the vote to DeSantis’ 35%. With a mere 5%, Haley rates as the third-highest-ranked contender, but even single-digit showings from her and a half-dozen others are enough for Trump to soar to the top.

Interestingly, the Yahoo survey also tested what the race would look like if it were just Trump, DeSantis, and Haley. Even turning the contest into a three-way race was enough for Trump to win. That version of the poll shows the former president at 38%, DeSantis at 35%, and Haley at 11%.

Ironically, when I think back to the 2016 race and the GOP establishment trying to coalesce against Trump, Haley herself features prominently in the other moment that comes to mind.

The scene is from the eve of the South Carolina primary, as Haley and (fellow likely 2024 contender) Tim Scott barnstormed the state for their chosen non-Trump candidate, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio.

The trio was hailed as the future of the GOP: an Indian-American, an African-American, and a Cuban-American, all in their 40s or early 50s. It was a “striking image of youth and diversity,” as Time magazine wrote at the time.

It was also a losing image. Haley and Scott had climbed aboard the anti-Trump train too late; even their endorsements was not enough to stop him in their native South Carolina. Trump ended up trouncing Rubio in the state by 10 percentage points.

From there, Haley would join the rest of the Republican establishment in sharing a tortured relationship with Donald Trump, although hers was more tortured than most.

In 2016, while campaigning for Rubio, Haley promised she would “not stop until we fight a man that chooses not disavow the KKK.” But then she did. Haley later endorsed Trump in 2016 and joined his administration as UN ambassador.

She managed to leave his employ on good terms, but later turned on him after January 6th, telling Politico that “we shouldn’t have followed him, and we shouldn’t have listened to him, and we can’t let that ever happen again.”

It took Haley all of 13 days to change her mind, condemning Democrats in a Fox News interview that same month for “beating him up” after he left office. “I mean, give the man a break,” she said. Later in 2021, Haley promised to back in Trump in 2024 and said she wouldn’t run against him.

In Haley’s 2024 launch video, released yesterday, Trump’s dominating presence could be felt lingering in the background. There’s her call for a “new generation of leadership,” her reference to the fact that Republicans “lost the popular vote in seven out of the last eight presidential election,” and her threat that she doesn’t “put up with bullies.”

But the former president was never named, a move eerily reminiscent of Walker’s decision — even as he was ending his 2016 campaign and begging conservatives to gang up on Trump — to only refer to him as the “current frontrunner.”

This brings up a subsidiary question to the collective action problem: if all these candidates do run, will they actually take on Trump or just dance around him?

It is hard to beat a frontrunner if you never mention him — but the dynamics are admittedly more complicated than that. Some contenders, Haley included, worked for Trump; all of them will need his supporters if they become the Republican nominee. As in 2016, the threat of him staging a third-party campaign hangs in the air.

Still, it appears that after almost eight years of having him around, Republicans remain at a loss for how to counter-punch the ultimate political brawler. So far, this is mostly playing out with DeSantis, the contender Trump fears most. Trump recently began suggesting, with no basis, that the governor is a pedophile; the ex-president is also reportedly workshopping the nickname “Meatball Ron.”

“I don’t spend my time trying to smear other Republicans,” DeSantis said in response. It will be worth watching during Haley’s announcement speech today whether she takes the same approach.

More news to know.

Dianne Feinstein’s retirement caps off a long political career. (Senate Democratic Caucus)


California Sen. Dianne Feinstein said Tuesday that she would retire in 2024. Feinstein’s announcement marks the end of a legendary career, from her ascension to the San Francisco mayoralty after George Moscone’s murder to her crusade against the CIA’s post-9/11 torture program (later depicted in a Hollywood film). With 31 years in the Senate under her belt, Feinstein is the longest-serving senator in California history.

But, at age 89, Feinstein’s handoff has been awkward — with Reps. Adam Schiff and Katie Porter announcing campaigns to succeed her before she even retired. Feinstein has reportedly experienced severe memory loss in recent years, which was on display Tuesday: in conversations with reporters, she seemed completely unaware that the statement announcing her retirement had been released.

Feinstein will continue representing America’s most populous state for almost two more years, until the end of her term.

Trump investigations.

Federal prosecutors reportedly suggested they have evidence of Donald Trump committing a crime. The Justice Department is seeking testimony from Trump lawyer Evan Corcoran as part of the investigation into his handling of classified documents. Attorney-client privilege typically shields lawyers from divulging information about clients, but a crime-fraud exception exists that voids the privilege if the lawyer is believed to have helped their client commit a crime.

According to CNN, special counsel Jack Smith’s office “alleged in writing to the judge that the former president used his attorney in furtherance of a crime or fraud” in order to seek the testimony.

White House.

President Biden announced a reshuffling of his economic team. Biden tapped Federal Reserve vice chair Lael Brainard, a favorite of progressives, to become chair of the National Economic Council (NEC) and economist Jared Bernstein to take over as chair of the Council of Economic Advisers (CEA).

The NEC is the White House’s main economic policy shop; the CEA is intended to be more of an internal sounded board made up of academics. Departing NEC chair Brian Deese wielded enormous influence in the Biden White House, leaving a large vacuum for Brainard to fill at a high-stakes moment for the economy.

The day ahead.

All times Eastern.

President Biden will deliver remarks on deficit reduction at a union hall in Lanham, Maryland. Earlier in the day, he will receive his daily intelligence briefing.

Vice President Harris will join Biden for his intel briefing. Later, she will depart for Munich, Germany, where she will attend the annual Munich Security Conference this week.

The Senate, fresh off of confirming its 100th Biden judge, will vote on the confirmation of three more district court judges and also hold a cloture vote to advance an Assistant Secretary of Defense nominee.

The House is on recess until February 27.

Before I go...

(Andrew Ortman, via Washington Post)

Here’s a fun story: 14-year-old Isaac Ortman has spent the past 1,000 nights sleeping in a hammock in his Duluth, Minnesota backyard — even when the temperatures have dipped as low as minus-38 degrees.

Ortman, a Boy Scout, began sleeping under the stars during the pandemic, and decided to challenge himself to see how long he could continue it.

“I don’t see it ending anytime soon. I might even keep going through college,” he told the Washington Post. “It’s a lot of fun, and I’m not ready to stop.”

Read the Post’s full story here. (No paywall)

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— Gabe