7 min read

Trump’s strength is also his kryptonite

Why he’s best understood as a movement leader, rather than the leader of a party.
Trump’s strength is also his kryptonite
Photo by Gage Skidmore

Good morning! It’s Wednesday, March 20, 2024. Election Day is 230 days away. If this newsletter was forwarded to you, subscribe here. If you want to contribute to support my work, donate here.

Earlier this week, a journal article was published by researchers from Tufts and the University of Chicago that quantified a phenomenon many have long assumed: a Trump endorsement can be damaging for Republican candidates.

The authors of the article conducted an experiment in which they concocted a fake Republican candidate, “Terry Mitchell,” and told survey respondents that he was a “56-year-old white male” who had been nominated for a congressional seat in their state. Some respondents were told that Donald Trump had given Mitchell his “complete and total endorsement”; others were not.

They found that the Trump endorsement increased the likelihood of Republican respondents voting for the candidate by 5 points — but that it made Independents slightly less likely to vote for him, and Democrats 11 points less likely to vote for him. Averaged out across the board, the simple fact of a Trump endorsement made the respondents less likely to vote for “Mitchell” by four points.

Interestingly, this effect held up even when respondents were told that Mitchell, a Republican candidate, held conventional Democratic policy views, like supporting increased taxes or citizenship for undocumented immigrants. For both Democrats and Republicans, a Trump endorsement made a significant change in how respondents viewed the candidate — no matters his views on policy. The Trump endorsement made the Democrats 14 points less likely to vote for the candidate (even though they largely agreed with on policy) and made Republicans 11 points more likely to vote for him (even though they largely disagreed with him on policy).

In short, the passion inspired by a Trump endorsement has become as powerful a weapon in our politics as long-held policy positions, with the ability to change voters’ minds on a candidate no matter if they agree or disagree with him on the issues.

Another test for this phenomenon will come later this year in Ohio, where Republicans followed Trump’s advice last night and nominated former car dealer Bernie Moreno to take on Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown in November.

Moreno faced two rivals in last night’s GOP primary who are organs of the state establishment: Matt Dolan, a state senator who was endorsed by the Ohio governor and whose family owns the Cleveland Guardians, and Frank LaRose, the Ohio secretary of state who served in the Iraq War and has held public office for more than a decade.

The Trump-backed Moreno, who has never held elected office, easily dispatched them both, taking 50.5% of the vote to Dolan’s 32.9% and LaRose’s 16.6%. In a Republican primary, clearly, a Trump endorsement can lift a candidate a great deal; now we will see, in one of the cycle’s marquee Senate races, how his endorsement impacts a general election.

So far, the horizons are looking bumpy for Moreno. According to SplitTicket, of the Republican primary contenders, he was the one who polled the worst against Brown. Although Republicans likely do not need to defeat Brown to win back the Senate — they have plenty of appealing prospects elsewhere — it is obviously a winnable seat for them, considering Ohio’s reddening lean. It does not appear they put their best foot forward with Moreno.

Graphic by SplitTicket

All of this has been making me think of Donald Trump’s efficacy as a party leader, if he so frequently leads the GOP astray in picking the wrong candidates and then makes life even worse for them simply with his endorsement. (You don’t need to ask hypotheticals about “Terry Mitchell” to establish either of these assertions. We saw both effects play out in numerous battleground contests in the 2022 midterms.)

That isn’t to say Trump brings nothing to the table for Republicans. He clearly motivates a faction of voters who otherwise would not show up to the polls. He has helped move the party towards the multi-racial working-class coalition they have long aspired to. And, importantly, he is almost completely unmoored from principles, which gives him the great advantage of being so unshackled from the party platform that he is frequently able to identify Republican positions that are politically unpopular and help steer the party away from them.

On abortion, for example, House Republicans have urged their candidates to talk about abortion more, not less. Trump, on the other hand, talks about abortion as little as possible; when he does, it is usually to talk about some fuzzy compromise he can strike on the issue, rather than a firm anti-abortion stance. In all likelihood, from a purely political perspective, Republicans would be better off following his lead on the issue, rather than party operatives who have personal allegiances to the pro-life cause. (Yesterday, though, Trump told an interviewer that he is “thinking of” supporting a 15-week federal abortion ban, after months of skirting around whether he’d back a national limit.)

On another issue, TikTok, Trump has baldly flip-flopped, from once helping mold his party’s anti-China consensus (and moving to ban the app during his presidency) to now opposing legislation to force a sale of the app. There appears to be a stew of motivations at play here, including his personal antipathy towards Mark Zuckerberg (whose Meta would theoretically benefit from a TikTok ban) and a meeting with Jeff Yass, a ByteDance investor and Republican megadonor. But at least one factor seems to be his campaign’s calculation that banning TikTok could hurt Biden with young voters, a group that is already shifting in the polls in his direction.

Once again, if his advisers are right that banning TikTok could be an electoral vulnerability (an “if” I’m not yet convinced of), Trump’s lack of principles might allow him to lead his party towards a more politically palatable stance in a general election.

Here’s the rub, though: this central strength, when misapplied, is also Trump’s kryptonite. The unprincipled focus on what’s best for him — no matter the policy consequences — can be an electoral boon when it shifts the party away from unpopular positions. But he constantly takes that focus too far, to a personal and not just political dimension, which hurts his own campaigns and drags down his endorsed candidates with him.

Suddenly, Trump and Trump-backed candidates are associated not just with policy positions that might be smart for the party to adopt, but also a politics of personal grievance that hurt the GOP in 2020 and 2022. Those grievances have only become more central to his campaign in 2024; see the recent Semafor and AP articles about Trump tying himself to January 6th as an example.

Trump’s overriding focus on Trump is what makes him so flawed as a party leader, even though the same cynical survival instincts occasionally redound to the party’s benefit on issues like abortion. This dynamic can also be seen in his party management style: he cares about other races, like the Ohio Senate contest, only to the extent that they might give him more political allies. His daughter-in-law, who he has had installed as co-chair of the RNC, recently suggested that the party may resume paying for his legal fees, which should be scary news for downballot candidates who need the money.

In short, Trump is best understood as a movement leader, who brings his own mix of voters and positions to the table, but who cares little about investing in the party, even if the party sometimes benefits from what his movement offers. Interestingly, he shares these traits to some degree with Barack Obama, who also pulled resources from the DNC to his own campaign, under-investing in downballot races and losing hundreds of them as a result. Both cared more about building an individual-focused movement than a team-focused party, emphasizing their independence from the party machine even when they were effectively in control of it.

Joe Biden, on the other hand, is an inveterate party man who has infused the DNC with cash and paid close attention to lower-tier contests, which — perhaps not coincidentally — Democrats have generally done well in during his presidency. 2024, from the battle for the White House to the Ohio Senate race on down, will be a clash between a movement and a party, as Republicans continue their bargain with a man who has redefined the GOP — and frequently led the party down unproductive directions.

More news to know.

Texas immigration law blocked again, just hours after Supreme Court allowed state to arrest migrants / CBS News

Biden privately told Bibi he’s not trying to push him out / Axios

Governments Across the U.S. Are Handing Residents Cash—No Strings Attached / WSJ

Senators quietly elevate their next generation as senior citizens battle for the White House / Politico

Jan. 6 defendant got 2 congressional internships after she allegedly breached the building / Politico

England is limiting gender transitions for youths. US legislators are watching. / AP

The day ahead.

White House: President Biden will start the day in Phoenix, Arizona, where he will visit an Intel manufacturing site and announce an $8.5 billion grant to the company under the CHIPS and Science Act. Later, he will travel to Dallas, Texas, where he will headline two campaign fundraisers. VP Harris will participate in the League of Conservation Voters annual dinner.

Congress: The Senate will vote on confirmation of two district judge nominees. The House will vote on the Protecting American Energy Production Act and the Restoring American Energy Dominance Act.

Supreme Court: The justices will hear oral arguments in Gonzalez v. Trevino and Texas v. New Mexico

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