7 min read

The winnowing begins

Finally, a GOP candidate is dropping out. Does it even matter?
The winnowing begins
Photo by Gage Skidmore

Good morning! It’s Monday, October 30, 2023. The 2024 elections are 372 days away. If this newsletter was forwarded to you, subscribe here. If you want to contribute to support my work, donate here.

Until this weekend, there was a piece I had been planning to write — but kept having to push back for various reasons — that I was going to title, “Why is nobody dropping out?”

The piece was going to highlight the fact that none of the major Republican candidates for president (sorry, Perry Johnson) had yet dropped out of the race. This was something of an anomaly in recent history. By this point in the 2016 cycle, Scott Walker and Rick Perry had already ended their presidential campaigns. By this point in the 2020 Democratic nomination process, nine presidential candidates had already dropped out, including three congressmen, two governors, one senator, and the mayor of New York City.

So I found it odd that no big names had exited the GOP race this year — especially considering the fact that the 2016 GOP frontrunner (Donald Trump) and the 2020 Democratic frontrunner (Joe Biden) were only hovering in the mid-20s in national polls at this point in those cycles. In contrast, the 2024 Republican frontrunner (Trump again) is in the 50s, and he’s been there for six months now. You’d think a few more of his rivals would be starting to face the music.

Three very different primary cycles. (RealClearPolitics)

Of all the GOP candidates, former Vice President Mike Pence was probably the likeliest candidate to put his campaign out to pasture. Pence’s campaign has been struggling for traction and dropping in the polls for months now: in the earliest 2024 surveys, in summer 2022, he stood at 9% in the RealClearPolitics average. As of this weekend, his support had more than halved, dropping to 3.5%.

More relevantly, he has been struggling for money. In his third-quarter fundraising filing earlier this month, Pence reported that his campaign was $620,000 in debt — normally a good sign that a White House bid is about to prematurely end. (In presidential primary politics, not accruing votes is excusable. Not raising money is fatal.)

Pence’s candidacy for president was also never really about being elected president. (Most presidential candidacies aren’t.) It was much more of a legacy exercise, aimed at shoring up his reputation in the history books so he’d be remembered for his courageous decision on January 6th and not the previous four years of his vice presidency. (Sure enough, Pence never missed an opportunity to remind voters about his decision to certify his ticket’s loss. Perhaps the high point of his campaign was when he goaded his rivals into defending that decision in the first debate, as he stood there grinning.)

But it was also that January 6th decision that ensured he’d never be the 2024 Republican nominee for president, a reality he bowed to on Saturday, when he became the cycle’s first major Republican dropout.

“This was not my time,” Pence said during a speech to the Republican Jewish Coalition in Las Vegas. Translation: His campaign was doomed from the start.

Pence used his final speech to further the argument he’s been pushing all year: that Republicans should choose conservatism this cycle, in the mold of his political idol Ronald Reagan, not populism in the style of his former running mate.

“I urge all my fellow Republicans here: give our country a Republican standard-bearer that will, as Lincoln said, appeal to the better angels of our nature,” Pence pleaded, “and not only lead us to victory, but lead our nation with civility back to the time-honored principles that have always made America strong and prosperous and free.”

“Hold fast to what matters most,” he encouraged voters. “Faith, family, and the constitution of the United States of America.”

Notably, Pence did not endorse a competitor — although his framing of the race is starting to sound an awful lot like Nikki Haley’s — nor did he directly mention Trump, as has become customary for most of the ex-president’s Republican rivals.

Like in 2016, Republican elites are pressuring the large field of candidates to consolidate behind a Trump alternative. (No luck so far.) But it’s interesting to compare Pence’s dropout speech with ones from the ’16 cycle. That year, Scott Walker’s entire withdrawal was premised around the need for Republicans to get in line behind someone who wasn’t Trump. Ted Cruz ended his campaign by calling Trump a “pathological liar,” a “narcissist,” and a “serial philanderer.”

Eight years later, the muscle memory in the Republican Party is so built up to not criticize Trump — or to criticize him only in vague terms, rather than Cruz’s searing specifics — that you end up with speeches like Pence’s, railing against an unnamed “populist.”

Trump, of course, showed no such restraint on Saturday, declining to gracefully salute the man who served loyally (until he didn’t) as his No. 2. “He should endorse me,” Trump said on Saturday. “I chose him, made him vice president. But people in politics can be very disloyal.” At that point, people in the crowd started chanting “Traitor!”

So far, the odds of Republicans rallying behind a non-Trump standard-bearer do not seem good, although it remains early.

The most meaningful change in the polling trendlines, as seen above, is that Trump hasn’t merely stayed steady at the top: he’s continued to gain support for months now, while DeSantis continues to slide.

That polling collapse has complicated DeSantis’ pitch for being The Anointed One for “never Trump” lawmakers and donors. Instead, DeSantis is increasingly stuck doing battle with Haley, for second place, training their fire at each other while Trump trains his at them, which is hardly productive for dislodging him as frontrunner. It all only makes Trump look more and more inevitable.

For a long time, anti-Trump Republicans have pinned their hopes on him losing Iowa, where his ground game is believed to be poor, and then momentum flowing to whoever upsets him in the debut caucuses.

But this morning’s NBC/Des Moines Register/Mediacom Iowa survey — one of the most respected polls in American politics — presents some problems for that narrative. Haley is gaining ground (up 10 points from August, now tied with DeSantis) — but not fast enough to be anywhere close to Trump, who towers 25+ points above them both. Trump’s Iowa support shows no signs of evaporation; in fact, it’s only ticked a bit upward.

What about if Pence sets off a round of winnowing, with other GOP candidates stepping aside for the sake of the party (if not their donors’ checkbooks)? Despite DeSantis’ downward spiral this year, the Iowa poll still pegs him as the most promising non-Trump alternative.

When first and second choices are combined, DeSantis leaps to 43% in the survey — suddenly competitive with Trump. If other candidates were to theoretically drop out and coalesce behind the Florida governor, a path seems visible for vanquishing the former president.

(Graphic by NBC)

But with the “DeSantis is doomed” narrative already baked in, and exiting contenders like Pence appearing unlikely to throw their weight behind him, the route for DeSantis — or any non-Trump candidate — remains littered with serious obstacles.

More news to know.

Dean Phillips. (Photo by Gage Skidmore)

Meanwhile, the Democratic presidential field is expanding, not winnowing. Rep. Dean Phillips (D-MN) announced his Biden primary challenge on Friday. Read my August interview with Phillips

Israel is expanding its ground assault into Gaza, as the U.S. exerts pressure to minimize civilian casualties. Meanwhile, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu apologized for blaming his security chiefs for failing to forsee the October 7th attacks, exposing the rifts in Israeli society.

Reports of global antisemitism continue to surge, with Jewish students facing threats at Cornell University and an antisemitic riot breaking out at Russia’s Dagestan airport, where protestors surrounded a flight returning from Tel Aviv.

Auto workers have reached a tentative agreement with General Motors, potentially bringing an end to the six-week strike against all three of the nation’s biggest automakers.

Senate Democrats are considering a procedural move to get around Tommy Tuberville’s hold on military promotions. “They would rather burn down the Senate than negotiate,” the Alabama Republican protested.

Judge Tanya Chutkan, who is overseeing Trump’s federal January 6th case, has reinstated the gag order against the former president. Chutkan had previously paused the order, which blocks Trump from making statements about the case’s witnesses, prosecutors, or court staff.

The day ahead.

White House: President Biden will unveil the first-ever executive order on artificial intelligence today. Per the Associated Press, the order includes measures “requiring industry to develop safety and security standards, introducing new consumer protections and giving federal agencies an extensive to-do list to oversee the rapidly progressing technology.”

Congress: The House is out until Wednesday. The Senate will hold a procedural vote on a U.S. district judge nominee. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) will continue his unusually public push for Ukraine aid, hosting an event with the Ukrainian ambassador at the University of Louisville.

Supreme Court: The justices will hear oral arguments in Culley v. Marshall, a case on property rights.

Before I go...

Here’s something fun: A great SNL sketch from this weekend...

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