The most important thing I’ve read recently about the 2024 GOP primary had nothing to do with questions about Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ retail political skills or Donald Trump’s slipping hold on the GOP faithful. Instead, it was a piece by Washington Post reporters Michael Scherer, Josh Dawsey and Maeve Reston, that focused on the unsexy, but critically important state delegate selection process. Specifically, Scherer, Dawsey and Reston report on the Trump campaign’s aggressive outreach to state parties and local leaders to “identify opportunities to shape party rules that could help his campaign.”   

In the gauzy, “West Wing” TV version of politics, campaigns are won with compelling speeches, dazzling debate performances and perfectly crafted campaign ads. In reality, campaigns are won on grit, endurance and attention to detail. And luck. To win the nomination for president, a campaign must be able to chart a path to the number of delegates needed to win. Period. 

For all the baggage that Trump brings to the 2024 contest, he does bring more experience — and importantly — more experienced political hands to this primary than he did to 2016. The rag-tag campaign team of eight years ago has been replaced by seasoned political operatives like Chris LaCivita, a former NRSC political director and no-holds-barred political brawler, and Florida-based GOP strategist Susie Wiles, who led Trump’s efforts in the Sunshine state in 2016 and 2020 and has a more expansive role this time around. 

In 2016, Trump won despite his campaign’s disorganization. This time around, his campaign’s organization is what may propel him to the nomination. 

Despite his overall popularity with Republican voters, Trump has a ceiling on his level of support for his nomination. Just where that ceiling sits isn’t all that clear. 

GOP pollster Whit Ayers finds that Trump has “a lock on approximately 30 percent of likely GOP voters.” A recent survey by Marist/NPR/PBS NewsHour finds over half (54 percent) of Republicans think the party would “have a better chance of winning in 2024 if someone else” besides Donald Trump is the nominee. But then there’s a recent Emerson College poll that puts Trump’s support in a multi-candidate primary at 55 percent. 

However, instead of cherry picking data, let’s look at the RealClearPolitics average of national 2024 Republican primary polls. According to the RCP average, Trump sits at 45 percent of the vote in a multi-candidate field. The good news for Donald Trump is that this is the same percent of the vote he garnered in his successful 2016 primary campaign. The bad news for Donald Trump is that despite his tenure as president and his significant influence on the party, he is still unable to get even half of the GOP electorate to support his nomination. 

That brings us back to the importance of the Trump campaign’s focus on process. “Unlike the Democratic Party, which largely dictates how delegates are selected at the national level,” write Scherer, Dawsey and Reston in the Washington Post, “state Republican parties have broad leeway to determine who they send to the convention and how those people are bound to vote on the first ballot.”

As such, a top priority for the Trump campaign is to ensure that state Republican parties’ delegate selection plans would benefit a candidate like theirs who has a high floor, but low ceiling of support from GOP voters. In 2016, according to the Brookings Institution’s Elaine Kamark, a well-respected expert on party primaries, 80 percent of the delegates came from states that used “some sort of winner take all rule.” This rule, of course, allowed Trump to rack up delegates, even as he failed to dominate the field. Lots of folks point to the winner-take-all states, like Florida, where Trump took all 99 delegates while winning just 46 percent of the vote. But the hybrid winner-take-some or winner-take-most models also benefited Trump.  For example, in 2016, Tennessee awarded delegates based on the percent of the vote a candidate got by congressional district. This rule allowed Trump to acquire 57 percent of the state’s delegates, even as he won just 39 percent of the popular vote in the state. 

Given the Trump campaign’s intensive focus on “cultivating relationships” with state parties who decide these rules, many argue that a crowded field will once again benefit Trump. At the very least, goes the thinking, Trump’s GOP opponents need to be more confrontational with Trump earlier in the process if they want to dethrone him. Sitting and waiting for Trump to lose altitude isn’t going to happen on its own. Someone has to pop that balloon. 

Yet, there’s also the risk that the Trump strategy of 2016 — humiliate and annihilate the character of your opponents — won’t be as effective this time around. Back in 2016, Trump’s attacks on “low-energy” Jeb Bush and “little” Marco Rubio worked in part because those politicians didn’t enjoy the same level of support and admiration that Ron DeSantis currently holds. Even if they aren’t committed to voting for DeSantis at this point, many Republicans see DeSantis as an effective and powerful figure in the party. At an event the other day, a Republican voter told me that his wife, once an avid Trump supporter, has soured on him since he started to name call DeSantis. 

Part of DeSantis’ appeal, of course, is that he’s a winner. And, in listening to GOP voters in focus groups and in less formal settings, electability is a big concern for them in 2024. That wasn’t the case in 2016, when exit polls found that the issue of electability was consistently the least important of the four issues offered to voters. The top issues for voters that year: a candidate who “tells it like it is” and a candidate who can “bring change.” Not surprisingly, Trump dominated among those voters.

Today, however, Trump’s once spotless win record has been marred. DeSantis doesn’t need to tell voters this. They know it. The most effective way for DeSantis to “attack” Trump is to just keep winning. While Trump can point to the “good old days” of his presidency, DeSantis can point to the present where he’s beating Disney, “woke” colleges and liberal Democrats. His message: you can have both a winner and a culture warrior without having to accept a RINO establishment candidate. 

Trump can’t do anything about DeSantis’ current successes. But he and his campaign can remind GOP voters that unlike the former president, DeSantis, who spent five years in Congress and five as Governor, is no “outsider.” Instead, he’s a politician with a voting record that is out of step with today’s more populist party. 

Photo credit: ABC/ Fred Watkins

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