Donald J. Trump shocked the world in 2016 by winning the White House and becoming the first president in U.S. history with no prior military or government experience. He upended the fiction of electability pushed by pundits, the news media and many political consultants, which arrogantly projects who will or will not win long before votes are cast. He focused instead on capturing a majority in the Electoral College, which is how a candidate does or does not win. Not unlike Barack Obama eight years earlier, Mr. Trump exposed the limits of Hillary Clinton’s political inevitability and personal likability, connected directly with people, ran an outsider’s campaign taking on the establishment, and tapped into the frustrations and aspirations of millions of Americans.
Some people have never gotten over it. Trump Derangement Syndrome is real. There is no vaccine and no booster for it. Cosseted in their social media bubbles and comforted within self-selected communities suffering from sameness, the afflicted disguise their hatred for Mr. Trump as a righteous call for justice or a solemn love of democracy and country. So desperate is the incessant cry to “get Trump!” that millions of otherwise pleasant and productive citizens have become naggingly less so. They ignore the shortcomings, failings and unpopularity of President Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris and abide the casual misstatements of an administration that says the “border is secure,” inflation is “transitory,” “sanctions are intended to deter” Putin from invading Ukraine and they will “shut down the virus.” They’ve also done precious little to learn and understand what drives the 74 million fellow Americans who were Trump-Pence voters in 2020 and not in the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.
The obsession with Mr. Trump generates all types of wishful thinking and projection about the next election from both his critics (“He will be indicted!”) and his supporters (“Is he still electable?”). None of that is provable, but this much is true: Shrugging off Mr. Trump’s 2024 candidacy or writing his political obituary is a fool’s errand — he endures persecution and eludes prosecution like no other public figure. That could change, of course, though that cat has nine lives.
At the same time, it would also be foolish to assume that Mr. Trump’s path to another presidency would be smooth and secure. This is not 2016, when he and his team had the hunger, swagger and scrappiness of an insurgent’s campaign and the “history be damned” happy warrior resolve of an underestimated, understaffed, under-resourced effort. It’s tough to be new twice.
Unless what’s old can be new again. Mr. Trump’s track record reminds Republican primary voters of better days not that long ago: accomplishments on the economy, energy, national security, trade deals and peace deals, the drug crisis and the southern border. He can also make a case — one that will resonate with Republicans — about the unfairness and hypocrisy of social media censorship and alleged big tech collusion, as recent and ongoing revelations show. Mr. Trump, as a former president, can also be persuasive with Republican primary voters and some independents in making a frontal attack on the Biden administration’s feckless management of the economy, reckless spending and lack of urgency and competence on border control and crime.
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Accomplishing this will not be easy. Mr. Trump has both political assets to carry him forward and political baggage holding him back. For Mr. Trump to succeed, it means fewer insults and more insights; a campaign that centers on the future, not the past, and that channels the people’s grievances and not his own; and a reclamation of the forgotten Americans, who ushered him into the White House the first time and who are suffering economically under Mr. Biden.
A popular sentiment these days is, “I want the Trump policies without the Trump personality.” It is true that limiting the name-calling frees up time and space for persuasion and solutions. Still, it may not be possible to have one without the other. Mr. Trump would remind people, it was a combination of his personality and policies that forced Mexico to help secure our border; structured new trade agreements and renewed manufacturing, mining and energy economies; pushed to get Covid vaccines at warp speed; engaged Kim Jong-un; played hardball with China; routed ISIS and removed Qassim Suleimani, Iran’s most powerful military commander; forced NATO countries to increase their defense spending and stared down Vladimir Putin before he felt free to invade Ukraine.
When it comes to Donald J. Trump, people see what they wish to see. Much like the audio debate a few years ago, “Do you hear ‘Laurel’ or ‘Yanny’?,” what some perceive as an abrasive, scornful man bent on despotism, others see a candid, resolute leader unflinchingly committed to America’s interests.
The case against Trump 2024 rests in some combination of fatigue with self-inflicted sabotage; fear that he cannot outrun the mountain of legal woes; the call to “move on”; a feeling that he is to blame for underwhelming Republican candidates in 2022; and the perception that other Republicans are less to blame for 2022 and have more recent records as conservative reformers.
He also won’t have the Republican primary field — or the debate stage — to himself. If one person challenges Mr. Trump, it is likely five or six will jump into the race and try to test him, too. Possible primary challengers to Mr. Trump include governors with impressive records and huge re-election victories like such governors as Ron DeSantis of Florida, Kim Reynolds of Iowa and Greg Abbott of Texas; those who wish to take on Mr. Trump frontally and try to move the party past him, like Gov. Brian Kemp of Georgia and former Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey; those who can lay legitimate claim to helping realize Trump-era accomplishments like former Vice President Mike Pence and former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo; others who wish to expand the party’s recent down-ballot gains in racial and gender diversity to the presidential level, like former Gov. Nikki Haley and Senator Tim Scott, both of South Carolina.
These are serious and substantive men and women, all of whom would be an improvement over Mr. Biden. For now, though, these candidates are like a prospective blind date. Voters and donors project onto them all that they desire in a perfect president, but until one faces the klieg lights, and is subjected to raw, relentless, often excessive scrutiny, and unfair and inaccurate claims, there is no way to suss out who possesses the requisite metal and mettle.
The main talking point against Trump 2024 seems to be that Trump 2022 underperformed and that it left him a less-feared and less-viable candidate. Mr. Trump boasts that his general election win-loss record was 233-20 and that he hosted some 30 rallies in 17 states and more than 50 fund-raisers for candidates up for re-election, and participated in 60 TeleRallies and raised nearly $350 million in the 2022 cycle for Republican candidates and committees.
Republican voters should be pleased that Mr. Trump and other Republican luminaries showed up and spoke up in the midterms. Mr. Trump wasn’t the only one who campaigned for unsuccessful candidates. Mr. DeSantis rallied in person for Kari Lake, Doug Mastriano and Tim Michels. Mr. Pence, Ms. Haley, and Mr. Pompeo endorsed Don Bolduc, for example. Even the Senate minority leader, Mitch McConnell, seemed warm and hopeful about a few of the U.S. Senate candidates who came up short. In October 2021 Mr. McConnell claimed, “Herschel [Walker] is the only one who can unite the party, defeat Senator Warnock,” and in August 2022, “I have great confidence. I think [Mehmet] Oz has a great shot at winning [in Pennsylvania].”
Contrast that to Joe Biden, who was unpopular and unwelcome on the campaign trail in the midterm elections. For seven years Mr. Trump hasn’t stopped campaigning, while one could say that Mr. Biden, who stuck close to home for much of 2020 and did relatively little campaigning in 2022, never truly started. It will be tough for Mr. Biden and Ms. Harris to avoid active campaigning when “Biden” and “Harris” are on the ballot.
Any repeat by the 2024 Trump campaign of the disastrous mistakes in personnel, strategy and tactics of the 2020 Trump campaign may lead to the same 2020 result. With roughly $1.6 billion to spend and Joe Biden as the opponent, the 2020 election should have been a blowout. Instead, they proved the adage that the fastest way to make a small fortune is to have a very large one and waste most of it.
Mr. Trump lost support among older voters, white men, white voters with a college degree, and independents, though he increased his vote share across notable demographics like Hispanics and Blacks. One wild card: Will the undercover, hidden 2016 Trump voter, those who wish to keep their presidential pick private from pollsters, return in 2024?
Republicans must also invest in and be vocal about early voting. This is a competition for ballots, not just votes. As ridiculous as it was to vote nearly two months before Election Day and count the votes for three weeks thereafter, some of the state-based Covid-compelled measures for voting are now permanent. If these are the rules, adapt or die politically.
Mr. Biden, for his part, will have his own record to run on, typical advantages of incumbency, powerful campaign surrogates who will join him in making the presidential race a referendum on Mr. Trump, and persistent calls for a third-party candidate who as a spoiler could do for Mr. Biden what Ross Perot did for Bill Clinton in 1992 — deliver the presidency to the Democrat with less than 45 percent of the popular vote.
Whether the 2024 presidential election is a cage match rematch of Mr. Biden and Mr. Trump, or a combination of other candidates remains to be seen. Each of them has defied the odds and beat more than a dozen intraparty rivals to win their respective primaries. Each of them now faces calls for change, questions about the handling of classified documents and questions about age. For voters, vision matters. Winning the presidency is hard. Only 45 men (one twice) have been president. Hundreds have tried, many of them being told, “You can win!” even as they lost. Success lies in having advisers who tell you what you need to know, not just what you want to hear. And in listening to the people, who have the final say.
Kellyanne Conway is a Republican pollster and political consultant who was Donald J. Trump’s campaign manager in 2016 and senior counselor to President Trump from 2017 to 2020. She is not affiliated with his 2024 presidential campaign.
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