If you think resistance is futile, you're always going to lose
This is my New Hampshire primary preview.
A couple of housekeeping items. First, congratulations to the Detroit Lions for reaching the conference championship since the first time since 1957! Second, it’s not too late to submit questions to this month’s paid subscriber questions thread. Third, for the New Hampshire primary tomorrow, the best way to follow me is on Substack Notes. There’s not really a great liveblogging solution currently in place at Substack, and I’m not sure there’s quite enough suspense in the results to merit a full liveblog anyway.
I’ve had trouble writing about this year’s Republican primaries with much enthusiasm lately. Partly because that’s there are lots of things apart from politics that I’ve been thinking about lately. (If you see some weird tweets about artificial intelligence, technological progress and the future of humanity, that’s because it’s the subject of the final chapter of my book.) But mostly it’s because there isn’t much of a race to cover. Donald Trump has been the highly-likely-approaching-near-inevitable Republican nominee for some time now and his massive win in Iowa last week only entrenched that.
Yesterday, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis dropped out of the race and immediately endorsed Trump, reportedly of the mindset that “it’s better to swallow the shit sandwich whole rather than chew it in small bites”. It was the anticlimactic end to what will deservedly go down as one of the worst primary campaigns of all time, at least as judged by the gap between expectations going into the campaign and the candidate’s eventual performance. His performance was so poor, in fact, that it seems silly to suggest that DeSantis had any path to victory.
It’s worth pointing out for the historical record, though, that:
DeSantis didn’t really try to win.
The Republican Party establishment is now a pro-Trump establishment and didn’t particularly do anything to help DeSantis or any other Trump alternative.
My former colleagues at 5381 have been dutifully tracking Republican endorsements, and Trump has an overwhelming lead, with 735 endorsement points2 so far as compared to 48 for DeSantis as of when he dropped out, and 25 for Nikki Haley. Some of these endorsements are relatively new, but Trump has dominated in this category all campaign long; as of mid-April, for instance, he had 221 endorsement points as compared to 11 for DeSantis and just 3 for Haley.
Now, one can debate how valuable these endorsements are, exactly. It’s not that the typical voter cares a whole lot about what the Iowa State Auditor thinks, for instance. But the so-called ‘Party Decides’ theory of primaries asserts that insider sentiment is a good predictor of who eventually wins. That theory was famously challenged in 2016 when Trump won with little insider support, although it got a boost in 2020 when Joe Biden had quite explicit intervention on his behalf by James Clyburn, Amy Klobuchar, Pete Buttigieg and other prominent Democrats.
Assuming that Trump wins the nomination, the record should show that 2024 is a validation of the ‘Party Decides’ hypothesis too. There was a more overwhelming and earlier insider consensus backing Trump than there was among rank-and-file GOP voters.
Yes, that’s right. It’s hard to remember now, but there was a moment about a year ago when Trump, after endorsing a series of candidates that led to a substantial GOP underperformance in the 2022 midterms, looked relatively vulnerable in polls, the most vulnerable that he has been since 2016. In early 2023, DeSantis had closed to within about 15 points of Trump in national polling averages and occasionally led in some of the higher-quality individual polls, such as in New Hampshire. Given my research that early polls should be adjusted for name recognition — DeSantis was well-known to Republican voters, but not nearly as well-known as a former president — it seemed like a relatively fair fight.
It wasn’t. Why not? Given how not close the outcome was, the reasons are pretty overdetermined. Trump’s various criminal trials helped him with the GOP base. DeSantis didn’t have a lot of personal appeal, to say the least. Joe Biden is unpopular, undermining the electability argument that Republicans needed to nominate someone else to win. And while we shouldn’t overrate Trump’s political skills, we shouldn’t underrate them either — he did defeat 16 other Republicans en route to that nomination in 2016.
DeSantis’s strategy was big part of the problem, of course. He did little to directly criticize Trump until the bitter end of the campaign — and then immediately endorsed him once he dropped out. It’s not clear what DeSantis’s strategy was, exactly. Rather than capitalize on his momentum after the midterms — when he won re-election by a huge margin in Florida as Trump endorsed a bunch of losers — he waited until May to officially begin his campaign. It didn’t take long to figure out that voters weren’t selling what he was buying, but he never shifted gears.
Still, Republican leaders didn’t really try to beat Trump. DeSantis got little institutional support. Their incentives are clear enough, I guess. Trump is notoriously vindictive to people who slight him. The people who did resist Trump were mostly ousted from the party, or left on their own volition. And it helps to join the presumptive winner’s bandwagon, if that means more chances of an ambassadorship or a cabinet position (maybe even the vice presidency!) or preferential treatment down the line when the president is crafting legislation and doling out favors..
This also wasn’t a surprise. If Republican leadership didn’t turn on Trump after January 6, it probably never was going to. But that post-midterms window presented it with one more opportunity, one it pointedly did not take.
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Disney is styling it as ‘538’ instead of FiveThirtyEight these days. I don’t like it, but I generally follow the principle of calling things by their official names. Except ‘X’, which I still call Twitter.
Various endorsers are worth somewhere between 2 and 10 points depending on the prominence of their positions.