Monday, March 27, 2023

Invisible Primary: Visible -- Trump and Evangelicals in 2024

Thoughts on the invisible primary and links to the goings on of the moment as 2024 approaches...

Tim Alberta had a nice piece up over at The Atlantic over the weekend about Donald Trump's current relationship with the broader evangelical movement. [Always read Alberta.] The takeaway? The former president seemingly burned some bridges with some Christian leaders after he cast blame on pro-life supporters for Republicans' (mis)fortunes in the 2022 midterm elections. It is a deeply reported story and it makes some sense in a climate in which others in the Republican presidential primary electorate are looking around at their options more than they did in 2019 when Trump was up for reelection. 

But there were a couple of interrelated things that kept coming to mind as FHQ read through the story. First, the folks who were quoted in the piece were almost exclusively elites within the evangelical movement (and if not elites, then leaders in some capacity). And second, there was a divide in that segment of the Republican primary electorate in 2016. As Pew showed then, regular church attendees who identified as evangelical gravitated more toward Ted Cruz. Those who carried the same identity but who were less involved in congregations were more likely to side with Trump. While FHQ is not fond of the 2024 comparisons to the 2016 Republican nomination race, it is worth asking whether this same relationship among evangelicals exists in this current invisible primary. 

In other words, does that 2016 divide persist? Is it being animated anew as the Republican presidential field takes shape for 2024? While church leaders and their most committed adherents may be looking around, put out with Trump after eight years, there may be a sizable pocket of evangelicals who are just as evangelical in their identities but less attuned (or not attuned at all) to leaders in the church who are looking to move on from Trump in the primary phase. It is those folks who may miss a unified(-ish) signal from elites in the evangelical movement. This is another one of those "is Trump closer to 2015 than to 2019" questions worth keeping an eye on as 2023 moves forward. [And it merits mention that evangelical leaders were not exactly breaking down the door to back Trump in 2015 and early 2016. But once the primary phase yielded to the general election campaign, the ties grew stronger.]

It is not as if there had been a lot of chatter about Brian Kemp jumping into the race for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination. There had been some, but the talk had seemingly never risen above the "plausible challenger, not seriously considering it" stage. Kemp has some of the conventional characteristics of a presidential aspirant: he's a twice-elected governor (in a swing state, no less), he is a proven fundraiser, and (in the eyes of handicappers in and out of the political media) he fits into the anti-Trump "lane" after his tussle with the former president over the 2020 election results. But, as local media had recently pointed out, while the door was not closed, Kemp was not doing the things that prospective presidential candidates do. There were no trips to Iowa, no national speeches, no new books to hawk.

That door now appears closed. Kemp on Friday in an interview with the Wall Street Journal was quick to dismiss any chances of a run for 2024. So scratch Kemp's name from the list. The field, real or imagined, winnows.

Despite some of the "Desantis is doomed" talk last week (and it entered the vocal doubt phase over the weekend), the broader effort to support the Florida governor's nascent bid for the Republican nomination added to its ranks. Having already brought on Jeff Roe as an adviser last week, Never Back Down, the super PAC aligned with the DeSantis effort hired a former communications hand from the Trump 2020 campaign. And Erin Perrine was already spinning polls over the weekend. 

At first blush, it may look as if Perrine's move to DeSantis is a defection from Trump. But when one considers that Republican campaign operatives had few choices at the presidential level in 2020, and that the party as a whole was firmly behind the former president in the last cycle, the story becomes one more about this cycle than a departure from the last. After all, Perrine, like Jeff Roe, has been aligned with Ted Cruz in the past. And their collective move to Never Back Down and DeSantis may tell us a lot more about a candidate not running this cycle (Cruz) than a former president who is. Regardless, these are important signals in the staff primary as the hiring wars continue. 

On this date... 1984, Gary Hart won the Connecticut primary completing his sweep of states in the northeast.. 1988, Michael Dukakis won the North Dakota Democratic caucuses. 2019, Utah joined Super Tuesday for 2020. 2020, the Ohio primary shifted because of covid to a vote-by-mail primary that would conclude in April. Hawaii Democrats did the same in their party-run primary process. And the Pennsylvania primary was moved to June 2, also because of the pandemic.

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