As we see every four years, candidates are retreating to their corners of the political spectrum in order to court their base for primary season. But this year is a little different, and if Republican presidential candidates don’t realize that, they’re going to hand Democrats the White House again next November.
Briefly looking back to the 2020 Presidential election, there were only 8 states where the race was decided within 5 percentage points. Of those, Trump only won 2: Florida and North Carolina. Next year’s late summer general election map will look eerily similar to that of 2020’s: Republicans winning their heartland and southern states, Democrats dominating their coasts… So for a Republican to overcome the 2020 deficit, they’ll need to win a majority of the more moderate, tossup states like Pennsylvania, Arizona, Wisconsin.
…And how do you win tossup states?
If one were to look through exit polling of the last several presidential elections, they’d see that Republicans and Democrats typically vote for their candidates at roughly the same intensity. But the winner of the election earns the majority of support from everyone else. In the 2024 election, ‘winning the middle’ is going to be more important than ever, as we’re seeing record numbers of people not affiliating with either party.
Looking at Gallup’s latest July 2023 party affiliation tracking, we see that about a quarter of Americans self-identify as Republican (27%), a quarter Democratic, and the rest ‘independent’ or ‘unsure’. So, what makes this year a little different than years past? Well, if we were to look at similar data from the last time Republicans were challenging a sitting Democratic President (July, 2011), we see that independent affiliation has increased over the past decade (by 3-6 points depending on which July 2011 data you select).
We can also see the growing middle when looking at voter registration more recently, as 5 of the 8 tossup states from 2020 have partisan voter registration statistics. In each of those states that track partisan registration, ‘independent’ or ‘unaffiliated’ registration has increased since Election Day 2020. . . And in Arizona now, a plurality of registered voters do not register as either Republican or Democrat.
Winning the Base
Certainly, winning a primary means winning your party’s base. However, in reviewing partisan affiliation or voter registration in important states, I would argue that catering to the ultra-conservative, Strong-R base will turn off about 75% of the general election electorate.
And there’s the rub: win the primary, and risk losing the general. Or try to expand the primary electorate, and risk not making it to the general.
Right now, the two highest profile candidates in the Republican race, Trump and DeSantis, have aggregate favorability ratings in the mid-30’s. Sure, people will say that Biden’s favorability isn’t much better. But it is better, and that’s the person these candidates will eventually be trying to beat. Speaking of playing catchup, Democrats also have a slight lead on the generic congressional ballot, and Biden has a general election lead (national, aggregate polling, so take it for what it’s worth) over Trump and DeSantis.
In order to increase personal favorability, increase your party’s standing, and increase your voteshare against the current President, these candidates cannot simply cater to one sliver of the Republican base. Not if they want to win the general election.
Winning Without Losing
Each candidate is going to say they won the debate (or Carlson interview or whatever), and there’ll be plenty of confusing metrics to show just how great each candidate did. But in order for a Republican candidate to truly win this primary season, they have to keep their base, expand their electorate, and minimize risk for future debates (against other Republicans, or eventually against Biden/the Democratic nominee).
In order to obtain those three things, you cannot ‘out-right’ the field. You cannot expand the electorate by being the most conservative on abortion or LBGTQIA+ issues. Look at any public polling, or past ballot measure results in Kansas or Ohio; these are losing issues for Republicans that Democrats will use as their closing arguments next summer/fall.
Lobbing attacks at other Republicans in the field also won’t help ‘solidify your base’. There’s surely going to be a lot of mudslinging, but the majority of people who have a favorable opinion of Trump, or DeSantis, or Pence, are the Republican primary voters. So going this route also does the candidates no favors.
Let’s be honest, this first debate/interview is going to be a sh!t show… Best of luck keeping the candidates, campaigns, and crowds civil for the next few days. But for the candidates: winning the far-right will only serve nearsighted goals, and attacking other Republicans will do little to bolster support among Republican primary voters. However, standing above the fray, deflecting personal attacks, and speaking to a larger swath of the electorate with goals of getting America back on track, improving Americans’ pocketbooks, cooling the heated political rhetoric: it may not make you a fringe-right winner, but may just place you in the White House.