What Are Trump's GOP Rivals for the Nomination Hoping to Accomplish?

 by Michael C. Dorf

With the notable exceptions of Chris Christie, Asa Hutchinson, and (to a lesser extent) Mike Pence, the leading candidates for the 2024 Republican Presidential nomination initially reacted to Donald Trump's recent indictment for willful retention of national defense information, obstruction of justice, and other crimes chiefly by accusing the Biden administration of unfairly weaponizing the Department of Justice against a political rival. Christie, Hutchinson, and (again to a lesser extent) Pence are running as traditional Republicans aiming to turn the party away from Trumpism. However, Christie and Hutchinson each poll around one percent of GOP primary voters. Pence fares a bit better at around five percent, but it's nearly impossible to imagine Republicans nominating someone whom their core base view as a traitor worth hanging. I'll return below to their campaigns, but for now let's focus on the candidates who are trying to secure the nomination without directly criticizing Trump--or, as the Washington Post reported yesterday, by tempering their mild and qualified criticisms of Trump with (unfounded) accusations against DOJ.

In 2016, Trump won early primaries despite earning only a plurality of votes, benefiting from the winner-take-all character of the Republican process. Some of his rivals were initially quite openly hostile to Trump, but as the field narrowed, the surviving non-Trump candidates tried to walk a tightrope--offering themselves as an alternative to Trump but also being careful not to alienate his base voters. Ted Cruz was better at this balancing act than most, but he was ultimately unsuccessful except at debasing himself. After the smoke cleared, it turned out that a majority of Republican primary voters approved of Trump's ignorance, malice, mendacity, narcissism, and racism.

Nothing fundamental has changed in the interim, except that now Trump starts the primary election race as the favorite of a majority of GOP voters, not just a plurality. Ron DeSantis is Trump's closest rival, but he has less than half of the support that Trump has. Moreover, the principal rationale for DeSantis's campaign--that he's more electable than Trump--appears dubious. Most politicians who lack charisma have the upside of acceptable blandness, but DeSantis somehow also manages to be "an unlikable jerk." And by running to Trump's right, he hardly makes the case that he would do well in the general election. Yes, it's common for Republicans to run to the right (and Democrats to the left) in primaries, but then pivot, but given that the DeSantis brand is anti-woke/owning-the-libs, the pivot would be especially difficult for him to pull off. Really the only rationale DeSantis offers the majority of Trumpy GOP primary voters to support him is that, unlike Trump, he would not be barred by the 22nd Amendment from serving a second term. It's hard to imagine there are many Republican voters who otherwise prefer Trump to DeSantis thinking that's a persuasive reason to vote for DeSantis over Trump in the 2024 primary. No doubt they figure they can just support DeSantis in 2028.

Given that none of the leading Trumpy/Trump-lite Republican candidates (DeSantis, Haley, Scott, Ramaswamy, etc.) has a realistic chance of defeating Trump, what are they doing? Perhaps in order not to alienate the base they feel the need to be careful not to be seen by the public to take too much advantage of Trump's indictments, but they are privately hoping that at least one of the criminal cases takes him down and thus creates an opening. If so, however, the hope is probably in vain. Not because Trump is innocent. He almost certainly is not. The problem for Trump's rivals is that his cult of personality holds sway over too many Republican Party primary voters for any outcome of the criminal cases to affect the result of the primaries.

Even before the documents case drew Judge Aileen M. Cannon to preside, there was a substantial possibility that pre-trial motions and appeals would drag out the proceedings until after the election. The same holds true for any charges Jack Smith files in DC arising out of the January 6 insurrection, the currently pending Stormy Daniels hush money charges in Brooklyn, and the possible "find 11,780 votes" charges in Georgia. There's a decent chance that none of those cases goes to trial before the election.

Suppose, however, that at least one case goes to trial and even results in Trump being sentenced to prison before Election Day November 2024. There's no prohibition on a presidential candidate running from prison. Eugene Debs did it in 1920. If somehow one of the trials wraps up before the end of the 2024 primaries, it seems that being in prison would not undercut support for Trump among primary voters. It could even help. And if Trump somehow managed to win the general election while in federal prison he would either pardon himself or, less dubiously, temporarily cede power to his Vice President via the 25th Amendment, receive a pardon, and then take back power.

In my April 12 Verdict column, I imagined Trump resigning and then a process of musical chairs playing out for him to obtain a pardon. Thanks to readers' comments, I now realize that it would be simpler for him to hand over power temporarily by invoking his imprisonment itself as a reason why he was temporarily incapable of executing the office. The pardon would result in his release from prison and enable him to take up the responsibilities of the Presidency.

However, if either the New York or potential Georgia case moves swiftly enough that Trump is convicted and sentenced to state prison, a federal pardon would be unavailing. As I noted in a blog post accompanying the April column, there would be potentially serious procedural obstacles to Trump's obtaining his release via habeas corpus in that circumstances, although it is hard to know how that would all play out.

Even so, while the criminal charges against Trump weaken his general election prospects and lead to uncertainty about how he would serve if he nonetheless won the Presidency, they do not appear to reduce the likelihood that he will secure the Republican nomination. And I assume that the other Republican candidates know that. So what are they doing? Let's run through some rationales.

Running for VP. A great many observers have noted that running as a Trump-friendly alternative to Trump is a good way to get yourself considered for the Vice Presidential slot on the ticket. This rationale is especially strong for the South Carolinians Nikki Haley and Tim Scott--each of whom would do something to blunt Trump's negatives with women, minorities, and perhaps most importantly, white moderates (regardless of gender) looking for "permission" to vote for Trump despite his misogyny and racism. It's especially attractive to be Trump's running mate now because he can serve only one term. If Haley or Scott runs for VP and Trump wins, they start the next race as front-runner in only four years.

Being Trump's running mate has a limited payoff if he loses. In modern times, only one unsuccessful vice presidential candidate--Bob Dole--has parlayed that run alone into a nomination, much less the presidency, and Dole's GOP Presidential nomination in 1996 was fueled more by his prominent work in the Senate than by his stint as Gerald Ford's running mate two decades earlier. (Walter Mondale got the 1984 Democratic nomination for President after having run unsuccessfully for VP in 1980, but that was after having run for and won the Vice Presidency in 1976.) That said, people who serve as Vice President often go on to win the Presidency as a result. In modern times, we have the examples of, Truman in 1948, Johnson in 1964, Nixon in 1968, George H.W. Bush in 1988, and Biden in 2020--although Truman and Johnson both were running as incumbents.

Being Trump's running mate carries special risks. It creates an association with Trump that is likely to be damaging in future general election campaigns. And there's always the risk that Trump loses the general election in 2024 but then seeks and obtains the Republican nomination again in 2028 (whether or not he's then in prison).

Thus, it's hardly clear that running for VP in 2024 is a great way to start a run for the Presidency in 2028, but it's at least a rational strategy that makes sense of what are otherwise highly quixotic 2024 campaigns.

Running for 2028 directly. The candidates running in the non-Trumpy lane (Christie, Hutchinson, and Pence) have very little chance of ending up as Trump's running mate. True, in the past, winning nominees have sought to build party unity by selecting their chief rival for the nomination as a running mate. But to do so requires a thick skin, strategic thinking, and willingness to let go of grievances that Donald Trump lacks. In the event that Trump's 2024 general election candidacy fails, a non-Trumpy candidate could be well-positioned to build a 2028 campaign on an implicit "I told you so" theme. That's a very optimistic scenario, however, in which the Republican Party will have moved past Trumpism in 2028.

Meanwhile, the Trumpy candidates who do reasonably well in the primaries but don't end up as Trump's 2024 running mate would be almost as well positioned as Trump's actual running mate to run as his heir apparent in 2028--again, assuming that Trump himself isn't again running in 2028. To my mind, this is the most rational account of the DeSantis campaign. Even his modest and oblique criticisms of Trump take him out of the running for the 2024 Vice Presidential nomination, but if he ends up second in the primaries, he could be regarded as the frontrunner for the 2028 nomination. 

Running for VP to Double-Cross Trump. Remember how my Trump-in-prison pardon scenario requires Trump to temporarily cede the office to his VP? What if that VP then double-crosses Trump and doesn't pardon him, remaining acting President for the entire term? Could that be the secret plan of the Trumpy candidates?

Much as we might hope so, I highly doubt it. For one thing, if Trump anticipates the possibility of being in federal prison on Inauguration Day and plans to attempt the 25th Amendment two-step, he will surely vet his VP pick for absolute loyalty. For another, the VP who attempted this maneuver would be committing political suicide. She would be acting President with the base of her own party furious at her and then have no chance of securing the nomination in 2028.

Suicide Bombing. Speaking of suicide, for at least one candidate--Christie--suicide bombing is a sufficient rationale for the current campaign. In 2016 he single-handedly ended Marco Rubio's then-surging campaign by exposing Rubio as a robot on the debate stage. Destroying Rubio didn't redound at all to Christie's benefit, however, which is why Rupert Murdoch called the act a suicide bombing.

I am highly dubious that Christie could destroy Trump in the same way he brought down Rubio. Trump starts out with much firmer support than Rubio had in 2016. And unlike Rubio, Trump will fight back. At the very least, he'll break out an insulting nickname based on Christie's weight. Such tactics would be off-putting to people with a sense of decency (as Christie himself observed), but they're not likely to harm Trump with the Republican primary voters who support him.

Hoping Trump Dies. Perhaps Trump's rivals for the nomination are hoping he dies either before the Republican National Convention or, if they're hoping to be his running mate, at some point during his next term in office. This is a macabre but not entirely crazy calculation. Tomorrow is Trump's 77th birthday. According to the Social Security Administration's actuarial table, the life expectancy of an average 77-year-old man is 9.3 years. Trump's self-reported BMI of nearly 31 makes him clinically obese, which is a risk factor for various illnesses, but he doesn't drink alcohol or use tobacco products, which lowers his risk. While Trump doesn't engage in vigorous exercise, he does seem fairly active. And as an ex-President with a lot of money, he has access to excellent health care. With some factors raising his risks and others lowering them, my best guess is that the actuarial average prediction is about right for him. Thus, running for the nomination in the hope that Trump dies seems like a long-shot bet. 

Egomania. Most successful politicians and especially those with the audacity to run for President have large egos. Many are over-confident. For example, there is no way that North Dakota Governor Doug Burgum will win the Republican nomination. He's unlikely ever to register sufficient support for Trump to even give him a derisive nickname. But he was a successful entrepreneur and then won the two electoral races he entered (for governor and then for re-election). So even though Burgum's electoral success was in a state with fewer residents than Charlotte, North Carolina, he might actually think he can win the nomination and the Presidency. Similar grandiosity likely can be found among nearly all the candidates who think they can wrest the nomination from the extremely grandiose frontrunner.

Bottom Line: There are some non-delusional rationales for various of the Republican campaigns for the Presidential nomination being run by people other than Trump. However, it appears for now at least that none of these campaigns currently has much of a chance of succeeding in obtaining the 2024 nomination--even on the assumption that the criminal cases against Trump proceed swiftly and successfully.