Perhaps the biggest weakness of Republican presidential voters is their attachment to last time’s loser. Time and again, Republicans have nominated the candidate they rejected in the primaries the last time around, only to have general-election voters resoundingly reject that candidate this time around.
Over the past 30 years, Republicans have nominated the runner-up during the previous Republican primary (when not featuring a GOP incumbent) three times. Of these, Bob Dole won 30 percent of the electoral vote in 1996 (losing by 220 electoral votes), John McCain won 32 percent in 2008 (losing by 192), and Mitt Romney won 38 percent in 2012 (losing by 126). Only once during this stretch have the Democrats nominated last time’s loser: Hillary Clinton, who won 42 percent of the electoral vote in 2016 (losing by 77).
Meantime, the two parties have combined to nominate four candidates over that span who weren’t last time’s loser and hadn’t previously been elected as president or vice president. Among such “new blood” candidates, George W. Bush won 50.4 percent of the electoral vote in 2000, John Kerry won 47 percent in 2004, Barack Obama won 68 percent in 2008, and Donald Trump won 57 percent in 2016.
In sum, new blood candidates have three wins to one loss over the past three decades (winning an average of 56 percent of the electoral vote), while last time’s losers have zero wins and four losses (winning an average of 36 percent).
When they nominate last time’s loser, however, at least Democrats don’t generally pick someone who has already been rejected by the general electorate. Republicans seem to believe that swing voters think like Republicans do when seeing a candidate they rejected last time: Oh, I didn’t vote for him (or her) before, but I’m familiar with him (or her), so I’ll do it this time. But the way actual swing voters think is more like this: I didn’t vote for him last time, and there’s no way I’ll vote for him based on his resume since then.
If Donald Trump had vanished from the scene on November 3, 2020, and swing voters’ only memory of him was the first 46 months of his presidency, they might seriously contemplate giving him another shot.
But he didn’t disappear. Exit polling from the 2022 midterms indicates how much Trump’s continued presence affected voters’ calculations. Overall, 32 percent of midterm voters said that they cast their House vote to “oppose” President Joe Biden, while 28 percent said that they cast their House vote to “oppose” former President Trump. In other words, for every eight votes cast against Biden, all but one was negated by a vote cast against Trump. It’s extraordinary—and likely unprecedented—for someone who’s not even holding office to elicit almost as much negative sentiment from voters as the sitting president. Indeed, Trump’s unpopularity with swing voters appears to be the only thing standing in the way of the political shellacking that Democrats have been courting with their radical turn toward leftism in recent years.
Of course, Trump may not end up being the nominee; polling at this early stage means little. In July 2015, CNN’s polling showed Jeb Bush leading Trump and the rest of the Republican field. In August 2011, Gallup found that Rick Perry led the GOP field by double digits, as did Rudy Giuliani in Gallup’s July 2007 polling. Giuliani, Perry, and Bush combined to win four of the 7,158 available delegates. Given the recent track record of early frontrunners, a 2020 rematch is far from assured.
Should such a scenario materialize, though, it’s certainly possible that Trump could beat an increasingly compromised (ethically, legally, mentally, and physically) Joe Biden. But would Republicans really like Trump’s chances against California governor Gavin Newsom, who is waiting in the wings should Biden step aside? Newsom may be a big-government authoritarian who tried to shut down and mask the entire state of California during Covid, but he also qualifies as new blood, and voters haven’t previously rejected him. You can bet that Newsom would rather take his chances against Trump than have to defend his record against Florida governor Ron DeSantis, whose own response to Covid was essentially the opposite of Newsom’s—and attracted a lot more people to his state.
A DeSantis-Biden matchup would likely put Hunter Biden’s assorted scandals front-and-center rather than having them be obscured by Trump’s own legal difficulties. That contest would also invite voters to scrutinize DeSantis’s positive record in Florida, while showcasing by far the largest age gap between presidential nominees in American history (a 40-something DeSantis vs. an 80-something Biden).
Standing in DeSantis’s way to a GOP nomination is not only Trump but also a crucial hole in the governor’s résumé: he didn’t lose last time around. He’ll have to convince enough Republican voters to overlook that. We’ll see if he can.
Photos by Scott Olson/Getty Images (left), Brooks Kraft LLC/Corbis via Getty Images (center), Jim Watson/AFP via Getty Images (right)