Following Donald Trump’s victory in the Iowa caucuses last week and Iowa runner-up Ron DeSantis’s exit from the race yesterday, the Republican presidential campaign appears to be essentially over, even before Democratic primary voters have cast their first ballots. Indeed, going into Tuesday’s New Hampshire primaries, Trump seems even more certain to be his party’s nominee than does President Joe Biden, for whom there still seems a slight chance of a late-race bow out.
The short-lived GOP race nevertheless offers several lessons. For starters, Republican voters once again showed their preference for the “next in line” candidate. Since the primary-based system replaced the convention system following the 1968 election, Republican voters have been remarkably reluctant to embrace new blood. Usually, GOP voters pick the runner-up in the prior competitive Republican race: Ronald Reagan in 1980 (runner-up in 1976), George H. W. Bush in 1988 (runner up in 1980), Bob Dole in 1996 (runner-up in 1988), John McCain in 2008 (runner-up in 2000), and Mitt Romney in 2012 (runner-up in 2008). In four other elections (1984, 1992, 2004, and 2020), incumbent Republican presidents ran and became the party’s nominee. In only two races since 1980 have Republican voters deviated from the script.
The first was in 2000. The GOP runner-up in 1996, Pat Buchanan, chose not to run as a Republican in 2000, campaigning instead as a member of the Ross Perot-formed Reform Party. With the “next in line” candidate therefore out of the running—and probably too far out of step with the majority of the party to have prevailed in any case—Republican voters instead chose George W. Bush, the eldest son of the most recent Republican president.
The other deviation—a much starker one—was in 2016. Rick Santorum, the runner-up to the not-so-popular Romney in 2012, never gained traction in 2016, failing even to get onto the main debate stage. With the “next in line” candidate not really in play, Republican voters looked elsewhere. Rejecting yet another Bush (George W.’s younger brother Jeb), as well as 15 other candidates, they chose nonpolitician Donald Trump. By beating Hillary Clinton in the 2016 general election, the real-estate mogul became the first man elected president despite never serving as a vice president, governor, senator, cabinet secretary, commanding general, or even a congressman.
The difference between 2024 and the usual pattern is that, this time, Republican voters didn’t so much embrace the “next in line” candidate as the “already at the front of the line” candidate. (Relatedly, the actual “next in line” candidate, 2016’s runner-up Ted Cruz, didn’t run this time around.) Trump’s appeal as the front-of-the-line candidate seems even stronger than Republicans’ usual preference for next-in-line candidates. On the night of the 2022 midterm elections, it didn’t look as if Trump would win the 2024 nomination in a walk, but those who doubted Trump’s prospects perhaps failed to take into account how little GOP voters, historically, like change.
One candidate banking on Republicans’ willingness to move on was DeSantis, the popular Florida governor. His strong record gave reason to believe that GOP voters might tell Trump it was time to pass the baton. Partly due to DeSantis’s willingness to buck the public health establishment during Covid, Americans have flocked to Florida. Over the past three years (July 1, 2020, to July 1, 2023), Florida has led the nation in net domestic migration, beating runner-up Texas by a whopping 25 percent. What’s more, over that span, Florida has gained a higher percentage of its population from net domestic migration than any other above-average-sized state. There can be little doubt that the Sunshine State is thriving on DeSantis’s watch.
It was the right move for DeSantis to run this time around, as people almost never become president by “waiting their turn.” It was also nearly impossible to foresee how attached GOP voters would be to Trump—a commitment that only strengthened with each new Democratic prosecutor’s indictment and the Democrats’ attempts to keep the former president off the ballot in Colorado and Maine. By running, DeSantis got his feet wet in a national campaign, and that experience should be useful to him going forward. He hit his stride late in the campaign, and he will be a force in the future, as he remains Trump’s probable heir apparent.
DeSantis ran up against a Republican electorate that had no intention of making a change, but he also made a strategic mistake. In the spring and summer of 2023, it looked like establishment Republicans would have to accept that this was a two-horse race and begrudgingly back DeSantis, though he is far from an establishment Republican. Rather than securing their support, however, DeSantis began his campaign by trying to run to the right of Trump. This opened up a lane on the party’s left for Nikki Haley.
Once Haley seemed to perform well in the first debate in late August 2023, mainstream Republicans became convinced that one of their own could win. Given GOP voters’ strikingly populist mood, this belief was almost surely groundless, but establishment Republicans are historically slow to recognize such realities. Thus, the 2024 race basically became a battle of Trump versus the establishment, with Haley being the latter’s candidate of choice. DeSantis fit in neither camp, though he was probably the second choice of both sides. This led to DeSantis taking fire from three directions: the Trump campaign, which viewed him as the real threat; establishment Republicans, who had convinced themselves (against the evidence) that Haley could beat Trump if DeSantis dropped out; and the Left, which preferred the thought of Biden’s facing Trump to his facing the 45-year-old Florida governor. This three-sided barrage proved to be too much.
Haley still has an outside chance of upsetting Trump in Tuesday’s New Hampshire primary. But even a win there could well be her last, as it’s not clear that any other state’s Republican contest, including her home state of South Carolina, will be so heavily swayed by independent voters, including many de facto Democrats. Nor are any other developments, aside from an unforeseen decline in health, likely to hurt Trump’s quest for the nomination. Even a possible conviction by a jury in a heavily left-leaning city—or the plausible scenario of Trump’s being sent to jail in connection with such a conviction—would likely only boost the former president’s support among Republican voters.
Whether DeSantis or Haley will be regarded as the official next-in-line candidate in 2028 remains to be seen. By the usual standard (the candidate with the highest vote percentage or number of delegates when he or she drops out), that nod would go to DeSantis. But since he dropped out so early, one could argue that the distinction should go to Haley, assuming she eventually eclipses him in one or both categories. Regardless, so long as Republicans remain the party of Trump and continue to distrust and dislike the Republican establishment, DeSantis seems better positioned to prevail in 2028. That would presumably change, however, if Trump were to pick Haley as his vice presidential candidate and if she could manage to stay on his good side throughout a potential Trump term or after a possible defeat this November. It would also presumably change, even in the absence of her being tapped as a running mate, if Trump made it clear that he favors Haley over DeSantis in 2028, despite DeSantis’s having much more in common with Trump voters.
Given Republicans’ unwillingness to change horses, the one person who might be the hardest for any Republican candidate to beat in 2028 might be Trump himself. If he loses another close race this November, he could decide to take a fourth run at the presidency. For those who find this farfetched, Trump would be the same age four years from now that Biden is today (81). Moreover, Trump appears vigorous for a man of his age—certainly more so than Biden. So come what may this November, Trump could dominate the Republican Party for at least another four years.
Photo by Brandon Bell/Getty Images