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The biggest 2024 Republican presidential primary story that no one is talking about
Even if he legitimately loses, Trump is never going to concede defeat in the GOP primary. The national political media hasn’t adjusted to a post-Jan. 6 paradigm.
MILWAUKEE, Wis. —
On Aug. 23, the first Republican presidential primary debate of the 2024 election cycle will take place in the city of Milwaukee. Up to 10,000 people are expected to be in attendance at Fiserv Forum for the debate.
For Milwaukee, this marks the official beginning of the run-up to next year’s Republican National Convention, when tens of thousands more will be expected to descend upon our city from July 15 to 18.
For the rest of the political universe, this marks the moment when the presidential primary campaign moves from the diners and county fairs of Iowa and New Hampshire onto the bright lights of the debate stage. This is when the 2024 campaign really kicks into gear.
As it stands, Donald Trump has a massive lead in primary polling. The Real Clear Politics polling average of national polls currently shows the former president with a 38-point lead over his next closest challenger, Florida governor Ron DeSantis, whose numbers have fallen significantly, from about 30% in late March to under 16% now.
Here’s how the field currently shakes out in the national polling average:
Donald Trump: 53.7%
Ron DeSantis: 15.7%
Vivek Ramaswamy: 6.0%
Mike Pence: 5.1%
Nikki Haley: 3.6%
Tim Scott: 2.9%
Chris Christie: 2.3%
Asa Hutchinson: 0.9%
Doug Burgum 0.5%
For the sake of comparison, here’s how the field looked on Aug. 3, 2015, the date of the first debate for the 2016 primary:
Donald Trump: 22.5%
Jeb Bush: 12.7%
Scott Walker: 12.0%
Ted Cruz: 6.7%
Ben Carson 6.2%
Mike Huckabee: 6.0%
Marco Rubio: 5.2%
Rand Paul: 5.0%
John Kasich: 3.8%
Chris Christie: 3.2%
Clearly, Trump is much further ahead now than he was at this point in 2015, and much of the 2024 field is polling below the levels of the 2016 group.
It’s not just national polls, either, that show Trump as the dominant frontrunner. In poll average in both Iowa and New Hampshire, Trump has comfortable leads – above 40% with no other candidate above 20%. By any objective measure, Trump is the clear favorite to be the one delivering the convention speech in Milwaukee next July.
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While the former president is keeping everyone guessing as to whether or not he’ll join the rest of the field on stage in Milwaukee later this month, a debate like this is less about Trump and more about the other candidates, considering how far behind in the polls they all currently are. It’ll be the first chance for many of those who qualify – a list that currently includes Donald Trump, Ron DeSantis, Chris Christie, Tim Scott, Nikki Haley, Doug Burgum, Vivek Ramaswamy, and Mike Pence – to share their message before a national audience. It’s an opportunity for many of those polling in single-digits to start climbing and a chance for DeSantis to turn his floundering campaign around.
But there’s a problem inherent to this particular primary and it’s one that no one seems to be talking about. The problem is this: Even if he were to lose, there is no way Donald Trump is going to concede defeat.
Trump still hasn’t conceded in the 2020 presidential election. He tried to overturn the election results in a myriad of ways culminating, of course, in the insurrection at the Capitol on Jan. 6. If he’s unwilling to accept his loss in a presidential election, why is anyone under the impression that he would do so in the 2024 primary? If he didn’t concede to Joe Biden, what makes anyone think he would concede to Ron DeSantis or Nikki Haley or Vivek Ramaswamy? Does anyone see any scenario where he would lose the race and graciously bow out and endorse a different candidate as the Republican nominee? It couldn’t seem less likely at the moment.
And yet the national political media is still treating this primary as one of a traditional campaign. They’re covering every beat of the DeSantis “reset”, questioning whether Tim Scott’s moment will come, breaking down Nikki Haley’s stump speech, analyzing the path of a 2024 Mike Pence candidacy, and so on. This is all important, and campaigns are about more than just the horse race of it all, but what’s missing this time around is an answer to the big question mark at the finish line.
Trump’s lead is gargantuan at the moment, so this might not end up mattering for the primary. He might just run away with it. But come Aug. 23, all eyes will be on Milwaukee and on the field of candidates looking to win the nomination. But if Trump isn’t going to concede even if he legitimately loses this election, as was the case in 2020, to what extent does any of this matter toward the endgame? Why is anyone covering this primary as if it’s a normal campaign?
This isn’t a question about Trump’s adherence to “the norms,” the topic of endless beltway media bloviating eight years ago during his first run for president. This is more of a literal question. Trump showed us after the 2020 election that he’s never going to concede defeat, under any circumstances, ever. And yet for some reason, this is still being treated like a traditional primary election where results are respectfully accepted.
The political press is still operating under a pre-Jan. 6 paradigm and ignoring the elephant in the room. That elephant is once again Donald Trump, and his unwillingness to ever admit that he lost an election.
We can talk about issues and storylines and polling and fundraising and campaign trail interactions all day and night for months on end (and we certainly will). But without acknowledging that elephant and Trump’s inevitable undemocratic endgame, how much of this coming competition really matters?
Let’s game this out with a hypothetical. While this outcome is looking exceedingly unlikely, let's say Ron DeSantis turns his campaign around. Let’s say he has a great debate in Milwaukee, and that momentum carries him through a rise in the polls throughout the fall. Then, in January, he wins the Iowa caucus and the New Hampshire primary. He notches a few more victories in the early states and rolls into Super Tuesday on March 5 ascendant and on track to secure the nomination. If this were to happen, is Trump going to graciously pass the baton, endorse DeSantis, and ride off into the sunset? There’s just no chance.
It’s hard to imagine Trump’s supporters would be on board with such an outcome, either. There’s still a significant portion of the Republican base — maybe even a large majority of the party's voters — who still believe the lie that Trump won the 2020 election. Are any of those supporters going to be moved by primary election results this time, or would they just cry fraud and conspiracy and “STOLEN ELECTION!” all over again?
Taking this a step further, if someone other than Donald Trump were to legitimately win the Republican nomination, it seems more likely that the former president would continue to run as an independent of sorts than for him to accept a primary loss and bow out of the race.
Because of Donald Trump’s 2020 election lies, the transfer of power after the last election was not a peaceful one. This is the first primary held since the insurrection, with the same person chiefly responsible back on the ballot. It’s time for political coverage of the 2024 Republican presidential primary to reflect a post-Jan. 6 reality. Because anyone believing now that this primary is a pure competition in any conventional sense is kidding themselves.
The debate in Milwaukee will take place on Aug. 23. Whether or not Trump participates, or what the field of candidates will have to say once they’re on the debate stage is secondary to the larger story of this campaign. Even if Trump loses in the Republican primary — something that is looking less and less likely — he is not going to accept that loss. We need to start thinking more seriously about what that means for the primary, the Republican Party, and for the state of American democracy.
Until we address this issue and grapple with near-certainty that Trump will not concede defeat in this or any election, the coming debate — and the 2024 Republican presidential primary at large — is little more than an exercise in political theater.
Wisconsin is going to be one of a handful of key swing states in the 2024 election and the RNC is taking place in Milwaukee. Subscribe now to help us plan for what’s next and get sharp, local, independent coverage of Wisconsin politics in your inbox.
Dan Shafer is a journalist from Milwaukee who writes and publishes The Recombobulation Area. He’s also written for The New York Times, The Daily Beast, Heartland Signal, Belt Magazine, WisPolitics, and Milwaukee Record. He previously worked at Seattle Magazine, Seattle Business Magazine, the Milwaukee Business Journal, Milwaukee Magazine, and BizTimes Milwaukee. He’s won 17 Milwaukee Press Club Excellence in Journalism Awards. He’s on Twitter at @DanRShafer.
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Follow Dan Shafer on Twitter at @DanRShafer.