Before the Republican National Committee decided who had qualified for the first debate on August 23, there were 13 presidential aspirants in the field (not counting completely anonymous schmoes). Four of them didn’t qualify for the debate; nine did, though one of them famously didn’t show.
As we begin to prepare for the second debate on September 27, there are now 12 presidential aspirants in the field, as Miami mayor Francis Suarez has dropped out. He didn’t have much choice, having promised to end his campaign if he didn’t qualify for the debate, which he didn’t. He was silent for a while, but decided not to go to court to fight his exclusion from past and future debates like fellow non-qualifiers Larry Elder and Perry Johnson are doing.
This really isn’t going according to script. The size of the GOP presidential field is astonishing since only two candidates, Donald Trump and Ron DeSantis, have at any point reached double-digit levels of support in the national polling averages. And just about everyone who matters in the GOP has an interest in the rapid “winnowing” of the field, which somehow isn’t happening. Supporters of Trump, the dominant front-runner, presumably hope all his challengers bend to the inevitable and throw in the towel, leaving the 45th president plenty of time to focus on his amazingly large and burgeoning legal problems. And Republicans who are praying to be saved from a third Trump nomination, and quite possibly a second Trump loss to Joe Biden, desperately want the field to shrink to give someone a remote chance of beating Trump in the primaries.
The spokesman for this second group is New Hampshire governor Chris Sununu, who is hoping that a smaller field will be further “winnowed” by the Iowa caucuses, making his own state an abattoir from which a single Trump challenger will emerge to slay the dragon. Maybe that will transpire before Trump nails down the nomination and maybe it won’t. But the fact remains that the winnowing is off to a very slow start. Six of the eight August 23 debaters (plus Trump) have already qualified for the September 27 event, and there are decent odds that the other two candidates (particularly moneybags Doug Burgum) will make it too. And for all we know the previously excluded candidates may find a judge to force the RNC to widen the stage going forward. There is clearly a magnetic force drawing all these politicians into what objectively looks like a hopeless task. What’s going on?
The usual glib explanation is that people run for president for the exposure necessary to sell books or get a cable-gabbing gig or to lay the groundwork for a future candidacy for the White House or a lesser office. While these may all be factors in the stickiness of 2024 candidacies, I suspect two other factors are at play.
First of all, DeSantis’s manifest weakness has convinced a lot of people that he will fade before voters vote, leaving a huge opening for a new candidate attractive to Republicans who love MAGA policies and posturing but for various reasons think it may be time to “move on” from Trump himself. Why leave the race when the leading non-Trump candidacy seems to be slowly but surely circling the drain? The desire for a successor to DeSantis as the putative Trump conqueror is illustrated not just by the occasional spasms of excitement surrounding Tim Scott or Nikki Haley or even Vivek Ramaswamy, but also by the irrepressible talk of a late dark-horse savior like Glenn Youngkin hopping into the race.
The second reason candidates may hang around past their sell-by date is especially seductive: Even if everyone is running 40 and 50 points behind Trump, his unprecedented legal challenges mean he could, in theory, just self-destruct and start the 2024 race all over again. It doesn’t seem likely, since his serial indictments have if anything united Republicans in his defense — but who knows? This is totally uncharted territory. It’s possible the 45th president could be on trial for felony criminal offenses before he can mathematically clinch the GOP nomination. It’s possible that close associates of his with deep reservoirs of credibility in MAGA-land will roll over on their former boss and make his prosecution something other than a pure “partisan witch hunt.” And it’s possible that the “electability” argument against Trump that DeSantis has so feebly advanced could come alive as independent swing voters react with revulsion to fresh evidence of Trump’s insurrectionary crimes. It’s even possible, though unlikely, that Republicans who still think Trump was a great president will shrink from the the threats of violence and civil war surrounding his 2024 candidacy like a ring of fire.
So why let yourself get “winnowed” until it’s absolutely necessary, particularly if you have time and money to burn? After all, nine of the 2024 candidates don’t have current elected-official day jobs. And it will be months before icy weather hits Iowa and New Hampshire. So get used to crowded debate stages and a surplus of right-wing rhetoric.
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