What’s next for Donald Trump and the GOP?

Donald Trump exits a tunnel with an American flag behind him.Photo by Jeff Swensen/Getty Images

Former President Donald Trump enters a rally in Ohio in September, 2022.

On November 15, 2022, former president Donald Trump announced his campaign to seek a return to the White House. 

The declaration came one week after a midterm election with underwhelming results for Republicans, particularly candidates with endorsements from Trump and close ties to the former president.

What do the results say about Trump's appeal to voters and his relationship with the Republican Party? And what could they mean for 2024?

Assistant professor of politics Zachary Albert studies political campaigns, partisan polarization, and public policy-making. He took some time to talk with BrandeisNow about the midterms and what could lie ahead.

Zack Albert

Zachary Albert

You have been examining Donald Trump's relationship with the Republican establishment since his first election. What did you observe at that time? How has it changed?

Looking back at the 2016 election in particular, in our research, we found that among the traditional party elites – people like senators and governors, party leaders, and key interest groups that you would expect to align behind the eventual nominee – almost none of them supported Trump in the beginning. In fact, he often faced active resistance from some of these traditional kingmakers in party politics.

The problem for Republican insiders was that they didn't effectively coordinate around some alternative to Trump. They were very fragmented. Trump was able to get around their opposition by appealing directly to the voters with an anti-establishment, populist message. 

This represents one possibility when you have a very open nominating contest where voters have, essentially, the entire say in who the nominee is. The only levers that party insiders have to try to select their desired candidates are informal mechanisms, like signaling their preferences to voters. When they're not sending consistent signals about which candidate they prefer, someone like Trump can come in and circumvent their gatekeeping.

The dynamics are quite a bit different now. Trump has, to some degree, redefined what this Republican establishment looks like. He's gotten a lot more MAGA, Trump-type candidates into office. And so the establishment today is maybe a little bit different than it was back then. The current Republican House leader, Kevin McCarthy, for example, has had a sometimes uneasy relationship with Trump, but he's much more supportive than someone like Paul Ryan or John Boehner would be.

How has Trump's rise to power influenced partisan electoral considerations in the Republican Party?

This is an area where I have focused my research since 2016. I've looked at primary voters because we know that primary elections are incredibly important in determining the types of candidates that we get to choose from in general elections. There are many races around the country, especially at the House level, where if you win the primary you're essentially guaranteed to win the general election. And it's in primaries where Trump seems to have a pretty strong grip on a core constituency of active and very vocal Republican voters. 

What we've seen since 2016 is that Trump – and Trump-aligned candidates – can often win Republican primaries by appealing to those voters. He still has a pretty strong grip on this core constituency of Republican voters who participate in primary elections. These voters are active, and they're the ones that members of Congress and other party elites are hearing from the most. 

In 2022, for example, I surveyed Ohio primary voters and found that roughly a third of Republican primary voters said that they were involved in the MAGA movement or were strong MAGA supporters. That's compared to less than 20 percent of non-primary Republican voters. These MAGA primary voters are also about two times as likely to participate in other means beyond voting. They're more likely to contact elected officials, donate money, and attend rallies. And so what we get is the people participating the most and who are heard from the most are more Trumpy than the average Republicans, and certainly more Trumpy than the median voter.

So, there are electoral rewards to be had for being a Trump-aligned candidate, for backing him, and for supporting things like his election lies, especially in many of these noncompetitive districts around the country. MAGA-style campaigning plays well to the Republican base, to put it simply.

In districts with more competitive general elections, what does this mean?

This Republican base does not single-handedly decide election outcomes, and so what it takes to win a primary is not always the same as what it takes to win a general election. Often the things that you have to do to win a primary as a Trump candidate seem to handicap you in the general election. This is especially true in competitive or swing districts, though not so true in strongly Republican ones. 

I think the 2022 midterms have been the best evidence we have of that. In competitive general elections, Trump-backed candidates did very poorly in these midterms. They lost competitive races in places like Arizona, Nevada, Pennsylvania, and New Hampshire. All of the election-denying Secretary of State candidates lost.

But you could also make the case that there's evidence of Trumpism fairing poorly in 2020 and 2018. For three election cycles in a row, MAGA candidates haven't played well in general elections, and the Republican Party has suffered because of it. But whether the party is going to learn from loss eventually and make a break from this style is still an open question.

Given the strength Trump has in primaries, both as a candidate and a backer of other candidates, how could they make such a break?

Their best hope would seem to be the emergence of a candidate who can appeal to the issues that motivate this MAGA base but who is not actually Trump. Politicians like Ron DeSantis in Florida, and Greg Abbott in Texas, have embraced the culture war issues that are a core part of the MAGA movement and made them part of their own political brand. These are really attractive alternatives to Republican elites because they're Trumpy enough for MAGA voters, but they don't have the baggage that Trump has.

So, looking out towards 2024, will the next elections be a test of the power of the establishment against the power of Trump's personal brand?

I think that's right. But there are still many unanswered questions. How much of Trump’s appeal is the power of his personal brand? Are his supporters really about him, or are they about the values and issues represented in the MAGA movement? If the 2024 Republican presidential primary becomes Trump versus some other serious challenger who appeals to a similar base – most likely DeSantis, along with probably some moderate candidate – the question for me is, does Trump still win? Does he have a majority or close to a majority? Does he have a plurality? If he doesn’t, one big question mark is what he does next. If he doesn't secure the nomination, I don't see him leaving the room quietly. I wouldn't be surprised if he has a tear-it-all-down mentality, which could be bad for the GOP in 2024, but good for them in the long-run.

Read more: How much power do voters want in a primary? Maybe not as much as you think.

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