Is Donald Trump’s 2024 bid for the White House finished just as it’s started? That seems to be the new conventional wisdom. After last Tuesday’s “red wave” failed to materialize – with Trump-endorsed candidates and other election deniers losing winnable seats – many experts have been predicting Trump’s inevitable crash-and-burn.
Such forecasts haven’t come from just Trump’s favorite target of ridicule — the liberal “mainstream media.” For example, a headline from the conservative New York Post stated, “Trump voters are ‘done’ with ex-president: ‘He needs to disappear.’” GOP strategist Karl Rove declared that, “[w]ith no red wave, Trump is out at sea.”
For many commentators, the 2022 midterms point unmistakably to Trump’s waning grip on the Republican Party. But is Trump really toast? Much as we wish otherwise, there’s reason for doubt. Here are five post-election talking points about Trump that we think miss the mark.
The electorate has moderated
Democrats have celebrated the midterms as a “win for democracy” following the defeat of many MAGA candidates. The votes don’t lie: Democrats won key gubernatorial contests against Trump-backed candidates in Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin and Arizona, and crucial Senate seats in Pennsylvania, Nevada and Arizona.
But despite defeats in high-profile swing-states, it’s easy to overlook some simple facts: The majority of GOP candidates who questioned or denied the 2020 election results were victorious, with more than 170 projected to win, mostly in House and state-level contests. Even more, the non-partisan Cook Political Voting Index found that nearly 150 Trump-endorsed candidates surpassed their baseline expectations by 1.52 points.
The election win-loss record also obscures the significant voter base that still rallies behind MAGA candidates. With many races decided by just 1 to 2 percentage points, and the Georgia Senate race headed to a run-off, it’s evident that Trump voters still comprise an outsized portion of the electorate.
Trump’s candidates reflect on him
An oft-repeated lesson from the midterms is that “candidate quality matters,” with some in the GOP explicitly blaming Trump for backing candidates who cost the party. On issues from abortion to claims of 2020 vote rigging, critics say, moderates rejected fringe Republicans who appealed only to the hard right.
But don’t expect humility from Trump. Despite reports of initially fuming over the results, Trump has already left the “no spin zone,” boasting of the “tremendous” wins that he delivered through endorsements.
Trump is scapegoating others, and he’ll continue to frame the results as proof of the need to have the name “Trump” at the top of the ticket. A Trump-endorsed candidate is one thing, but the unique, iconoclastic Trump himself is another. Trump’s base is likely to stick by him, even – or especially – if he’s considered an underdog.
DeSantis is the only competition
If last Tuesday was a gloomy night in Mar-a-Lago, it was a party in Tallahassee for Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, who romped to a nearly 20 percentage point victory. The win solidified the rising conservative star’s place on the national stage, and polls this week showed DeSantis edging out Trump for the first time as the preferred GOP nominee for 2024.
DeSantis has the momentum and is the consensus rival to take on Trump. But he’s unlikely to be the only competition. If the perception is that Trump’s hold on the party has loosened, other contenders will enter the Republican primary race, if only to bolster their image or to position themselves as vice presidential picks.
Former Vice President Mike Pence, former South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley and others might not overtake DeSantis. But they could still split the vote enough to anoint Trump the victor. If Russia-gate, Impeachment 1.0 and Impeachment 2.0 suggest anything, it’s that roughly 30 percent of Americans will support Trump no matter what.
Fox News is turning against Trump
Trump’s popularity among the rightwing base owes in no small part to the glowing coverage he’s received from Fox News. So when conservative media mogul Rupert Murdoch, who controls the network, recently encouraged Trump not to run, skeptics viewed Trump as losing one of his highest profile – and most influential – allies.
But remember: Trump was out of favor with Fox News before he was in favor with it. Don’t be surprised if he slides back into Murdoch’s good graces again. And even if Murdoch doesn’t line up behind Trump, the 91-year old businessman isn’t the face of Fox News. That title goes to its celebrity anchors – like Tucker Carlson and Sean Hannity – who’ve been reliably staunch Trump boosters.
Moreover, if MAGA viewers think that Fox News is too critical of Trump, they have options. Newsmax, One America News Network and a slew of new media sites can satiate their appetite for pro-Trump coverage. These networks can also “discipline” Fox News by threatening its market share if the network veers too centrist.
“This time is different”
Democrats and even many Republicans eager to usher Trump off the national stage have latched on to the midterms as the beginning of the end for the former president. Yet haven’t we heard that before? From so-called “pussygate” in 2016, to voter blowback in the 2018 and 2020 elections, to the events of Jan. 6, both liberal and conservative experts have repeatedly written off Trump.
For all the talk of “this time is different,” Trump won’t go down without a fight. If he can paint DeSantis as the preferred candidate of “the establishment” – among donors, pundits and insiders – that will only re-energize (and radicalize) his base. Even Trump’s ongoing legal battles may be a boon, as he can smear them as witch hunts. Those tactics might not win a general election — or they might. Either way, don’t count Trump out.
Thomas Gift (@TGiftiv) is director of the UCL Centre on US Politics (@CUSP_ucl) and associate professor of political science at UCL. Julie Norman (@DrJulieNorman2) is codirector of the UCL Centre on US Politics and associate professor of politics and international relations at UCL.