The 2024 presidential primaries are still so faraway, and barring unforeseen events — well, maybe not that unforeseeable — Donald Trump is going to be the Republican candidate, which contributed to the general sense of pointlessness about Wednesday night’s exercise.
But it could’ve been different.
The current crop of presidential candidates headed toward a foregone conclusion, assisted by set of unforced errors that feels sickeningly familiar to anyone who’s lived through the last few decades of Michigan politics. In the debate’s aftermath, I thought, hey, maybe the Republican Party could learn a few things from Michigan.
A crowded field doesn’t help anyone
This truism was never more true than in the 2022 midterm elections. A nine-candidate field in the race for Michigan’s 13th Congressional District seat, decided in the August primary because of the district’s strong Democratic bent, saw entrepreneur Shri Thanedar seated in the U.S. Congress with just 28% of ballots cast. Thanedar has proved an effective campaigner, but the fact remains that 72% of voters who cast ballots in the primary opted for someone else, and that all those someone elses split the not-Thanedar vote.
It was a result that everyone saw coming. Wayne County Executive Warren Evans even assembled a group of politically and civically influential Detroiters and metro Detroiters to consolidate support behind a consensus candidate. It didn’t work.
If there is any significant number of GOP voters looking for an alternative to Trump — and that’s a big if — this crowded field is not the way.
At least three of the candidates on Wednesday’s debate stage will make it to the presidential primaries. Likely more, pollster Richard Czuba of the Glengariff Group predicts. It’s difficult to persuade anyone to drop out of an election, even when the writing is on the wall: “Never underestimate a politician’s ego,” Czuba said. “I think we’re going to have multiple candidates, and a split field.”
That way lies victory — for Trump.
Take a page from Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s playbook
Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has run two disciplined statewide campaigns. Personally progressive, Whitmer prefers to campaign on common ground, focusing on dinner table subjects like school and road funding. (Republicans, not the governor, made abortion the subject of the 2022 election with the overturn of Roe v. Wade, and it’s worth noting that polls showed Whitmer with a commanding lead over her likely Republican opponents even before Roe’s reversal.)
Her Republican opponent, Tudor Dixon, was on the attack in last year’s debates, but Whitmer didn’t engage. “That’s silly,” she’d respond to an outlandish claim, or “That’s just not true,” moving quickly back to her own message. It didn’t make for edge-of-your-seat TV, but voters responded, re-electing the governor by a wide margin. Michiganders, it turns out, were looking for a level-headed stateswoman, not an upstart.
But many of the Republican presidential candidates — like Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and businessman Vivek Ramaswamy — Czuba said, “are jockeying to be another Donald Trump. Why be number two when you could be number one? Donald Trump is the behemoth in the room, and unless you draw clear, concise differences with him, you’re just helping him.”
Among the candidates, only former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley seems to be flirting with this path, making an impassioned case for refocusing the abortion fight on common ground like expanded access to birth control and resources to support unplanned pregnancies.
“She’s looking for that more centrist path on an issue, and she’s the only one. It caught my attention,” Czuba said. “But it’s not going to help her in a primary. That’s the albatross Republicans are running with. You can win the nomination, or you can win the election.”
The Trump sign your neighbor has had up for eight years is not coming down now
Trump lost in 2020 because Democrats turned out, not because Republicans turned away.
“Joe Biden won because so many more voters came out in areas like Oakland and Kent counties,” Czuba said. “We’re looking at the same demographics as from 2020, and this is going to turn again into a turnout game. We’re seeing very high motivations to vote, and this is going to come down to a question of, what do voters under 30 and Black voters want? They are going to be the difference makers here.”
The answer to that question isn’t necessarily Biden, he said, but the issues the president stands for.
Speaking of Ramaswamy, here’s a freebie
The Wall Street Journal declared that Ramaswany pugnacious debate performance had grabbed the spotlight, and there’s no question that’s true.
But here’s another lesson from Michigan: Stop running unqualified business people.
Michiganders elected tech CFO Rick Snyder to the governor’s seat in 2010 and again in 2014. Snyder pitched himself as an apolitical outsider who would run government as a business, shaking up the state’s status quo. And he definitely did that, but not in the way his supporters envisioned.
Snyder’s lack of political savvy meant his plans were to fund roads or expand Medicaid were confounded by his own party. Republicans passed right-to-work legislation he’d said wasn’t in the state’s best interest (he signed it, anyway). His insistence on metrics uber alles lead to the unemployment false fraud crisis that saw 40,000 Michiganders falsely accused of fraud for claiming unemployment benefits to which they were legally entitled, and, of course, the Flint water crisis.
Then, of course, there’s Trump.
Running a business isn’t a qualification to lead a government, and the GOP should stop pretending that it is.