Fresh off a decisive 20-percentage-point reelection win, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis kicked off 2023 as the odds-on favorite to win the 2024 Republican nomination. Polling showed him handily besting Trump in head-to-heads as well as multiple-candidate contests.
It wasn’t that Republicans voters didn’t like Trump—they did. But focus groups indicated Republican voters who weren’t a cohesive part of the some 30% bloc of MAGA faithfuls wanted to win the election, and they viewed Trump as too polarizing to recapture the White House. The sentiment was so pervasive that one anti-Trump group built an entire ad campaign around those concerns earlier this year.
One ad featured two-time Trump voter Fran, who said she “really appreciated” Trump’s presidency but was looking to support someone else in ’24.
“Donald Trump has way too much political baggage,” Fran said. “The next Republican candidate has to be somebody who can convince swing voters, independents, to vote for them. Because Donald Trump can’t.”
Fran typified a healthy slice of gettable Trump voters that DeSantis utterly failed to consolidate, partially because his campaign was out-maneuvered and partially because he was a uniquely tragic candidate.
In the meantime, Trump took back the “electability” argument from DeSantis like a big brother reclaiming his toy. Not only did DeSantis run so hard to the right that donors began questioning his mass appeal, Trump successfully convinced squishy GOP voters that he, not DeSantis, was the strongest candidate in the field.
That may be true in the primary, but it’s anything but true in the general election. In fact, the latest Wall Street Journal poll found Trump besting President Joe Biden nationally by 4 points, while former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley beats Biden by 17 points. Again, general election horse-race polling is virtually meaningless right now, but Haley clearly has more appeal than Trump to a larger swath of voters.
But now there’s a new wrinkle in Trump’s electability argument: What if he doesn’t make it on the ballot? The Colorado Supreme Court injected that uncertainty into the mix Tuesday when it found that insurrection-pusher Trump wasn’t eligible to be on the state’s ballot—a ruling Team Trump will surely appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, which includes three of his own appointees.
But similar cases are percolating across the country—in 16 other states, in fact. And there’s literally nothing less electable than not making the ballot in multiple states.
To be sure, the schadenfreude factor of Trump being ruled ineligible for the ballot is immense.
“Trump’s MO has always been to accuse others of the transgressions of which he himself is guilty, largely to obfuscate his own guilt,” Ian Bassin, who heads the group Protect Democracy, told Politico. “So it’s fitting that after rising to political power by falsely accusing Barack Obama of not being eligible to be president, it’s Trump who it turns out has now been found by a court to be the actually ineligible one.”
Trump arguably still stands a good chance of getting the ruling overturned by the high court, and surely he remains the front-runner for the Republican Party’s ’24 nomination. But the Colorado decision is a striking blow to the electability debate Trump had all but won within his own party.
The question now isn’t simply what the courts will decide, but whether Trump’s rivals have the political chops to spin Trump’s current ineligibility to their advantage. As conservative anti-Trumper David Frum writes in The Atlantic:
Until now, Trump’s Republican rivals have shown themselves too scared to fight and too weak to win. The question ahead: Are they too scared and too weak even when the win is presented to them by the courts?
Thus far, reactions from Trump’s rivals have been tame.
Haley, for instance, vowed to beat Trump “fair and square.”
“We don’t need to have judges making these decisions. We need voters to make these decisions.”
But it’s still plausible for Haley to side with voters in the dispute while simultaneously stoking the fears of some GOP voters that Trump is indeed as unelectable as they once feared, even if it’s for different reasons.
And if Trump’s rivals want a real chance at defeating him, this is their Hail Mary shot with less than a month to go before Iowa voters hold their caucuses on Jan. 15. Trump has consolidated the Iowa vote, according to the latest polling. But the Colorado Supreme Court has gifted his rivals with the seedling of doubt. Whether they will take it in the coming days remains to be seen.
It’s our last episode of the year and we wanted to talk about what we are thankful for. It turns out that Republican disarray and ineptitude topped our list. Join us to count the ways!