The Republican Primary is Meaningless

The 2024 Republican presidential primary and the candidates running in it have garnered much publicity and ridicule over the last couple of months. In the last couple of weeks, Donald Trump made headlines by winning 51 percent of the vote in the Iowa caucuses and then 55 percent in New Hampshire, decisively beating his closest challengers, Ron DeSantis (who has since dropped out of the race) and Nikki Haley. The race for the Republican nomination has proven to be anything but competitive — yet media and public opinion alike persist in entertaining the possibility of a strong primary challenge for Donald Trump. In reality, the former president has practically already won his party’s nomination. The contest up to today has been rendered meaningless by Trump’s strong support in the Republican base, the GOP’s reliance on the former president, and the weaknesses of his primary challengers. 

Donald Trump has consistently led the nationwide field of challengers since his campaign was announced in November 2022. Trump won a majority of the vote in Iowa and New Hampshire, and he is nationally polling at over two-thirds of Republican support. Florida Governor DeSantis and former South Carolina Governor Haley, who also served as the Trump Administration’s ambassador to the United Nations, had much excitement around them as potentially more palatable alternative candidates for moderate voters, but Trump’s lead within the GOP has remained insurmountable. Despite this supposed appeal — and numerous endorsements — both fell short of even a quarter of the vote in Iowa, causing DeSantis to endorse Trump. Patrick McHenry, a Republican from North Carolina in the House of Representatives, described Trump’s relationship with the average Republican voter as one of “complete connection.” Trump “touched the nerve of [Representative McHenry’s] conservative base like no person in [his] lifetime.” The former president’s outward disregard for the political establishment, his embrace of more radical conservative elements, and his unconventional demeanor have made him irreplaceably popular among the conservatives who voted him into office, at least 9 percent of them former Obama voters unlikely to have been swayed by other Republicans. Donald Trump may be unpopular among Democrats, Independents, and a small number of Republicans — but not unpopular enough to overshadow his devotion from most of the Republican base in their primary contest. 

Additionally, Trump’s support hardly ends with individual Republican voters. The Congressional GOP has shown strong support for and dependence on the former president, even in light of his attempts to overturn his 2020 electoral defeat on January 6 and beyond. All told, only ten House and seven Senate Republicans voted to impeach him after the January 6 insurrection, despite Republican leadership admitting there was “no question” regarding the former president’s responsibility. Furthermore, 40 percent of pre-Trump Congressional Republicans have either left the GOP or been defeated, including all but two of the ten House Republicans who voted to impeach Trump in 2021. The Republican party’s composition and policy have changed dramatically from what they represented before 2016, and it would be very difficult for GOP lawmakers to move beyond Donald Trump, especially because Republicans have come to rely on the former president for fundraising. The Republican National Committee has only 9.1 million dollars in cash on hand — roughly one-seventh of what they had going into the 2020 election year, and so little that they had to decline requests for funds in 2023’s Virginia races (which they lost) — whereas Trump’s individual cash on hand is likely to exceed the 38 million dollars he reported last quarter. For reference, President Biden’s reelection campaign has 117 million dollars currently in its “war chest.” With the demotion and retirement of Representative Kevin McCarthy, a top GOP fundraiser, this problem is only set to worsen. This sounds like good news for Democrats — and, in the short term, it is — but we are already seeing the nationwide consequences of a Republican Party dependent on and dominated by Donald Trump. The GOP-led House, to whom loyalty to Trump has become the most important credential, is on track to be the least productive since the Great Depression. The GOP’s infatuation with Donald Trump and his brand of isolationist conservatism is strategically benefiting dangerous countries and harming Americans at home, whether it’s by deliberately undermining the voting rights of racial minorities, restricting the rights of trans kids, dismantling reproductive rights despite the clear national and medical consensus, or doggedly ignoring America’s real problems while raging for attention about “Hunter Biden” this or “book ban” that. 

Lastly, Trump isn’t exactly facing difficult opponents. DeSantis, who narrowly beat Haley for second place in Iowa, has fumbled the political momentum he had last year and endorsed Trump’s campaign just last Sunday. Haley similarly recently had the opportunity to position herself as a more moderate alternative to Trump, but her campaign’s indecisiveness, refusal to acknowledge racism’s role in American history, and failure to identify slavery as the cause of the Civil War seem to reveal few functional differences between the two. Neither candidate has earnestly presented themself as a moderate and the GOP of today has little room for anything other than Trump-ism, leaving the two to compete for voters who are already dedicated to Trump. 

For some reason or other, this primary race is being framed as a competitive one — despite all the evidence to the contrary. One can debate endlessly about who and what is behind this idea (and who makes money from selling tense stories predicated upon it), but it’s indisputable that this fiasco distracts from the GOP’s looming problems. Republicans have underperformed polls, predictions, and trends in almost every election since the overturning of Roe v. Wade, and the party line is against American public opinion in their opposition to reproductive rights, the Affordable Care Act, and President Biden’s climate change and infrastructure initiatives. The GOP has a lot of work to do if it wants to remain viable, and a meaningless, exaggerated primary contest isn’t it.