UPDATE (May 22, 2023, 11:55 a.m. ET): On Monday, Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina announced he’s running for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination.
South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott has formally filed the paperwork to enter a presidential nominating contest that, by some measures, looks a lot like previous ones. That is, there’s an obvious leader in the polls whom everyone knows about, and challenges from lesser-known rivals. The leading candidate has vulnerabilities that competitors are trying to exploit, and they’ve been doing the usual candidate things like visiting Iowa and New Hampshire and preparing for the candidate debates that will start this summer.
The informal rules that have governed these contests in the past have frayed.
But the informal rules that have governed these contests in the past have frayed, leading to far greater unpredictability in just how this competition will unfold.
In 2016, Donald Trump skeptics sought refuge in an informal set of rules that had emerged in response to the primary changes of the 1970s. Those changes had led to a dramatic increase in the number and importance of primary elections and caucuses. As a result, party voters (rather than party leaders) now seemed to be in control of nominations. But after the 1970s revisions, party elites found other ways of getting the sorts of candidates they wanted by coordinating with one another and steering money and endorsements toward the candidates they thought were reliable and electable, and away from riskier ones.
The procedure that defined presidential nominations in the following decades was a complicated one, with states jockeying for influence, the formal rules of delegate selection still in play and party leaders often adjusting the system in subtle ways.
But Trump’s 2016 candidacy could not be contained by those rules. And this has brought new uncertainty into the nominating process.
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Trump’s decades-long fame, his ability to attract media attention and his stance on certain issues (particularly immigration) roused the Republican base, and the informal process in place had little recourse to stop it. In 2020, both parties showed signs of an upended system. The Democrats filled two debate stages with a field that included congressional backbenchers, business entrepreneurs and a wellness guru. On the other end of the spectrum, the Republican plan was remarkably Trump-centric, even for a party nominating an incumbent president.
Several state parties canceled their primaries to make renomination easier for Trump. The GOP adopted no separate platform and held an unconventional convention that included video of a naturalization ceremony for new citizens and ended with fireworks and Trump banners on the White House South Lawn.
Now the 2024 race is underway. President Joe Biden has recently declared his candidacy amid middling approval numbers and concerns about his age. But neither we nor the candidates know what the informal rules of the game are in this cycle.
The first thing we don’t know is how much influence party leaders have at this point. It’s easy to forget, but elected Republicans, along with Fox News and figures like former presidents and past candidates were deeply skeptical of an ideologically inconsistent party outsider with a range of scandals attached to his name in 2016. Several spoke out quite assertively in opposition to Trump. The party’s voters did not share those reservations, and Trump won primary after primary.
The first thing we don’t know is how much influence party leaders have at this point.
This has led to an assumption that the party base is really in charge, and indeed, voter support for and loyalty to the former president seems to have kept members of Congress from publicly challenging Trump on policy, norm violations and even alleged law-breaking. And Republican voters certainly seem most interested in Trump again this time around.
The role of the media is in flux too. Specifically, Fox News plays a much more influential role in GOP business than any other media organization or party. Yet Fox News was also recently forced to pay $788 million for uttering falsehoods in defense of Trump in order to keep those hardcore Republican voters as viewers, and there are more such lawsuits on the way. This could end up making the network more defensive and less likely to go out on a limb for Trump. The network also just fired one of Trump’s fiercest defenders, Tucker Carlson. Like any privately owned, for-profit media company, Fox is interested in gaining viewership and advertising. But the network also has a distinct ideological outlook.
Usually, Fox can simultaneously pursue both its ideological agenda and its profits, but if those goals are working against each other, we could see the network facing a more difficult operating environment; and if these incentives are in conflict, Fox has long had both ideological and monetary incentives in its work; and if it finds those two in conflict, its role in picking a presidential candidate could be more muted this cycle.
The other informal rules of presidential primaries have to do with winnowing the field and consolidating support around the eventual nominee. We’ve already seen some candidates, like Larry Hogan and Mike Pompeo, announce that their candidacies were over before they even announced their start.
And to add even more uncertainty, Democrats recently upended the order of their nominating contests, dethroning Iowa and New Hampshire as first in the nation. This probably won’t affect the Republican cycle, but the party and the two states are currently arguing about who can participate in a caucus and what a caucus even is.
Trump’s presence in the race (again) makes all of this even more unusual: He’s the clear favorite with the party’s voters, and it’s hard for other candidates to compete with the name recognition of a former president. Lingering rage around the 2020 election also matters, but in a more complicated way, entrenching some supporters while leaving others wondering if there might be a lower-risk candidate with less baggage.
Ron DeSantis, at least earlier this year, had positioned himself as an ideological heir to Trump “without the baggage,” although uniting the portions of the party opposed to Trump behind one candidate is proving highly challenging for him. The loosening of informal norms also leaves questions about how Trump and DeSantis might treat each other as rivals in the same party — whether any attacks will be off limits and whether the two will promise to support each other in the event that one is the nominee.
But if Trump remains the front-runner, his ongoing legal troubles threaten to upend the contest further. At least so far, the Manhattan indictment of Trump has brought some advantages to his campaign, including a fundraising “bump” and an increase in his polling numbers. But further indictments in other cases, or even a conviction, could turn the tide against him. This might mean that long-shot candidates wait in the wings longer than they would normally, just in case things go even further off the rails.
Some of the most important unwritten rules of the nominating process come into play after the voting has begun.
Another source of mystery has to do with timing. Some of the most important unwritten rules of the nominating process come into play after the voting has begun. It’s assumed that the losers will drop out and endorse the winners after a few lackluster primaries, or when it becomes mathematically impossible to win the nomination. But given Trump’s legal troubles and the uncertainty they create — what if Trump has won enough delegates in the primaries to clinch the nomination by next April but is then convicted of a felony before the convention? — we might be more likely to see otherwise unpromising candidates ride it out to the convention. This might be significant for DeSantis, especially if he believes he could emerge victorious in a floor fight.
One final unknown is whether all of this means that the informal rules of the nominating game have changed, are changing or have simply been suspended to accommodate the unusual candidacy of a former president who remains popular with the party base. Because the whole field has become so Trump-centered, we might see candidates hang on in order to occupy the not-Trump lanes and the never-Trump lanes. It’s unclear what this might look like in a later year when he’s not running. But the thing about unwritten rules is that once broken, they tend to either become more formal rules or prove difficult to restore.
In theory, democracy requires that everyone knows and agrees on the rules of the game. But the fluctuating process leaves all of us guessing which unwritten rules will really apply.