A few days ago, a friend messaged me asking who the strongest GOP candidate in 2024 would be. More on that later. At roughly the same time, “Numbers Muncher” Josh Jordan posted the following on Twitter: “If Marco Rubio won the nomination in 2016, he almost certainly beats Hillary Clinton. In that scenario, where is he polling today? I'd guess he would be at least a slight favorite, and he would've confirmed three Supreme Court justices just as Trump did. Hope it was worth it!”
I enjoy the “but Rubio had a boat!” meme as much as anyone, but this reflects a deep misunderstanding of what happened in 2016, what would have happened if a non-Trump candidate had won the nomination that year, and the general state of play in American politics. For purposes of this article, let’s set aside the unique, and overlooked, shortcomings of Rubio, who famously got mauled by Chris Christie in a New Hampshire debate. Some see that as an unfortunate turning point in the race. In reality, it is more the moment Rubio was exposed, and Christie did the Republicans a favor.
There are three problems with the “Rubio (or any other establishment candidate) would have won.” First, it overlooks the unique difficulties that Donald Trump posed for Democrats in 2016. The Democratic playbook against Republicans had remained more or less the same since 1992. You could portray the GOP candidate as someone who wanted to gut Medicare and Social Security. Or, you could portray him as a closet theocrat.
Rubio – and most of the other candidates – would have been highly vulnerable to either attack. The Florida senator’s plans, for example, would have eliminated most capital gains taxes (leaving Mitt Romney paying almost no taxes) while eliminating the Department of Education. It isn’t difficult to see how that could be attacked. At the same time, Rubio favored making abortion illegal, even in cases of rape or incest. While that’s arguably the intellectually consistent pro-life stance, it also polls very, very poorly. Every major GOP candidate was vulnerable to at least one of these attacks, and usually both.
As for Trump? Neither of those attacks landed. He famously opposed entitlement reform, and ran as a big-spending Republican. And the closet theocrat charge? Needless to say, that mantle is hard to hang on Trump. Clinton was left with a series of personal attacks on him that failed to resonate as much as Democrats had hoped.
Second, Rubio et al. might have amassed similar – or better – popular vote counts, but they wouldn’t have been as efficiently distributed as Trump’s and still would have lost. Remember, in 2012 the Electoral College actually had a Democratic bias to it, in part because Romney famously failed to connect with blue-collar voters because of his stance on fiscal issues and his culturally upscale persona.
Rubio would have done little to fix that. Yes, he would have run better in the suburbs and probably among Hispanics. He might have carried Nevada, and we would probably not be talking about blue (or purple) Arizona or Texas today. At the same time, it is hard to see him appealing to out-of-work steelworkers in western Pennsylvania in the same way that Trump did. With massive support from rural and small-town voters, Trump barely carried Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin. Rubio wouldn’t have gotten that turnout, or made up for it in the suburbs given his social conservatism.
Which leads to the third point. Part of the problem that the GOP has – part of how it got Trump, to flog another meme – is that it never quite got over winning in 1980. Ronald Reagan was elected on a platform of accomplishing a number of things. Primarily, he had a mandate to get the economy growing, to tame inflation, and to bring tax rates down. People talk about the top rate of 70% in 1981, but they forget that a couple making $29,900 (about $85,000 in today’s dollars) found themselves in the 37% top tax bracket. That is roughly the top tax bracket Barack Obama established in 2013, but it was limited to couples making $450,000. Additionally, these brackets were not indexed for inflation, so more and more people found themselves paying very high rates. Other goals included slowing the brakes on social change and defeating the Soviet Union.
By the time Bill Clinton was elected, most of these changes had been integrated into American society and even into the Democratic Party platform. The goal of the Federal Reserve was seen as primarily fighting inflation (Clinton renominated Alan Greenspan as Fed chairman), the Soviet Union was defeated and Clinton adopted a relatively hawkish foreign policy for a Democrat, and crucially, our tax debates were over whether the top rate should be 35% or 39.6%, while low tax rates for the middle class were viewed as sacrosanct. Social liberalism rebranded itself from a liberationist doctrine to one that emphasized its continuities with longstanding middle-class values (“hate is not a family value”; “abortion should be safe, legal and rare”).
Yet during this time, the Republican Party did not evolve. It became a bit of a running joke that the party’s solution for every societal ill was a tax cut. With Democrats accepting low taxes for the middle class, Republicans were left arguing that lower top rates for the wealthy would stimulate growth and, implausibly, would not hurt revenues. Having curbed welfare as an entitlement under Clinton, Republicans were left pursuing less popular spending cuts to education, Medicare and Social Security.
In foreign policy, Republicans tried to project the old Cold War framework onto the War on Terror, with catastrophic consequences for the party, the country, and the Middle East. In his 2008 stump speech for the presidential nomination, Mitt Romney carried around a three-legged stool and claimed to be the only candidate who could unite the economic, social, and foreign policy conservatives -- without trying to update what those might mean for the 2010s.
In short, “zombie Reaganism,” as it came to be called, became a more extreme, less politically popular agenda than Reagan had advocated. It was a recipe for a wartime president winning 286 electoral votes in the 2004 presidential election (following a disputed win in 2000), and substantial Electoral College losses in other years. As I half-joked elsewhere, the GOP establishment’s “be the world’s policeman/cut Social Security/worst-of-all-possible-worlds-by-being socially-conservative-but-not-really-meaning it” agenda was a recipe for winning the votes of three guys in think tank cubicles (two of whom voted Gary Johnson anyway).
All of which is to say, if Trump is defeated, there’s no going back for Republicans. The establishment failure to update Republicanism created a massive opportunity for a candidate promising something different, an opportunity which Donald Trump seized (and proved could be effective). Even if he loses next week, it is a “NeverTrump” delusion that the old GOP coalition is going to be resurrected. The political demand isn’t there, and whomever is nominated in 2024 will likely have an agenda that more closely resembles Trump’s than Mitt Romney’s.
If I had to sum it up more succinctly, I would do so this way: The successful Republican candidates over the past 50 years have all had a cultural connection to what some jokingly call ’Murica. While GOP establishment types wished George W. Bush would (could) speak more clearly, or at least pronounce “nuclear” correctly, that lack of polish likely resonated with working-class Republicans in a way that Romney’s crisp verbiage did not. Reagan spoke the language of Middle America. To be sure, Donald Trump’s vulgarity contrasts sharply with Reagan’s class, and that has limited his opportunities for political success substantially, but he nevertheless connects with a group of voters left cold by Bob Dole.
To get back to my friend’s question, I answered, “Assuming that he loses, but doesn’t lose by a landslide, and is available, the immediate frontrunner is Trump.” In the event that he doesn’t run (or loses badly), there are other candidates that we can discuss – Ron DeSantis, Tom Cotton, Josh Hawley, or Nikki Haley. All of those candidates, however, are notable for their varying degrees of populist support. But just as the New Deal coalition had lost its vitality by the 1970s, prompting Jimmy Carter to try and carve out a new path for the Democrats (perfected by Bill Clinton 12 years later), so too will Republicans have to find an agenda that looks different than Reagan’s, regardless of how Trump fares.