No U.S. president in modern history has run for another term after being defeated, or even seriously considered doing so. Donald Trump — unsurprisingly — is a different story.
Trump remains one of the most consequential figures in American politics today. His influence over the GOP is enduring, and in many ways, he also continues to dominate the Democratic Party, which still uses the threat of Trump-like candidates getting elected as a tactic to motivate their base.
Trump has started tipping the scales in 2022 primary contests, already endorsing a full slate of Republican candidates. The list includes incumbents like Paul Gosar of Arizona and Marco Rubio of Florida as well as incumbent challengers like David Perdue for Georgia governor, who will go against Gov. Brian Kemp — now a Trump foe — for the GOP nomination.
Many are interpreting Trump’s early involvement in the midterms and his preeminence within the GOP as a sign that he may run for president again in 2024—a possibility that Trump himself has not ruled out. But if Trump runs again, could he actually win?
There are two major trends that collectively could put Donald Trump in a strong position to mount a political comeback in 2024. First, Trump still wields near-absolute control over the Republican Party. Second, Democrats are weakly positioned for 2024, given the uncertainty surrounding who their candidate will be and the party’s worsening identity crisis, which has imperiled them politically ahead of the midterms.
Come 2024, if Democrats are still even somewhat in disarray, it entirely possible that motivated Trump supporters could — again — form a coalition with those voters who grudgingly prefer Trump to the Democratic alternative, giving Trump an Electoral College majority.
Furthermore, Republicans are expected to win big victories in the House and likely the Senate in 2022, which Trump will inevitably get some credit for, thus generating even more enthusiasm for his potential 2024 bid among the Republican base.
Trump would be a shoe-in for the 2024 Republican nomination, and he dominates in potential primary matchups. According to a recent Harvard CAPS-Harris poll, 47% of GOP voters would support Trump — 37 points higher than his nearest competitor, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. Most Republicans who are rumored to be considering a bid in 2024 have already pledged to support Trump if he runs.
Moreover, in a larger sense, the Republican Party is still Trump’s party. Republican Senator Lindsey Graham aptly described Trump’s primacy in the GOP: “Can we move forward without President Trump? The answer is no,” Graham said in an interview. In a separate statement, he called Trump “the most popular Republican in the country by a lot.”
Identifying with the cultural positions Trump champions and accepting — or at the very least, not discounting — Trump’s unproven claims that the 2020 election was stolen from him have become more defining characteristics of today’s GOP than ideology or policy.
Indeed, more Republican voters identify as supporters of Trump (50%), rather than as supporters of the Republican Party (43%), per an Echelon Insights poll from August.
This year, Rep. Liz Cheney was ousted as the third-ranking House Republican due to her rejection of Trump’s election fraud claims and her vote to impeach him from office following the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol. Many of the other 10 congressional Republicans who voted to impeach — including Reps. Adam Kinzinger and Anthony Gonzales — have chosen to retire rather than face a Trump-backed primary challenger in 2022.
Importantly, Trump’s influence over the Republican Party has enabled him to do something that is necessary to influencing GOP primary campaigns and to mounting a successful presidential campaign of his own: fundraise. According to federal campaign filings, Trump had more than $100 million cash on hand in July, and raised more money in the first half of 2021 than any other Republican.
To be sure, an enthusiastic Trump base would make a formidable 2024 opponent against a politically weak and divided Democratic Party.
Democrats’ 2024 prospects are less clear than the prospects for most incumbent parties at this stage. President Joe Biden will most likely not seek a second term due to his age, and Vice President Kamala Harris’ poll numbers at this point in the term are worse than any president in recent history, per a Los Angeles Times analysis.
But if Harris is not the default nominee, then something just as politically damaging ensues: progressives and moderates spend the final months of the Biden presidency duking it out in a primary that distracts from any of Biden’s accomplishments and further exposes the party’s deep divisions.
Ironically, Trump running again in 2024 would actually unite Democrats around a common goal: the need to defeat him in the general election. That being said, Democrats most likely would not be able to run an anti-Trump campaign as successful as the 2020 campaign, given that Trump will have been out of office for four years, and the Democratic nominee will inevitably be saddled with Biden’s political baggage.
While head-to-head match-up polls between Biden and Trump don’t portend the 2024 outcome — especially given that Biden will likely not be a candidate — they do give us valuable insight into the current mindset of the electorate. As things stand, 48% of voters say they would back Trump in 2024, compared with 45% for Biden, per a new Harvard CAPS-Harris poll.
Put another way, voters currently prefer a twice-impeached, one-term ex-president whose supporters tried to subvert the certification of a presidential election over their current Democratic president.
Regardless of whether or not Trump does run again — or if Trump just hand-picks and supports the GOP nominee, as many anticipate he will — that fact alone is a colossal problem for Democrats.
Douglas Schoen is a longtime Democratic political consultant.