ANALYSIS — I love looking ahead and trying to figure out future elections (which is good since I do it for a living). I even wrote about the 2022 Senate races seven months ago. But trying to handicap the 2024 presidential race is silliness and needs to stop. It’s simply far too early.
I’m not sure of anyone who’s confident enough in what will happen two months from now to bet more than a few dollars, yet this week’s Republican National Convention prompted a parade of folks to declare who will lead the Republican party four years from now.
“Nikki Haley walks in tonight as the probable GOP front runner in 2024,” tweeted former White House press secretary Ari Fleischer about the former ambassador to the United Nations and former South Carolina governor.
South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott and Donald Trump Jr. were also declared potential presidential candidates on Monday night. Tuesday night featured former Kansas congressman and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton and South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem are still to come. And of course we can’t forget Vice President Mike Pence.
Identifying ambitious politicians is the easy part. Handicapping the election is a bigger challenge. While you can compile a logical list of potential candidates, it’s simply too early to know the appetite of primary voters and the dynamic of the totality of the field.
Will GOP want to change course?
The mood and appetite of grassroots Republicans will undoubtedly be colored by lessons learned from the 2020 election results.
If President Donald Trump wins, GOP voters might be looking for a continuation of his policies and presence. That is unless his second term ends up being an abject disaster, then Republicans might want something else. If Trump loses, Republicans might decide that his style and substance were too toxic for too much of the country, and choose to go in another direction to win back voters. Unless they blame the president’s loss on a fraudulent voting system, the Communist Party of China, or the coronavirus. Then they’ll see no reason to change course as a party.
The field matters as well. In the 2016 presidential race, I think Texas Sen. Ted Cruz may have understood the mood of the GOP electorate better than the other candidates and was arguably running the best traditional campaign to get there. That is until Trump swooped in and cleaned up anti-establishment voters with his nontraditional campaign.
Trump also benefited from being a legitimate non-politician against a field full of politicians. If the last GOP race had started as a one-on-one matchup of Trump against Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, I’d have bet Rubio wins the nomination. But obviously that’s not what happened. The dynamic of the field matters.
Conventions can be cue cards for a list of future contenders, but not always great for predicting future nominees.
Did 2012 predict 2016?
At least nine 2020 presidential candidates spoke at the 2016 Democratic National Convention including Senators Cory Booker, Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, Amy Klobuchar along with Reps. Tulsi Gabbard and Tim Ryan, and Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper. Three others who seriously considered running for president also spoke including Georgia State House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams and Sens. Jeff Merkley and Sherrod Brown. Of course Joe Biden spoke in his capacity as vice president, and he went on to win the nomination four years later.
But neither of the 2016 presidential nominees spoke at their respective conventions in 2012.
As part of the 2012 ticket with Mitt Romney, Wisconsin Rep. Paul D. Ryan was dubbed as a future presidential contender. Six years later, he didn’t even run for re-election. The platform in Tampa that week did include future candidates including Cruz, Rubio, Governors John Kasich, Scott Walker, Chris Christie and Jeb Bush, and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum. But obviously none of them won.
On the Democratic side, Hillary Clinton didn’t speak in 2012, in part because she was the sitting secretary of state which, at the time, meant you weren’t supposed to speak at a political convention. Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, who gave Clinton a spirited race four years later, didn’t speak in 2012, in part because he was still an obscure voice from outside the Democratic Party.
Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren had a prominent speaking role in Charlotte that year, but ultimately declined to run, even though she probably could have beaten Clinton in the 2016 primary. Clinton benefited from the field. If Warren had run in 2016 instead of Sanders, and carried Sanders’ populist message, it’s unclear how Clinton could have countered. She couldn’t have dismissed Warren as a gadfly who wasn’t a true member of the Democratic Party.
So while you’re watching the rest of the convention, remember there will never be a shortage of people who think they should and can and will be president one day. But what matters more is what primary voters will be looking for and how many choices they have.
Nathan L. Gonzales is an elections analyst for CQ Roll Call.