Skip to content

Republican presidential primary: More at stake than just the White House

Donald Trump has an ‘independent problem’ that isn’t going away

GOP primary voters need to think about which presidential candidate can help deliver the party both chambers in Congress.
GOP primary voters need to think about which presidential candidate can help deliver the party both chambers in Congress. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

As the GOP nomination process begins to heat up, the question getting the most attention, especially from the media, is “Can anyone get the traction to effectively challenge Donald Trump and win the nomination, given the former president has significant leads at both the national and state levels?”

Trump’s dominance can be seen in the kickoff state of Iowa, his ill-advised attack on popular GOP Gov. Kim Reynolds notwithstanding, and in New Hampshire, where its popular governor, Republican Gov. Chris Sununu, has made his antipathy toward Trump clear. But Trump has even managed to maintain leads in states that are the home territory of other candidates, with Florida and South Carolina the most obvious examples.

Assessing the strengths of the field at this point is part of the process and makes sense. But in the end, for Republican voters who will choose their party’s nominee, there is an even more important question that should drive their decision: “Which candidate is best positioned to win the general election in 2024?”

This is not a time for political retribution or grievance voting because there is more at stake in this election than the presidency, important as it is. The GOP needs to have the strongest possible candidate at the top of the ticket if Republicans are going to win not only the White House but also the majority in the Senate and an expanded majority in the House.

Here’s the challenge: While Republican primary voters will choose their nominee, independent voters will choose the next president and Congress. That’s just reality.

So presidential candidates need to address how and why they can win a general election and how their effort will positively impact Republican Senate and House candidates who still have a significant advantage as the country has more confidence in the Republican Party to handle the top issue, the economy.

Republicans need a candidate who knows how to win not just for themselves but for the party as well.

All Trump, all the time

Right now, the media is almost singularly focused on events surrounding Trump, which is overwhelming all other issues. Voters, especially independents, want to hear about the candidates’ policies. They are very unhappy with the direction of the economy, but with the focus on indictments, trials and personal grievances, for many voters, it feels like watching reruns from the past three elections.

And this is where Trump does have a problem in contrast to the rest of the field. His initial victory in 2016 was a remarkable one. Winning the Electoral College while losing the popular vote was a remarkable outcome, and he did it by winning Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. You have to go back to President Reagan’s rout of Walter Mondale in 1984 to see those four states in the Republican column.

But in 2018, despite one of the best jobs reports out the Friday before the election, Republicans lost 41 seats and the House majority after holding it for eight years. Trump made the call to focus the Republican closing argument on the so-called immigration “caravan” rather than the party’s strong suit — the economy.

It was the wrong choice. In the exit polls, House Republicans lost independents by a 12-point margin and women by a 19-point margin.

Fortunately, the geography for the Senate was very positive for Republicans and they won a six-seat majority.

The 2020 election was a split decision by the electorate. At the presidential level, Trump lost the Electoral College by a 74-vote margin and lost the popular vote again, this time by slightly over 7 million votes. However, at the House level, Republicans picked up 13 seats, just shy of a majority; and Senate Republicans found themselves ahead in the Senate 50-48, with two Republican senators in Georgia going to runoff elections in January 2021.

Republicans were expected to win at least one of those seats, which had been held by Republicans since 2004. Instead, they lost both — and their majority. Democrats now controlled the White House and Congress.

In the 2020 election, trends that emerged in the 2018 election continued as Trump lost women by 15 points and independents by 13. That 13-point margin was the biggest loss among independents by a major party presidential candidate since Mondale in 1984.

A tale of two chambers

Then came 2022. Historically, the party not in the White House wins independents. This had been the case in 17 out of the previous 18 elections prior to this election. Republicans had won every time, starting with Jimmy Carter, then Bill Clinton and then Barack Obama, a 10-election winning streak.

However, the problem with independents seen in the previous two elections continued, with Republicans losing them by a 47-49 percent margin despite the fact that independents preferred Republicans on the issue of inflation by 11 points. Trump’s favorable-unfavorable in this election was 30-66 percent and clearly impacted what was expected to be a red wave. Fortunately, dissatisfaction with President Joe Biden and Democrats was enough to get Republicans a slim majority in the House.

The Senate was a different story. Candidates recruited by Trump lost key Senate races, much like their chief backer, by losing independents. In Pennsylvania, by 20 points. By 11 points in Georgia, where Herschel Walker was the only Republican statewide candidate to be under 2 million votes.

In Arizona, Blake Masters lost independents by 16 points. If Masters and Walker had gotten the same number of votes that Republican House candidates got in their respective states, both would have been elected and Republicans would have won the Senate. Instead, we saw ticket-splitters in these two states vote for Senate Democratic candidates over Trump-backed candidates but vote Republican in House races.

Trump has an “independent problem” that isn’t going away. His win-loss record in the past three elections, especially with independents, may well be his Achilles’ heel in the primaries if his opponents can articulate not only why winning in 2024 is so crucial but also how they can bring back independents to the GOP.

Republican presidential candidates must take responsibility for more than their own victory if they are sincere in their promises to change the direction of the country because that requires a Republican House and Senate. Who can bring independent voters back to the Republican fold by offering policies that connect with what is now about one-third of the electorate needs to be center stage as the debate season begins.

David Winston is the president of The Winston Group and a longtime adviser to congressional Republicans. He previously served as the director of planning for Speaker Newt Gingrich. He advises Fortune 100 companies, foundations, and nonprofit organizations on strategic planning and public policy issues, as well as serving as an election analyst for CBS News.

Recent Stories

Eight questions for elections in five states on Tuesday

Paul Pelosi attacker sentenced to 30 years in prison

House Over-slight Committee — Congressional Hits and Misses

Biden kicks off outreach to Black voters as protest threat looms at Morehouse

Editor’s Note: Stock market no panacea for Biden, Democrats

Photos of the week ending May 17, 2024