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Battle of the Weak Incumbents

February 29, 2024
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This year will be only the second time a former president faces the man who defeated him four years before. The only other occasion was 1892, when Democrat Grover Cleveland challenged Republican President Benjamin Harrison. In a way, both 1892 and 2024 are contests between incumbents. But both Donald Trump and Joe Biden seem determined to erode the benefits that incumbency brings.

Mr. Trump’s team is correct that he’ll probably clinch the GOP nomination by late March. They’re also right to begin focusing on the general election. But the primaries should alert them to a major problem for Mr. Trump: He still has work to do among Republicans. 

In Iowa, 49% of caucusgoers voted for candidates other than Mr. Trump. In the New Hampshire primary, 45.7% went for another Republican. In South Carolina, 40.2% voted against Mr. Trump, and in Michigan on Tuesday 31.9% said no to him, according to the latest count.

Compare these with Mr. Biden’s performance: 96.2% of South Carolina voters in the Democratic primary voted for him. He won New Hampshire as a write-in with 63.9% and received 81.1% in Michigan. Those are an incumbent’s numbers. 

Even more worrisome for Team Trump should be that at least 2 in 10 Iowa and South Carolina voters said they won’t support Mr. Trump in November. Roughly 3 of 10 New Hampshire GOP primary voters said the same. If Republican defections this fall from Mr. Trump are anywhere close to those numbers nationwide, he’s cooked.

Mr. Trump may be unconcerned because he thinks, as he said when one stubborn Republican congressional leader finally endorsed him, “They always bend the knee.” But this is a democracy, not “Game of Thrones.” He must convince Republicans to go for him. They can stay home if he doesn’t.

Republicans are hardly unified. So it wasn’t useful for a key Trump lieutenant to ridicule Ron DeSantis after he endorsed Mr. Trump as a “sad little man” who will be remembered for “chicken fingers and pudding cups.” Or for the campaign to dismiss Mr. Trump’s remaining challenger, Nikki Haley, as “irrelevant and not newsworthy.” 

It’s particularly unhelpful for Mr. Trump to threaten on Truth Social that anyone who contributes to “Birdbrain” Haley’s campaign will be “permanently barred from the MAGA camp.” Some Haley supporters could take that as an invitation to walk away from Mr. Trump, never to return. Who could blame them? 

In politics, for every action there’s an opposite reaction, often weaker and sometimes stronger. Team Trump’s jeering may be irritating enough to provoke the latter. It won’t be enough to get her the nomination, but Ms. Haley still has real Republican support. Her campaign raised $1 million from small donors the day after her South Carolina defeat. The crowd at her Sunday rally in Troy, Mich., celebrated as if she’d enjoyed a big South Carolina win. Mr. Trump has work to do to draw her supporters into his column in November.

A calming and unifying tone doesn’t fit Mr. Trump’s style. But he can cut down on his belittling of other Republicans. He should act like a leader rather than a small-time character assassin. Or at least aim his shots at the other party.

While Mr. Biden’s primary path has been much easier, there’s trouble in the returns for him, too. In 2020, 539,263 Democrats turned out for South Carolina’s primary but only 131,472 did this year. In New Hampshire, 298,377 Democrats voted in 2020 but just 123,996 this year. In Michigan 1,587,679 Democrats showed up in 2020 but 767,836 this year by last count.

Read More at the WSJ

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