Former President Donald Trump arrives at an Atlanta airport on Aug. 24 before surrendering at a Georgia jail.
If you’re a Republican primary voter in Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada or South Carolina, one message has been waiting for you this summer every time you open your mailbox, turn on your television or fire up your web browser.
“For 2024, [Donald] Trump is not the most electable candidate,” said a man in an Iowa ad by Win It Back, a super PAC affiliated with the conservative Club for Growth.
“The next Republican candidate has to be somebody who can convince swing voters, independents, to vote for them,” a woman said in another ad airing in Iowa, from the Republican Accountability Project. “Because Donald Trump can’t.”
“IF TRUMP IS THE GOP NOMINEE… WE COULD LOSE EVERYTHING,” blared a mailer to Nevada voters from Americans for Prosperity Action.
The message is coming from every angle. The conservative hard-liners at the Club for Growth have ended their on-again, off-again relationship with the former president and are supporting Win It Back, which has positioned itself firmly against Trump’s latest run for the White House. Billionaire Charles Koch’s libertarian-oriented network, which never quite reconciled itself to Trump’s heresies, is behind Americans for Prosperity. Reid Hoffman, the LinkedIn co-founder and major center-left donor, provides much of the financial backing for the never-Trump Republican Accountability Project.
So far, however, it’s all fallen on stony ground. Polling in the early states and nationally shows not only that Republicans continue to back Trump for the GOP nomination by wide margins, but most still view him as the best candidate to defeat President Joe Biden next year.
Right now, any hope of defeating Trump in the primary rests on these groups — and the candidates challenging Trump — successfully overcoming the GOP’s resistance to electability arguments and the gravitational pull of Trump’s grievance-based politics to convince voters Trump threatens the only thing that matters: winning.
The millions of dollars spent on ads with this message were backed by an echo chamber of what seems like every major Republican figure not explicitly aligned with Trump, from former House Speaker Paul Ryan to New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu. In a leaked memo, a super PAC backing Ron DeSantis told the Florida governor to deliver a version of the message on the primary debate stage last month, though it was former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley who ultimately delivered it in the most succinct fashion.
“We have to face the fact that Trump is the most disliked politician in America. We can’t win a general election that way,” Haley said at the Milwaukee event, referring to the GOP and a potential Biden-Trump rematch.
The reason that three well-funded groups all settled on the same message is obvious. Republican voters, nearly unanimously, like what Trump accomplished as president. A smaller but still significant group like his aggressive and authoritarian style. But many do understand that his style, at least, can alienate even swing voters with conservative tendencies.
“The best pitch [that non-Trump] candidates have is electability,” said Gunner Ramer, the political director of the Republican Accountability Project, citing the organization’s repeated focus groups with swing and GOP primary voters.
“It’s a misstep to criticize Trump for not firing [health adviser Anthony] Fauci, or for not building the wall well enough. Republican primary voters are always going to make excuses for Trump and blame the RINOs or the deep state,” he added, referring to the southern border barrier and a term for “Republicans in name only.”
There are myriad reasons, many of them self-imposed, why anti-Trump Republicans are struggling to convince the party’s voters that the former president, who comes attached to four criminal indictments, is a guaranteed loser. Many of them, egged on by a significant number of the party’s elected officials, incorrectly believe that Trump won the 2020 election. Others are convinced that Biden is the feebleminded fool he’s portrayed as in conservative media and think any of the GOP candidates could beat him.
Operatives and academics, however, have pointed to two problems, one short-term and one deep-seated. Republican primary voters will defend Trump instinctively when he’s attacked, and even many who have doubts about his electability or who have grown tired of his lies about the 2020 election are still convinced that the dreaded establishment is out to get him. Each one of Trump’s four criminal indictments has rallied the party’s base to his cause, decreasing the importance of electability — which had spiked when Trump-backed candidates helped turn 2022’s purported “red wave” into a red whimper.
“Following the midterms, electability was the most salient issue,” Ramer said. “But the indictments raise the saliency of wanting to protect Trump from what they see as a two-tiered and weaponized justice system.”
The base’s instinct to shield Trump is strong enough that a recent poll from Firehouse Strategies, a bipartisan consulting firm in Washington, D.C., found that 54% of Republican voters would want to stick with a Trump candidacy if he were to be convicted by a jury after winning the nomination. Meanwhile, only 35% said they would want to switch to “a more electable candidate” in such a case to prevent President Biden from winning a second term.
The other problem? Republicans have not been trained by history to think about electability. While Democrats are constantly warned about the failed candidacies of a supposedly too-liberal George McGovern, too-wimpy Michael Dukakis and too-female Hillary Clinton, there is no equivalent folk tale in the history of the conservative movement.
“There’s a tradition in the Democratic Party of perceiving a trade-off between ideological purity and electability, and that goes back decades. A lot of Democratic voters have internalized that,” said Dave Hopkins, a political scientist at Boston College. “The Republicans just don’t have that tradition. They don’t have the same logic. There isn’t the same history of nominating someone who is too extreme and then getting punished for it.”
Not only do Republicans lack a similar historical warning of electoral woe, but the recent Republican experience actually points in the opposite direction. A relative moderate — then-Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) — and an establishment conservative — former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney — lost their respective presidential bids in 2008 and 2012, only for the purportedly unelectable Trump to shock the political world with his narrow victory in 2016.
Polling in Iowa, the first state to cast votes in both the 2020 Democratic primaries and the 2024 Republican primaries, illustrates the difference well. A Des Moines Register and NBC News poll, conducted in the run-up to the Milwaukee debate, found that 65% of likely GOP caucusgoers thought it was most important to find a candidate who agrees with them on issues. Just 29% said it was important to find the candidate with the best chance of beating Biden.
The exit polls in the 2020 Democratic primary were reversed: 37% of Democratic caucusgoers said it was more important to find a candidate who agreed with them on major issues, compared with 61% who said it was important to find a candidate who could beat Trump.
There’s another problem with the electability argument against Trump: At least in current polling, it’s not clear nominating Trump would doom GOP chances. A Wall Street Journal poll released over Labor Day weekend found Trump and Biden tied in the general election, in line with other recent results. DeSantis, who many anti-Trump Republicans saw as the more electable option, is almost as unpopular as Trump is in FiveThirtyEight’s polling averages.
Still, the conservative operatives hoping to defeat Trump maintain that the electability argument is their best bet. In a memo to donors earlier this summer, a key operative in the Koch network noted that two-thirds of the Trump supporters it polled believe the former president “has electability issues in the general election.”
“[A] candidate’s ability to win in the general election does factor into primary voters’ minds,” wrote Michael Palmer, the memo’s author and the president of i360, a political data company closely affiliated with the Koch network.
“This is particularly true in the early primary states (IA, NH, SC) where for decades, candidates have spent a significant amount of time in these states and the voters have come to expect it. Voters in these states take their job as ‘presidential taste testers’ seriously and are very passionate about the role their state plays not just in nominating someone, but nominating someone who can win the general election.”
Other GOP operatives working to defeat Trump, who spoke on condition of anonymity to candidly discuss strategy, noted that the electability argument is simply a part of the puzzle, arguing it needs to be matched with an argument about Trump’s effectiveness.
“I don’t ascribe to the idea that ‘We can’t nominate Trump.’ But he’d be the weakest person against Joe Biden,” said one GOP operative backing DeSantis. “Even if he managed to win, do we want to go through four years of him doing what he did before? Continuing to not do what he said he was gonna do in the four years? He was gonna drain the swamp ― it didn’t happen. He was gonna build the wall ― it didn’t happen.”
Sarah Chamberlain, CEO of the “pragmatic conservative” Republican Main Street Project, said the voters in its focus groups of suburban women are still mostly looking for candidates who agree with them on key issues like the economy, battling fentanyl, and mental health rather than candidates who can beat Biden. But she expects the focus group participants — mostly Republicans who broke with the party in favor of Biden in 2020 — to turn their focus to electability soon.
“Eventually, they’ll want a candidate who can beat Biden,” she said. “But right now, they still want their issues addressed.”
When they do, it’s likely that Americans for Prosperity Action will be waiting for them with even more ads. The group — which has a $76.3 million war chest, according to its latest filing with the Federal Election Commission — is expanding its ad buy. Instead of just targeting the early states, it will reach the Super Tuesday states of Arkansas, Tennessee and North Carolina, a sign that it’s committed to the fight. The group also plans on explicitly backing a non-Trump candidate at some point.
It’s not clear whether the other groups will. The Club for Growth did not respond to emails seeking comment. As for Republican Accountability Project, its ad buy in Iowa has run its course. Will it run more spots attacking Trump’s electability?
“We’ll be watching what happens in the race,” Ramer said.