This time eight years ago voters thought they knew what to expect. The 2016 election would be a rematch between the two dynasties that had defined Republican and Democratic politics since the 1990s.
Jeb Bush was the presumptive front-runner for the GOP presidential nomination. Hillary Clinton would inevitably top the Democratic ticket.
Then Donald Trump happened.
Now there’s the prospect of another rematch — between Trump and Joe Biden. Both men are determined to make it happen.
Biden altered the schedule to put the state most critical to his 2020 nomination, South Carolina, first.
Trump has been campaigning since last year’s midterms and takes every opportunity to bash younger Republican leaders who might challenge him for the nomination, above all Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis.
The Democrats have no one who can plausibly wrest the nomination from the 80-year-old incumbent. Biden may be old, but he’s tough. He didn’t run for president three times over 32 years just to hand his prize over once he’d snatched it.
Biden’s approval ratings are anemic. Yet he has reason to be confident that the 2024 electoral map will return him to office.
He thinks he has a special affinity for the state of Pennsylvania. Other states that flipped from Republican to Democrat between 2016 and 2020 — Arizona, Georgia, Michigan and Wisconsin — all elected Democratic governors or senators, or both, in last year’s midterms.
Georgia re-elected a Republican governor as well as a Democratic senator last year. But Biden can afford to lose Georgia, or even Georgia and Arizona, and still win in 2024, if he keeps his grip on the Rust Belt.
Those industrial states, hard hit by globalization, delivered the White House to Trump in 2016 — and took it from him in 2020.
A Republican either has to win back the Rust Belt or widen the battleground map to prevail next year.
Trump received more electoral votes in 2016 than George W. Bush did in his successful 2004 re-election effort. The Trump map remains the best map for the GOP.
But that became Biden’s map in 2020. Can Ron DeSantis reclaim it for Republicans?
In his gubernatorial campaign last year, DeSantis stormed to a 20-point re-election landslide over Charlie Crist. Republicans who want DeSantis for president say he’s proved he can win a contested state.
But Trump also won Florida twice. DeSantis has to prove his appeal to states that rewarded Democrats last year and in 2020.
The Florida governor has the best chance of averting an otherwise nigh-certain 2020 do-over next year. He trails Trump by double digits in recent polls, but then, he can hardly yet match the ex-president’s name recognition.
A strong showing in early primaries would give DeSantis momentum, and the governor can bet on doing well in many caucus states that chose Ted Cruz over Trump in 2016.
Trump was in Washington, DC, Saturday, where he spoke to CPAC and won the conservative convention’s straw poll, 62-20 over DeSantis.
Yet winning that straw poll in 2015 did little for Sen. Rand Paul in the primary contests the following year.
The risks facing DeSantis are daunting. Trump has already unleashed salvos against the 44-year-old governor. A primary struggle between them will be vicious. If DeSantis overcomes Trump, the ex-president can’t be counted on to concede gracefully.
With a divided party, DeSantis would nonetheless be portrayed by a hostile media as essentially identical to Trump.
At every debate and press conference, he will be asked to denounce all that Trump stands for, including the deplorable Trump voter.
Biden and his surrogates will delight in driving a wedge between DeSantis and Trump’s supporters, on the one hand, and between the governor and Trump-fearful centrists, on the other.
If he beats Trump but loses to Biden, DeSantis risks earning the undying hatred of Trump and his most ardent admirers while being seen by Republican pragmatists as a loser — already yesterday’s news in his mid-40s.
None of Trump’s 2016 rivals emerged from the melee stronger than on entering it.
DeSantis’ term as governor ends in early 2027, an optimal time to mount a presidential campaign for the following year. If 2024 is a Biden-Trump rematch and the winner serves a full term, there will be no incumbent in 2028.
Yet DeSantis’ supporters do not want him to wait, not when they fear for Trump’s electability and long for the governor’s disciplined conservatism.
This puts the GOP on course for a bloody primary season.
But amid the carnage, the candidates can ill afford to overlook the truth that applies to Trump and DeSantis alike: Beating Biden will require winning industrial Middle America.
Daniel McCarthy is the editor of Modern Age: A Conservative Review.