Trump Vulnerability in a Primary is More Fiction than Fact

by Nathan L. Gonzales September 4, 2019 · 9:05 AM EDT

Former South Carolina Rep. Mark Sanford is seriously considering challenging President Donald Trump in the primary, even though he called the idea “preposterous” on many levels. It’s a rare moment when you should take a politician at his word.

Even if you look past the huge hurdles of the president’s popularity among the Republican base and the humongous fundraising advantage, the anti-Trump movement is simply running out of time, and it’s arguably too late to mount a serious presidential campaign at all.

If Sanford, former Illinois Rep. Joe Walsh (who announced last week), former White House Communications Director Anthony Scaramucci, former Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake, former Ohio Gov. John Kasich and others want to talk about maybe potentially mounting a serious campaign, they should explain to donors how this Trump takedown is actually going to take place.

First of all, the president’s job approval rating among Republicans is extremely high. It was 90 percent in a mid-July poll by NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist and 88 percent in an Aug. 11-13 FOX News poll.

Of course Trump’s approval rating could slide, but it’s unclear what event would cause a precipitous drop when his standing among Republicans has been resilient for months. Former Massachusetts Gov. William Weld, who launched his campaign for the GOP nomination in April, averages less than 10 percent in polls when Republican primary voters are asked to choose between him and Trump.

Secondly, there’s the money problem. Trump’s campaign and the affiliated committees reported collecting $105 million in April, May and June, shattering quarterly records, according to The Washington Post. Relying on funding from independent donors and support from independent voters does not sound like a winning formula for a primary.

Finally, there’s the lack of time. There’s no example in recent history of a candidate starting this late and becoming president.

In the 2016 cycle, Kasich, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and former Virginia Gov. Jim Gilmore were the last Republicans to announce. They entered the race in mid-July 2015 and collectively won one state in the primaries. Walker’s campaign was over by Halloween. In the 2012 cycle, Texas Gov. Rick Perry was the final Republican to announce when he joined the race in August 2011 and later finished fifth in Iowa with 10 percent of the vote. All of them started before a potential anti-Trump Republican would this year.

Former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson and Alan Keyes launched their GOP presidential campaigns in September 2007, and North Carolina Sen. John Edwards and retired Gen. Wesley Clark announced their Democratic campaigns in September 2003. None of them had to face a popular incumbent, yet they all still failed to win the nomination.

The only potentially analogous example in history would be 1968, when President Lyndon B. Johnson was battered by his handling of the Vietnam War. Minnesota Sen. Eugene McCarthy entered the race in November 1967 and pushed Johnson to a narrow 49-42 percent victory in New Hampshire in March. The president dropped out of the race a couple weeks later.

But even in that example, there’s limited hope for Trump’s opponents. By this point in the race, Johnson’s job approval rating was starting to slide. The first primary was more than a month later than next year’s contests, giving more time for the president’s standing to deteriorate. And McCarthy didn’t even win the Democratic nomination. 

In fact,Vice President Hubert Humphrey entered the race even later than McCarthy and won the nomination. But that was after Johnson bowed out. There’s little reason to believe that Trump would ever admit that he could lose the race and drop out accordingly.

“Anybody who says, ‘I think I can beat Donald Trump,’ I think is stretching it,” Sanford told The Washington Post. “It’s a daunting task and it is indeed preposterous at many different levels.”

Believe the man.