Trump Is Definitely Running Again (I Think)
By Nathan Gonzales,
Inside Elections Editor and Publisher
Public Affairs Council Senior Political Analyst
It feels like we’re still wrestling with the aftermath of the 2020 elections. I’m nowhere near certain about what will happen in the 2022 midterms. Yet when I let my mind wander to 2024, I’m convinced that Donald Trump will run for president again.
That’s not a flippant statement. I’m a firm believer in the cliche (and reality) that the more than three years before the next presidential election is an eternity in politics. Can you imagine what life will look like more than two years beyond COVID-19? I admit that’s difficult for me to do.
But the more I walk through the potential outcomes for the 2022 elections and how Trump will react to them, it’s hard to envision the situation in which the former president doesn’t stage a comeback.
Trump’s presence has a significant impact on turnout, fundraising and the overall tone of the country’s politics. Even out of office, he is still the most polarizing figure in politics, and it doesn’t look like he’s going anywhere anytime soon.
Scenario 1: Republicans Storm Washington
If Republicans win the majorities in the House and the Senate in 2022, Trump will absolutely take credit. And he’ll probably officially announce his campaign soon after (if he hasn’t already by then).
The reality is that while Trump might play a small part in this scenario, he’s not necessarily essential to the GOP’s success. With narrow margins and history on their side, Republicans could win the majorities not only without the former president but in spite of him.
Republicans need a net gain of just one seat to get back to the Senate majority and a net gain of five seats to get the majority in the House. Historically, the president’s party loses at least a couple dozen House seats, on average, in the midterm elections, and Republicans are in control of drawing more seats during the redistricting process. At this point, it might be a disappointment for Republicans if they don’t win back Congress.
Even as the country recovers from the coronavirus on Democrats’ watch, there’s a chance that Democrats will go too far with their legislative agenda, inciting GOP voters and turning off moderates. These are reasonable things that could boost Republicans’ prospects that also have nothing to do with Trump.
Of course that won’t stop the former president from commandeering wins. Remember Trump took credit for Mitch McConnell’s 2020 reelection victory, even though the Kentucky senator didn’t need any help. But never let the truth get in the way of a good narrative.
Scenario 2: Democrats Hold the Line
Even if Trump plays a high-profile role in the 2022 elections and Democrats maintain their slim control of Congress, that doesn’t mean the former president won’t run again.
How does it happen? Quite simply, Trump blames someone or something else. Anything else. In his mind, problems or negative outcomes are never his fault. He’ll blame Republican candidates or bad GOP strategy, or say the whole electoral process was corrupt. So in the wake of Republicans falling short of expectations in the midterms, Trump will present himself as the party’s savior and pivot to 2024. If GOP candidates had only been more like him, they would have done better, according to Trump.
It won’t matter that a disappointing set of midterms for Republicans might be partially Trump’s fault. The 2022 elections are set up to be a performance review on Democrats, who control the executive and legislative branches. Midterms are typically referendums. But if Trump continues to insert himself into races and the national conversation, the election becomes more of a choice. And while voters may not like the direction Democrats are taking the country, Trump’s presence reminds them of his time in office, and Democrats start to look better.
Even if Trump bears some responsibility, Republicans have been reticent to blame him for anything for the past five years. In 2020, with Trump at the top of the ballot, Republicans lost the White House, lost the Senate, and didn’t win the House, yet the GOP looked past the president.
It’s also possible that Democrats will do better than expected for reasons that don’t involve Trump. If voters head to the polls in November 2022 with a roaring economy and COVID-19 in the distant past, that might take some of the typical angst out of the midterm electorate. If voters are confident in the direction of the country, there’s incentive to stick with the status quo. But no matter why Republicans might underperform in this scenario, Trump isn’t going to take the fall and it won’t derail his 2024 plans.
Scenario 3: Bowing Out
The scenario in which Trump doesn’t run in 2024 doesn’t really have anything to do with 2022. And it doesn’t look plausible right now.
Trump is a 74-year-old man with some questionable eating habits. I say this as someone younger with questionable eating habits as well. And while Trump will always be younger than Joe Biden, it’s not clear the current president will run for a second term. Trump has proven to be a hearty individual, but health is one thing that could derail a future presidential campaign.
Legal troubles could also put a roadblock in front of a 2024 presidential run. Even though legal troubles seem to surround Trump and envelop people in his circles, they always fall short of Trump himself. That could change over the next few years and complicate presidential ambitions.
The other potential “out” for Trump is pursuing business endeavors. If he makes the calculation that he can’t win or doesn’t want to run, he can just say it’s to focus on making money. He can always say he was the best president ever while not risking another loss and further damage to his brand.
The lack of viable reasons for Trump to not run leads me to believe that he will. Of course he might not. But if he does, it will unify and energize Republicans and Democrats, setting up another bitter election with high turnout.
Nathan L. Gonzales is a senior political analyst for the Public Affairs Council and editor of Inside Elections, a nonpartisan newsletter with a subscription package designed to boost PACs with a regular newsletter and exclusive conference call. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.