Glenn Youngkin. Courtesy of Appalachian School of Law.

The buzz of the summer is about whether Gov. Glenn Youngkin, barely six months into his job, will run for president in 2024.

In an earlier column, I looked at the pros and cons of this. A quick refresher:

The pros: First, the nation very much needs the Republican Party to nominate a normal Republican as opposed to Donald Trump, whose disregard for democratic norms is dangerous for the future of our democracy. Second, if Youngkin were to somehow get the nomination, he could very well win the presidency. He returned Virginia’s suburbs to pre-Trumpian voting patterns. If he could do the same nationally, he’d flip the states that Trump saw slip away.

The cons: Virginians didn’t like it when Douglas Wilder sought the Democratic nomination for president; Youngkin risks losing his favorable standing at home, which means he risks putting in jeopardy Republican hopes of winning full control of the General Assembly next year. Also, it’s unclear what the Republican appetite is nationally for an amiable conservative such as Youngkin – he could well find it easier to win the presidency than to win the nomination.

Today I’ll look at the practicalities of Youngkin seeking the nomination.

Timing

Youngkin’s biggest enemy is the calendar. Virginia’s election schedule doesn’t make it easy for a governor to run for higher office. Youngkin just spent about a year running for a job he’s held for about six months – and now must start running again. It’s not simply that his record is thin – Americans have elected presidents with thin records before. Barack Obama had only been in the U.S. Senate two years; Trump had never served in office at all. It’s that Youngkin, if he really wants to run, needs to start building a national organization this year and needs to spend next year running. The election may be in 2024 but the campaign has already started.

Every campaign is different from the ones in the past, some more so or less so than others. Maybe someone will figure out how to change the unwritten rules of politics. This will be the first presidential campaign of the Zoom era so maybe that will change things and enable a candidate to spend less time on the ground in Iowa and New Hampshire and elsewhere. But we don’t know that yet. All we know is that presidential campaigns take an enormous amount of time, so how much time is Youngkin prepared to spend campaigning out of state? And how much slack are Virginians going to cut him if he turns out to only be a part-time governor? Other governors have run and some have won – George W. Bush in 2000, Bill Clinton in 1992 – but they were multi-term governors. A Virginia governor gets only four years, so it seems reasonable to expect a governor to focus on the job he sought, not the next job he’s seeking.

They say generals always like to fight the last war, so let’s look at what the last two presidential cycles have involved.

In the 2016 Republican presidential campaign, all the candidates announced between March 23 and July 30, 2015. (Ted Cruz was the first that year, making his announcement at Liberty University; Trump announced on June 16, by which point seven other candidates were officially in the race.)

In the 2020 Democratic presidential campaign, announcements were even earlier. Two long-shot candidates announced in 2017. The more serious candidates waited until 2019, with most announcing between Jan. 11 and April 25. There were a few late entries, with Michael Bloomberg not jumping in until Nov. 24. If we discount Bloomberg, who had the advantage of a bazillion dollars (but still didn’t win), that means the last serious Democratic candidate in 2019 (Joe Biden), officially entered on a time frame that put him earlier than all but the first three Republican contenders in 2016 (or, to be accurate, 2015). In 2016, the announcement season ran from March until July; by 2020, it had moved to January to April. How much earlier will the announcement season shift for the 2024 campaign?

We now hear that Trump may formally announce this fall. In 2016 terms, that would have been a fall 2014 announcement. In 2020 terms, that would have been a fall 2018 announcement. Nature abhors a vacuum, it’s said, and so does politics. If Trump gets in, any Republican who wants to oppose him would seem to need to get in, as well. Maybe somebody has a different theory of this election – good luck to them if they do – but based on how things have worked in the past, once one serious candidate gets in, others are soon to follow because they can’t afford to leave a rival out there, unchallenged.

Is Youngkin prepared to formally announce this fall? Or early next year? If he does, what kind of organization will he have in place? If he doesn’t announce by early 2023, will this opportunity – if, indeed, there is an opportunity – pass him by?

In some ways, next year, not a gubernatorial election, is Virginia’s big election cycle – all 100 seats in the House of Delegates and all 40 seats in the state Senate will be up for election. Right now, Republicans narrowly control the House (52-48) and Democrats narrowly. To say that those elections will be hotly contested is an understatement. With the margin that narrow, those elections would be hotly contested under any circumstance. In a post-Roe world, where states have control over abortion laws, these elections will be considered existential for many in both parties. We know that Youngkin supports a ban on abortion after 15 weeks because that’s all he can reasonably hope to get through a Democratic-controlled Senate now. He has avoided saying what kind of restrictions he might support if voters gave him both a Republican House and a Republican Senate. Would he support a total ban? We have no idea.

If Youngkin is out traipsing around the country in a presidential bid, how much help will he be to Republicans back home? That’s a practical question Virginia Republicans might wonder about. Right now they have a reasonably popular governor who would be an asset in a close campaign. If Youngkin’s popularity at home tanked the way Wilder’s did once he started running, Virginia Republicans would lose that asset – and perhaps control of either or both houses in the General Assembly. Here’s an uncharitable way to frame things: Is Youngkin prepared to sacrifice Virginia Republicans to further his own ambitions? Of course, it may not work out that way. Maybe Youngkin’s popularity at home won’t collapse – we have only one data point to go by, so maybe the Wilder example isn’t predictive. Maybe that was just a singular set of circumstances related to Wilder’s contentious term as governor.

In any case, the Virginia midterms do pose a calendar challenge for Youngkin during a presidential campaign, because they essentially force him to pay attention to two campaigns at once. Then again, they also present an opportunity.

There are three ways those midterms might work out:

  1. Democrats retake the House and hold onto the Senate. This would be read nationally as a major rebuke of Youngkin (and the Supreme Court’s abortion decision). It would obviously damage Youngkin’s presumed argument that he’s a Republican who can win a blue state. Analysts would say yes, he won it, but he couldn’t hold it. They wouldn’t be wrong.
  2. We get the same split decision we do now. This wouldn’t help Youngkin, either, but it might not hurt him nationally. It might hurt him at home, though, if some Virginia Republicans grouse that they might have won a few more seats (and control of that other chamber) if Youngkin had spent more time helping them.
  3. Republicans hold onto the House and retake the Senate to take full control of Virginia state government. This would be read – quite rightly – as an affirmation of Youngkin’s policies. It would help him make the argument that he can win back blue states because he’s done it in Virginia. It would also set the state for Virginia to potentially pass a total ban on abortion, something that would further elevate Youngkin’s profile among Republicans (but could also cause him some political distress if he doesn’t want to go that far. Again, we have no idea).

    All this is a political gamble of the highest order. Youngkin might want to go down to the Bristol Casino and try his hand at rolling the dice to see whether he’s got a hot hand.

How to deal with Trump

There are other political considerations both before and after those midterms. Both concern Trump.

Youngkin has been a political master so far – quite extraordinary for a political novice – in the way he’s dealt with Trump. He’s essentially ignored him. He’s distanced himself enough to reassure those suburban voters who couldn’t stomach Trump, but he’s played enough footsie to win over the Trumpers. How would Youngkin deal with Trump in a presidential campaign? Let’s face it: Any other Republican candidates who seek the nomination will be, to some degree, anti-Trump. Youngkin could pull off his balancing act in Virginia because Trump wasn’t a candidate; could he pull that off in a campaign where Trump is a candidate? If Youngkin did, indeed, become a serious candidate, Trump would go after him – that’s the nature of politics. What juvenile nickname would Trump come up with for him? How would Youngkin respond? Can he take a punch from Trump? Can he throw one back? Those are things he never had to deal with in his gubernatorial campaign. Since Trump did not endorse a candidate in the 2017 Virginia Republican nomination process, Youngkin could afford to appeal to all factions – and, in the fall, lead a united party. He wouldn’t have that luxury in a nomination campaign that’s essentially against Trump, whether that’s how Youngkin wants to frame it or not.

The mathematics of a multi-candidate field

The other consideration is a pretty basic one: Can Youngkin win the nomination? Is there a market within the Republican Party for a candidate other than Trump? And is there a market for a candidate other than Trump whose basic political style is one of affability? Those are two different questions. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis is seen as the main threat to Trump – but he’s also quite pugnacious. Like him or not, DeSantis seems a better fit for where a lot of the Republican base is now than Youngkin does. Of all the names mentioned, Youngkin seems one of the best general election candidates (along with former ambassador and South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley and South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott). But is he a good fit for the Republican primary electorate?

That’s a matter of opinion but this is a matter of math: Can anyone beat Trump for the Republican nomination in a multi-candidate field?

Let’s review how Trump won the nomination in 2016: He benefited from a large field of candidates, which meant it didn’t require a majority to win early primaries. In Iowa that year, he took just 24.3% of the vote. In New Hampshire, 35.2%. In South Carolina, 32.5%. On Super Tuesday, he averaged 34.4% across 11 states. In the nine states following Super Tuesday, he averaged 37.2%. In the next big round of voting, sometimes called Super Tuesday 2, he averaged 40.6% across five states and one territory. The only reason Trump won many of those states is because so many other candidates were splitting the vote. The Iowa caucuses were Feb. 1, the New Hampshire primary Feb. 9, Super Tuesday March 1. Not until April 19 when the field was reduced to just three – Trump, Cruz and John Kasich – did Trump finally find a state where he could win a majority: 59% in his then-home state of New York. Not until April 26 did he win multiple states with a majority.

If the Republican field had winnowed earlier and gotten down to a two-man race, it’s possible Trump wouldn’t have won the nomination at all. The same principle applies to 2024: There are a lot of candidates who might run against Trump but their sheer numbers help Trump by splitting the anti-Trump vote. If those candidates are serious about stopping Trump, they’d be best off agreeing on a single challenger and seeing if Trump can win a one-on-one race. The obvious problem with that for 2024 is the same as it was in 2016: All those other candidates see themselves as best situated to win, so why would they drop out? It’s everybody else who ought to drop out! In the era of the legendary “smoke-filled room” – a phrase popularized by journalist Raymond Clapper in describing how Republicans picked Warren Harding in 1920 – this kind of orchestration might have happened and sometimes did. We don’t live in that era anymore.

Right now, DeSantis might be the best positioned to beat Trump – he’s led Trump in some polls in New Hampshire. Looking at this as an outside observer, I’m not convinced DeSantis could win a general election campaign – he may have the same personality problems that turned off some voters against Trump. But primary voters often don’t see the world the same way that general election voters do. There’s some argument for other potential Republican candidates to defer to DeSantis – he’s well-known, he’s got a lot of money, all that. But I don’t see other candidates deferring to the newcomer Youngkin. That means Youngkin risks being a spoiler whose candidacy might actually benefit Trump by siphoning off some voters that otherwise would go to DeSantis or former Vice President Mike Pence.

Let’s look at some potential scenarios.

Scenario 1: Trump wins those early states. Could Youngkin do well enough in, say, Iowa to get some buzz? Could he rise fast enough at the same time Trump is winning so that he eventually becomes the sole alternative to Trump in a two-man race? This would require those other candidates to collapse much faster than they did in 2016, when both Cruz and Kasisch hung on for months. In other words, will the 2024 Republican nomination be a sprint or a marathon? To bet on a marathon seems risky; it seems safer to assume a sprint – and if you want to beat Trump, you need to beat him early (and often). That will be difficult to do in a multi-candidate field.

Scenario 2: Somebody – such as DeSantis – beats Trump in those early states. In this situation, I sure don’t see Trump going away – he’s a fighter. But I also see voters who don’t want Trump not wasting their votes on other candidates then; I’d see them rally around whoever beat Trump, whether they like that person or not (and DeSantis seems a hard person to like, but I’m not a fan of aggressive personalities, in politics or otherwise).

There are certain other scenarios possible but those are two main ones, and neither seems to offer much space for Youngkin. Could he rise so fast that he could beat both Trump and DeSantis in Iowa? Or could he at least rise so fast that he beats DeSantis and comes close to Trump? That would require a second-place DeSantis dropping out early to make room for Youngkin. Possible, but probably not likely given the egos and money involved.

I’m quite bullish on Youngkin’s prospects in a general election, given his history in Virginia. I’m just having a hard time envisioning a scenario by which he can get the nomination over Trump – and other, better-known, candidates. I do see another scenario, though. It’s risky, and not necessarily likely, but it goes like this:

Scenario 3: Youngkin holds back. In politics, a candidate is often never quite so popular as the day before he gets into a race. Polls show Trump failing to win a majority – so there’s a market for an alternative out there – but none of the other candidates is quite able to capitalize on it. Voters find both DeSantis and Pence and anyone else wanting for various reasons. Then in November 2023 Virginia Republicans win both chambers of the General Assembly. Youngkin looks like a political genius and, like Bloomberg in 2019 for the Democrats, enters late, seizes the momentum, and quickly becomes the leading alternative to Trump. That scenario would require everything going right for Youngkin, and things in politics rarely go right all the time for anybody.

Whatever the scenario, the calendar and the math remain the same. That’s how I see them. I wonder how Youngkin sees them?

Dwayne Yancey

Yancey is editor of Cardinal News. His opinions are his own. You can reach him at dwayne@cardinalnews.org.