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It’s time for us to revisit the Glenn Youngkin-for-president chatter.
Since the last time I looked at this, several noteworthy things have happened.
a. He’s appeared on a CNN town hall, with mixed reviews.
b. He’s met with major donors, most recently in Dallas.
c. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has raised his own national profile, not always in useful ways. (Calling Russia’s invasion of Ukraine a “territorial dispute” may please the growing isolationist camp with the Republican Party but was quickly denounced by what remains of those who consider Ronald Reagan their ideological guidepost.)
d. Former Ambassador Nikki Haley has formally announced her candidacy and others have moved closer to doing so.
e. And, oh yes, the presumed frontrunner — former President Donald Trump — has said he’ll be indicted (although his prediction of a Tuesday indictment didn’t come to pass and neither did a Wednesday one).
So where do things with Youngkin stand now? There are two basic questions: Will Youngkin run? And does he stand a chance? I have zero insight into the former but I will attempt to analyze the latter. To do this, we must think like Republicans (this will be easier for some of you than others).
1. Trump remains the candidate to beat.
By multiple measures, enthusiasm for Trump seems lower than it was but remains significant enough that he consistently leads polling for the Republican nomination. There are those who believe that an indictment will actually help him. I’ll confess I find this a mystery. Of the possible cases against Trump, this one is said to be legally the weakest. Those who make that argument (and some of them have been Democrats) point out that in 2011 former Democratic vice presidential candidate John Edwards was indicted on six felony charges for allegedly using campaign funds to cover up an affair. Edwards was found not guilty on one charge; the jury deadlocked on the others and the case was never brought back. Politically, though, Edwards was finished. Democrats now never mention his name; he is considered a great embarrassment to the party.
Why is the Republican reaction to Trump possibly getting indicted on what may be essentially the same charges so different? I don’t recall Democrats lamenting that the case against Edwards was politically motivated; they considered him a slimeball and wanted nothing to do with him. I would not have predicted that Republicans, the party of family values, would be the party more forgiving of a candidate allegedly having an affair (and with a porn star!). In any case, Trump seems to remain popular with a significant portion of Republicans and an indictment, if it comes, may not change that. Politically, it seems clear: Trump will not fall of his own accord. He will only be brought down if Republicans dramatically change their minds and that may not happen until other Republicans try to take him down. Youngkin will not be that candidate; that is not his nature. He recently told columnist George Will: “I’ve made it through two years without calling anyone a name.” Youngkin would surely be happier if someone else did that dirty work. Given his almost nonexistent standing in the polls, Youngkin’s best chance would be if both Trump and other, better-known candidates self-destructed and the party went searching for alternatives. That scenario, though, requires someone to go after Trump. Who will that be?
2. There are too many candidates and potential candidates.
Trump does best when he doesn’t have to win a majority of the vote, only a plurality. He never won a majority of the popular vote in either of his presidential campaigns. More importantly, he didn’t start winning a majority of the vote in the 2016 Republican primaries until after the contest was nearly done and all but a few candidates had dropped out. Remember, he initially lost the Iowa caucuses, where he took just 24.3%, the second-lowest share for any Republican second-place candidate ever in the Iowa caucuses. In New Hampshire, he won with just 35.2% of the vote, the second-lowest percentage ever for a winner on the Republican side of the New Hampshire presidential primary. In South Carolina, he won with just 32.5% of the vote, the lowest percentage ever for any winning candidate on either side in the state’s presidential primary. Nevertheless, those primaries were considered decisive because Trump did win — but he won only because the vote was so split among other candidates. If Republicans want to defeat Trump, they need to unite around a single candidate — but that’s not happening for the same reason it didn’t happen in 2016. Everyone thinks they should be the one.
3. Youngkin’s best scenario is as a compromise candidate.
Here’s where the scenario for Youngkin becomes more complicated. It’s easy to see Trump winning the nomination: He’s the frontrunner. It’s easy to see DeSantis winning the nomination: He’s the next-strongest. It’s also easy to see one of the other well-known candidates catching fire and finding a path to the nomination — Haley, for instance, or former Vice President Mike Pence. I’d rank the likelihood of those scenarios in that order: Trump first, DeSantis second, another well-known candidate third. It’s not impossible for someone else to ride a groundswell of support to the top, but a lot harder to imagine. It would involve an intensive campaign, and Republicans becoming dissatisfied with both Trump and DeSantis and the other second-tier candidates. That’s possible, of course — lots of things are possible — but historically improbable. A win in either Iowa or New Hampshire is not predictive; we’ve seen Iowa losers (such as Trump in 2016) go on to win the nomination. We’ve seen candidates who didn’t win either one go on to win the nomination (Joe Biden in 2020). However, not since Jimmy Carter in 1976 have we seen someone win the nomination who wasn’t part of the national conversation as a serious contender well before the first votes were cast. Even Trump was a frontrunner in the polls by the late summer of 2015. If Youngkin runs, he’ll be attempting something that hasn’t been done for a long time.
4. The calendar remains against Youngkin.
The election calendar works against any Virginia governor who wants to seek the presidency: As soon as the governor is sworn in, he or she would have to start running. You can argue that Youngkin already is, but what he’s really done so far is flirt with the notion, and try to raise his national profile. An actual campaign would require a lot more time commitment. Let’s set aside the question of how forgiving Virginians might or might not be about that. Here’s the real catch: We have General Assembly elections this November, and all 140 seats are up for grabs. The balance of power in both chambers is on the line. Virginia Republicans need Youngkin here at home; he is reasonably popular and is arguably their best asset in these elections. He won’t be, though, if he’s in Montgomery County, Iowa, and not Montgomery County, Virginia. Youngkin also needs these Virginia elections to go well. If Democrats win both chambers, that’s hardly an endorsement of his leadership. On the other hand, if Republicans can hold the House and win back the Senate, then Youngkin has a potentially powerful talking point nationally: Look how I flipped Virginia. The question is: By November 2023, would that be too late? Is it possible for him to hold back and not launch a campaign until after the legislative elections? He’d have just under three months before the Iowa caucuses on Feb. 5, 2024. The great philosopher Jerry Reed said it best in his classic treatise “East Bound and Down”: “We’ve got a long way to go, and a short time to get there.”
5. The great dilemma: Youngkin is a longshot for the nomination but would be potentially one of the Republicans’ strongest nominees.
Biden is not particularly popular but he’s also a good example of the principle of two campers being chased by a bear. The one camper doesn’t need to be faster than the bear, just faster than the other camper. Biden doesn’t need to be popular, he just needs to be seen as a safer choice than the Republican nominee. We’ve reelected unpopular presidents before. That’s why some Democrats are hoping Trump is the Republican nominee again; they think he’ll be easier to beat in 2024 than he was in 2020, and he got beaten then.
My sense is that voters are hungry for generational change, and yet another campaign between Biden and Trump doesn’t satisfy that desire. A different — and younger — Republican nominee might. DeSantis may have the same appeal to some that Trump does, just without Trump’s liabilities. But he may also have many of the same disadvantages. He seems to be an angry man. Maybe that’s what some Republicans want, but is that really what Americans overall want? More to the point, is it what swing voters want? Columnist Will pondered that question when he wrote favorably of Youngkin and unfavorably of DeSantis: “One can consider DeSantis’s dislikes admirable but still wonder: Do most Republicans, does the nation, want another president defined by truculence? American politics, indeed American life, has become unhealthily president-centric. It would become even more so with a president who, having campaigned as a brawler, could claim a mandate for incessant interventions in cultural disputes best conducted below the presidency.” Political parties, though, often nominate candidates who aren’t in their best interest.
This ventures away from fact-based opinion into purely speculative opinion but my sense is that people are weary of politics. That’s one of the reasons some voted for Biden over Trump; they wanted a president they didn’t have to think about every day. If some now regret that choice, it’s because of Biden’s policies, not his absence of insults on Twitter. I’d be willing to gamble that a younger, more optimistic Republican nominee, especially one fresh to the national scene, would be the party’s strongest choice. Youngkin would sure fit that bill. So, too, would some others — such as Haley and South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott. If we were still in the era of the proverbial smoke-filled room, I could see one of those three getting named the party nominee. That’s not how nominations are decided these days, though.
Ultimately, my analysis hasn’t changed since I first looked at this last summer: The odds remain against Youngkin. But if he wants to run, he’ll be following the lead foot of that great philosopher Reed: “We gonna do what they say can’t be done.”