Yet another Youngkin-for-president boomlet is underway.
These seem to roll in and out like the tides, although there may be good reasons to pay more attention to this one.
USA Today reported last week: “Big donors leave DeSantis, want Glenn Youngkin to run in 2024.”
The story quoted “billionaire businessman” Thomas Peterffy, who pronounced himself unhappy with the current crop of candidates. “They are, I think, much too extreme,” he told the paper. By contrast, he called Youngkin “an ideal candidate.”
Earlier this month, The New York Times reported that Rupert Murdoch — owner of Fox News, The Wall Street Journal and the New York Post — was gravitating toward Youngkin after losing interest in both Donald Trump and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis.
Finally, USA Today pointed out that one of Trump’s former Cabinet members — former Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross — will host an event at his home on Long Island this Friday where Youngkin will speak to “top donors and party leaders.” In other words, audition.
What should we make of this? Here are my observations:
1. The conditions that could enable a Youngkin campaign are taking shape.
Right now, Trump dominates the Republican field and no one has emerged as a serious challenger. We thought his main competition would be DeSantis but DeSantis is tanking. According to a compilation of polls by the data website FiveThirtyEight, Trump began the year at 43.4% among Republicans and now is up to 52.6%. By contrast, DeSantis peaked just north of 40% in January but now is down to 15.6%. The more people get to know DeSantis, the less they seem to like him. Despite that collapse, he’s still in second place. He’s also seeing key financial backers peel away, which is never a good thing for a candidate.
Under normal circumstances, we could reasonably assume that Trump will go on to secure the nomination. These aren’t normal circumstances, though. There’s the very real chance that by the time Republicans hold their convention in Milwaukee next July, Trump will be a convicted felon — many times over. His trial on 34 fraud-related charges in New York is set for March. His trial on charges of withholding and concealing classified documents is set for May. On Tuesday, a federal grand jury in Washington indicted him again on charges related to turning to overturn the election and the Jan. 6, 2021, storming of the Capitol. A Georgia prosecutor is expected to bring state charges there related to election interference. Would Republicans — the party of law and order — really nominate a convicted felon? If they’re determined to do this, then there’s really no stopping them. Eugene Debs ran for president in 1920 as the Socialist Party candidate from a federal penitentiary and still received 3.4% of the vote.
UCLA political analyst Lynn Vavreck says that the political parties are so far apart — “farther apart on average than they have been in our lifetime” — that it’s difficult for people to consider voting for the other side, no matter how bad their candidate is. That explains Trump’s showing versus Biden but doesn’t fully explain Trump’s showing among Republicans. In any event, if Republicans suddenly decide next spring that nominating a convicted felon — or even a potentially convicted felon — isn’t a good idea, they’re in a bind. By the time those trials next year are concluded (assuming they start on time), most or all of the primaries will be over. What happens then, especially if there’s no obvious runner-up? That’s the dream scenario for Youngkin backers. There’s no guarantee that any of this happens, but if it does, that’s the kind of “perfect storm” that would enable Youngkin to emerge as the nominee.
Before Youngkin supporters get too excited, though, let’s keep in mind:
2. Big donors don’t call the shots. Not even party leaders call the shots anymore.
This isn’t 1920, where party bigwigs could sit around in the legendary “smoke-filled room” and decide who the nominee should be, as they did when Republican leaders gathered in a Chicago hotel room and sent down word that Warren Harding should be the nominee. Primary voters count for a lot more. Hardcore party activists who bother to go to party meetings and get picked as convention delegates matter even more. It’s clear right now that those big donors don’t want Trump, but Republican voters, at least those being surveyed, don’t seem to care. Is the collective weight of felony convictions going to change anything? We’ll see. What would happen if something did happen and Trump was out of the picture? It depends on when and how that were to happen but it seems most likely we’d have utter chaos. We haven’t had a convention where convention delegates truly had to make a decision in a long time. To some extent, they did in 1976, when Republicans picked Gerald Ford over Ronald Reagan, but an actual “open” convention? That’s the stuff of legend. We journalists would love it — we love a good story — but the odds of this happening seem too good to be true. In any case, the point is: Just because big donors like Youngkin doesn’t mean he’s going to be the nominee, no matter when he were to enter. Voters ultimately have the say in this and so far Republican voters haven’t turned on Trump.
3. Youngkin’s first presidential primary isn’t in New Hampshire, it’s in Virginia.
The essence of the Youngkin-for-president chatter is that he’s a potential winner, while Trump is an actual loser — and a potential double loser. There’s much to be said for this argument. President Joe Biden seems a weak Democratic nominee. He might well beat Trump a second time simply because Trump is Trump. Youngkin is potentially a strong nominee — a fresh face and one who would represent a generational changing of the guard. Biden’s age is a problem and the recent health issues facing both House Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Republican, and California Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a Democrat, all paint the same picture: We have a lot of octogenarian politicians. Maybe it’s time for some younger ones.
Youngkin also projects a Reaganesque quality that Trump and DeSantis most certainly do not — he comes across as happy and upbeat. Reagan’s optimism went a long way in 1980 and 1984. Trump’s victory in 2016 was unusual in many ways but one of those was this: He was the rare angry candidate who won. Barack Obama, Bill Clinton, both Bushes and definitely Reagan all projected an air of optimism. So did Jimmy Carter back in 1976. A young (by comparison), optimistic Republican nominee who doesn’t scare the bejeebers out of people would be tough for Biden to beat. I can already hear the Democrats who claim that Youngkin is really just a culture warrior in a red fleece vest. That may well be true but I’m not arguing policy here, just presentation. Youngkin comes across well to what few swing voters remain. He would get votes that Trump and DeSantis can’t — just as in Virginia he got votes against Terry McAuliffe that Ken Cuccinelli couldn’t.
All that said, Youngkin’s national profile would be helped if Republicans do well in Virginia this fall — and would be hurt if they don’t. To that extent, this November’s General Assembly elections tether Youngkin to the state but also give him an excuse to go gallivanting across the country ostensibly to raise money for Virginia candidates. There are two ways to read this and we don’t know yet which way is correct: Will the necessity to stay close to Virginia cost Youngkin opportunities nationally? Or does he get the best of both worlds, by being able to deny presidential ambitions because he’s got these elections at home while still getting to show off his chops as he fundraises nationally? We don’t know yet.
What we do know is that the outcome of those elections will further help shape national impressions of Youngkin. If Republicans win a majority in both House and Senate, Youngkin not only gets a friendly legislature, he gets a powerful talking point. If Democrats win a majority in both chambers, that obviously tarnishes Youngkin’s luster. What about a split decision, with things staying the way they are now, with a Republican House and a Democratic Senate? Political commentators could then choose up sides and argue it whichever way they like.
4. If Youngkin does run, he’ll be bucking more than a half-century of tradition.
People complain that presidential campaigns last too long, but they only last long because that’s what works. Ever since 1972 — when election rules started to change with more primaries — the winning nominee (where there hasn’t been an incumbent) has always entered the race early. For 2020, Biden announced in April 2019. For 2016, Trump announced in June 2015 and Hillary Clinton announced in April 2015. For 2012, Mitt Romney announced in June 2011. You get the idea. In 1980, Reagan didn’t announce until November 1979 but that was only because he was the acknowledged front-runner and sought to remain “above the fray” as long as he could. When he announced, he was the 10th Republican candidate in the field. The 1992 Democratic race was late-developing; even then, Bill Clinton announced in October 1991 (although Mario Cuomo wasn’t officially out until December of that year). If Youngkin runs, it’s hard to see him announcing until after the November elections in Virginia. Even if he announced right away, that would put him on Reagan’s schedule in 1979/1980 — although while Youngkin may be Reaganesque, he doesn’t have Reagan’s luxury of front-runner status.
We have to go back to 1968 — a very different political world — to find nominees who waited until the actual election year to run. That year Richard Nixon didn’t announce until February, although he had the advantage of being a presumed candidate, and the presumed front-runner for the most of the previous two years. Here’s another way that year was different: There were just 14 states that held primaries, and even Nixon’s February entry came before any of them cast a ballot. Hubert Humphrey didn’t enter until April, but that’s because President Lyndon Johnson didn’t drop out of the race until March 31.
Over the years, we’ve had lots of candidates enter the race late and try to win, and it’s never worked. Jerry Brown entered in March 1976 and won a few primaries but couldn’t stop Carter. If Youngkin were to enter, he’d be something of a dark horse — perhaps a highly touted dark horse but a dark horse of some shade nonetheless. By my reckoning, we haven’t had a surprise winner like that since Wendell Wilkie won the 1940 Republican nomination as an acceptable alternative to Thomas Dewey and Robert Taft. Then again, we never had someone make the leap from the business world straight to the White House until Trump, so just because something hasn’t happened before doesn’t mean it can’t.
Ultimately, the operative words for a late entry come from the wisdom of the great philosopher Jerry Reed:
We gonna do what they say can’t be done
We’ve got a long way to go, and a short time to get there
Updated, 8:30 a.m.: An earlier version of his column mistated the date that Reagan announced for president.