Opinion | Why Trump Holds a Grip on the G.O.P.

Republicans still embrace the power of the ex-president’s agenda to galvanize voters and drive turnout.

By Daniel McCarthy

Mr. McCarthy has been a political editor and commentator for 18 years and has written extensively about conservatism, populism and the Trump presidency.

The Donald Trump era isn’t over for the Republican Party. He is the party’s kingmaker, and two impeachments and a re-election defeat have not quelled Republican voters’ enthusiasm for him. As no less a critic of the ex-president than Senator Mitt Romney has acknowledged, he will be the party’s presumptive front-runner if he chooses to run for president again.

If there is a Republican “civil war,” Mr. Trump is winning — and so easily that it can hardly be called a real fight.

At the Conservative Political Action Conference on Sunday, Mr. Trump topped the presidential straw poll with 55 percent. The only other politician to break double digits, with 21 percent, was Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida, who has positioned himself as Mr. Trump’s political heir.

(If 55 percent seems like a less than resounding victory, recall that Mr. Trump came in only third in CPAC’s 2016 straw poll. Yet in that year’s primary contests he proved to be more popular with rank-and-file Republicans than he was with ideological conservatives like those who attend CPAC and tended to favor Ted Cruz in party caucuses.)

Paradoxically, Mr. Trump may be all the stronger within the party because he served only one term. Many Republicans feel there is unfinished business to be settled after the Trump years. Many want a rematch to expunge the memory of defeat. The Republican right in particular feels that the battles Mr. Trump began over immigration, foreign policy, trade with China and the power of Big Tech in politics have yet to be played out.

These are some of the themes that the party’s potential 2024 aspirants — Governor DeSantis, Senators Josh Hawley and Cruz, Nikki Haley (Mr. Trump’s former ambassador to the United Nations) and others — continue to underscore, as do a legion of conservative commentators. With only one term to enact its agenda, the Trump administration is forgiven for not having achieved everything it set out to do, and its setbacks can be chalked up to Mr. Trump’s inexperience on entering office, the hostility of his media critics and the bad luck that the Covid-19 crisis struck in a re-election year. Two of these three conditions will not apply in 2024.

What will apply, for better or worse, is the power of Mr. Trump and his agenda to galvanize voters and drive turnout — for both parties. In 2020 Mr. Trump received more votes — 74 million — than any other Republican nominee in history. That was over 11 million more votes than Mr. Trump won four years earlier. After everything that had happened in those years, and even amid the historic hardships of Covid, the Trump brand had actually grown its base of support.

This singular fact is seared into the minds of Republicans who look to the future, much as, after the 1964 election, forward-looking analysts like Kevin Phillips and the direct-mail innovator Richard Viguerie were more impressed by what Barry Goldwater had achieved in building a conservative movement of millions than by the fact of his loss. And Mr. Trump’s achievement was greater than Mr. Goldwater’s. Yet he lost, too; and many of the 81 million voters who elected President Biden seemed to be driven by antipathy to Mr. Trump and his politics, as indicated by the fact that many Biden voters did not vote for House Democrats.

The lesson Republicans take from this is that Mr. Trump has discovered a potentially winning formula — if that formula’s power to attract voters to the Republican brand can be separated from the formula’s propensity to repel even larger numbers of voters who turn out to elect Democrats.

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