After his Conservative Political Action Committee speech, Donald TrumpDonald TrumpTrump announces new tranche of endorsements DeSantis, Pence tied in 2024 Republican poll Lawmakers demand changes after National Guard troops at Capitol sickened from tainted food MORE has shown that his presidential loss has not slowed down his domination of the Republican Party. Quite the opposite, as any Republican who deviates from the Trump line, be they the former party presidential nominee, the wife of one, or the second ranking Republican in the House and daughter of the former vice president, is immediately denounced and threatened with primaries or being written out of the party.
Many observers, including Senator Mitt Romney, feel that if Trump decides to run again, the 2024 nomination is his for the taking. This may be so, but that alone does not make Trump unusual. The reality is that Trump’s continued command of the party may be simply due to his willingness to break with tradition. Former presidents, even those one-termers who were rejected by the population as a while, likely always receive an inordinate amount of support from the party.
Looking at recent presidents who lost a reelection run, we get to see their continued impact years later. While neither George H. W. Bush or Jimmy Carter made any attempt to recapture the White House, both still retained influence, even if they didn’t look to actively wield it.
Two years after he lost, two of George H.W. Bush’s sons were Republican nominees for Governor of major states. Eight years after his defeat, Bush’s son captured the Republican nomination for the presidency. Jimmy Carter lost in 1980 and stepped back from the active political scene. But in 1984, the Democrats nominated his vice president, Walter Mondale, for the presidency. Far from repudiating Carter’s legacy, the party chose his obvious heir in the next election. Before Gerald Ford decided not to run for president in 1980, he was still topping the Republican presidential polls in 1978. Ronald Reagan even seriously considered naming Ford as his running mate in 1980.
Prior to that, you have to look all the way back to the pre-primary period to see that Herbert Hoover was thought of as nominee for the Republican in 1936 before he decided to back out. Following his desultory reelection race in 1912, William Howard Taft stayed in such good stead that he was appointed chief justice of the Supreme Court the next time the Republicans were in office. There is a good deal of logic to this. The president has managed to spend four years whipping up party support for his policies and being the focus of attacks from the other side. Both create a rally-round-the-flag effect for the president, leaving him with a permanent strong level of party support.
Both Bush and Carter’s decisions to back away from active politics, plus the relative lack of one-termers, has hid this reality. It may also seem surprising given the lack of interest the party shows in losing presidential standard bearers. Ever since Nixon in 1968, no one has gotten the nomination after losing the presidency. On three occasions, Romney, McCain and Humphrey, a losing candidate managed to win a Senate seat. But a losing presidential candidate has less than one year to be the center of attention and ends up getting the blame for the party’s loss without getting the goodwill of previously triumphing and creating popular policy. Since there are so many more losing candidates than there are one-termers, the view of an unpopular one-termer may be skewed.
The problem for Trump and the Republicans is that having iron-clad party support may be necessary to win the nomination, but it is far from sufficient to win the presidency. Exit polls suggested that Biden and Trump reportedly garnered 94 percent of the vote from their respective party members, which may be the highest numbers of retain support by any president since at least 1976. But the result was that Trump lost by seven million votes, a gap five million votes larger than in 2016. Republicans may soon find out if having party voters continue to support their past president really helps at the end of the day.
Joshua Spivak is a senior fellow who is focused on politics and history with the Hugh Carey Institute for Government Reform based at Wagner College.