Trump, DeSantis, and the Risk of GOP Mutually Assured Destruction

Samuel Sullivan

Will history repeat itself for Republicans?
Trump and DeSantisPhoto byWikimedia Commons

As former President Donald Trump and Florida Governor Ron DeSantis vie for the Republican nomination for the 2024 presidential race, Republican leaders harbor a specific fear above all others.

It’s not Trump and DeSantis slandering each other into oblivion or them tarnishing each other’s reputations to the extent that they lose support from the Republican base. In fact, such scenarios could potentially strengthen the nominated candidate with the Republican base. Trump has demonstrated that all publicity is good publicity. Even his recent indictment served as a fundraising opportunity upon the news breaking.

The real concern for Republicans is the possibility that the losing candidate might run for president as a third-party contender. In 2015, Trump pledged not to run as a third-party candidate if he lost the nomination, but much has changed since that promise was made eight years ago.

If Trump were to lose the nomination to DeSantis and decide to run as a third-party candidate, it could all but guarantee President Joe Biden’s re-election, leading to what could be described as mutually assured destruction for the Republicans.
Teddy RooseveltPhoto byWikimedia Commons

Republican Mutually Assured Destruction: A Historical Perspective

The last time a Republican-turned-third-party candidate inadvertently ensured a Democratic presidential victory was in 1912. When incumbent President William Taft secured the Republican nomination over former President Teddy Roosevelt, the latter formed the Bull Moose Party and ran as a third-party candidate.

Teddy Roosevelt assumed the presidency after President William McKinley’s assassination in 1901 and was easily re-elected in 1904. Before the 1908 election, he vowed not to run again, honoring the two-term precedent for U.S. presidents. Instead, he handpicked Taft as his successor, who extended the Republicans’ presidential winning streak to five elections.

However, disenchanted with Taft’s performance and feeling sidelined, Roosevelt challenged him in the 1912 election. Roosevelt’s charisma and progressive ideas won over many voters, allowing him to defeat Taft. Despite this, both candidates were defeated by Democrat Woodrow Wilson, who became the 28th U.S. president.

1912 Results

  • Democratic Party: Woodrow Wilson — 42% of the popular vote, 435 electoral votes
  • Bull Moose Party: Teddy Roosevelt — 27% of the popular vote, 88 electors
  • Republican Party: William Taft — 23% of the popular vote, 8 electoral votes
  • Socialist Party: Eugene Debs — 6% of the popular vote, 0 electoral votes

Roosevelt and Taft together won 49% of the popular vote. If either had not run, the other would have likely beaten Wilson. Instead, they experienced mutually assured destruction.

Is History Poised to Repeat Itself?

It’s too early to determine if the Republican Party is once again headed for mutually assured destruction, but a reenactment of the events of 101 years ago is certainly plausible, especially if Trump loses the nomination by a narrow margin or amid controversy.

Recent polls show Trump leading DeSantis by a considerable margin, but DeSantis has yet to announce his candidacy officially, and polls can be unreliable. The third-party threat seems to be solely associated with Trump. If DeSantis runs and fails to gain traction, he would likely bow out, as he is only 44 and has other opportunities ahead. However, at 76, Trump might not want to wait another four years.

Furthermore, Trump is known for being a sore loser. On the anniversary of January 6th this year, he reiterated claims that the 2020 election was fraudulent. As he did in 2015, Trump may use the threat of a third-party run to dominate the news cycle and distinguish himself from other GOP candidates who could be perceived as weak and subservient to the party. It will be interesting to see how DeSantis navigates this issue.

What’s your opinion? How likely do you think Republican mutually assured destruction is?

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