2024: the year of the political circus
By Scott E. Buchanan
Happy 2024! When my favorite member of the Fourth Estate asked me to write a column for the new year, I must admit I was a bit unsure of my abilities. According to my records, the last column I wrote for the Mercury was in December 2020 — I wondered if I had become a bit rusty. As I re-read the late 2020 column, I was struck at how pessimistic I sounded during the midst of all of the cries of election fraud that had ensued to that point. Towards the end of that column, I harbored concerns about the future of our Republic, as history shows that citizen involvement and confidence in government is vital for such a system to flourish.
As we enter 2024, I admit that I harbored these same concerns regarding the longevity of the Republic. Since January 2021, a number of surveys have been conducted about the mood of Americans towards politics and government. The results are downright depressing. In October 2023, the nonpartisan Public Religion Research Institute conducted a poll, which suggests that as many as 23 percent of Americans believe that “political violence” may be necessary to save our political system. Broken down into categories, 33 percent of Republicans, 22 percent of Independents and 13 percent of Democrats were in agreement on engaging in such violence. Going one step further, of those Republican respondents who believed violence may be needed, Trump supporters were three times more likely to support violent actions than non-Trump Republicans.
Wearing my political scientist hat, I can quibble about the survey, questions, methodology, sample size, etc. Yet the size of the percentages revealed by these studies should be enough to sober up anyone from a New Year’s Eve hangover — or perhaps drive one to drink even further. Up to this point in our future, our Republic has enjoyed the overall support and confidence of the vast majority of the citizenry, notwithstanding 1860-1865, as well as the late 1960s. What is becoming increasingly evident over the last two decades though is that confidence in the basic structure of the political system has been shaken, if not broken in some quarters. As I have pondered this, and read the musings of other learned observers, I have noticed among my students, first Millennials and now Generation Z (i.e. Zoomers) a profound lack of confidence in our political system. Simply put, those of us older than these generations have some “institutional memory” of our political system operating relatively well. Certainly, there were times when we faltered, but I’m talking about a deeper intrinsic trust in the system. Those of us past our 40s have that memory, while those under 40 do not. This helps to explain the rather shocking results of polls registering support for political violence.
Dare I say it? Many, albeit not all, of our elected leaders do not exactly engender confidence in the political system these days. In many ways, each election cycle becomes more and more of a do-or-die proposition to many. In contrast to our current era, the intensity of the 2000 presidential election seems downright tranquil in retrospect, all of which finally gets us to the 2024 presidential election cycle. Here we are again.
The Iowa Caucus and New Hampshire primaries are upon us in January, and the Palmetto State is up to the plate in February. Given the almost certainity of a Biden being renominated, all attention is on the Republican primary fight. After a number of Republican debates in 2023, no Republican has managed to distance themselves from the pack to become the anti-Trump candidate. First, it was slated to be DeSantis, who actually tried to out-Trump his way to the frontrunner status only to fail, and then Vivek Ramaswamy had his five minutes in the spotlight. Mike Pence did his best to claim the Reagan mantle, only to find that the Republican Party of the 2020s isn’t terribly Reaganesque any longer. Chris Christie has been the most stridently anti-Trump to date, and he has the single digit polls numbers to show it. Certainly, there was Tim Scott and the rest, but many of them have now left the field.
That brings us to Nikki Haley. After several reasonably strong performances in the various GOP debates of 2023, Haley’s numbers have improved somewhat. Indeed, in recent polling, before last week’s New Hampshire comments about the Civil War, Haley was actually polling the strongest numbers against Biden in a hypothetical general election contest. Haley had a 4.5 percent aggregate lead according to Real Clear Politics. Meanwhile, DeSantis had a 0.2 percent lead over Biden, while Trump had a 2.3 percent lead over Biden. First of all, I am reminded of the old adage that a month is like a century in politics, so I do not put too much stock in general election polls at this point.
The real story lies among Republican primary voters. Looking at the polling among likely Republican voters, things are looking quite good for Trump at the moment. Despite all of the controversy, Trump is proving to be resilient among Republicans currently. Every time there has been an indictment or Trump being kicked off a primary ballot, his numbers inch up among Republicans. Heading into the Iowa Caucus, Trump holds a nearly 33 percent lead over DeSantis and a 35 percent lead over Haley. In New Hampshire, Trump is ahead by 21 points over Haley. Very notably, Trump enjoys a nearly 30 percent lead over Haley in the Palmetto State. If the polling is to be believed, the nomination is Trump’s to lose at this point.
For Haley to have any chance against Trump (as I write this in the dying hours of 2023), she will need to come in a very strong second in the Iowa Caucus and follow that up with an even stronger performance in New Hampshire. In that event, she might have a chance against Trump in S.C. Still, that is not even a guarantee that she could win S.C. The fact remains that Donald Trump has name recognition, a loyal following and a devil-may-care attitude about him that makes him popular with many Republicans.
Here’s what to watch for in the South Carolina primary in February. Watch for the small rural counties of S.C. on primary night. In both 2016, and even more so in 2020, Trump was winning enormous majorities in rural counties across the nation. Indeed, an enormous part of Trump’s base is in rural counties, many of which are dying, but voters in those areas are attracted to Trump’s promise of turning things around. So, if Trump starts amassing large margins in rural South Carolina, it will go a very long way to him winning the state’s Republican delegates. Perhaps, the editorial staff of the Mercury will allow me to do a post-primary analysis in a couple of months to see if I am right.
The voters will have their opportunity at the polls in the coming months. Still the odds are most definitely in Donald J. Trump’s favor at this point to win the Republican nomination. Like it or not, the Republican Party is now the Party of Trump — at least as 2023 gives way to 2024.
Scott E. Buchanan is a professor of political science at Georgia College & State University in Milledgeville, Georgia. He was formerly on the faculty at The Citadel from
2009-2020 and is the author of several books in the area of Southern politics.