Can 74 million people be wrong?
Maybe, but that’s the wrong question to ask.
The right question is: What happens, in 2024, to the 74 million votes that went to former President Donald Trump in the 2020 election?
Some won’t vote in 2024. That’s a given, no matter how hard GOP political strategists want to fight it. It is impossible to accurately predict at this point what percentage of those Trump votes won’t go to the GOP in 2024, but it’s reasonably certain that almost none will go to the Democrats.
There are going to be two powerful wild cards in 2024: apathy and a third-party candidate.
Apathy is a scary political disease because we don’t understand its spread until we have the luxury of looking back. A certain percentage of people who voted for Trump currently feel so disappointed, so disenfranchised, that they can’t imagine voting again in 2024. It is too early for polls to come that will measure this, but when they do, this thesis will be proven to be true.
The critical question is how many of them will get over it between today and November 2024.
Definitely not all of them. Whether this apathy becomes enough GOP voter attrition from the 74 million votes remains to be seen. And there is always the hope of attracting new voters, which can include people voting for the first time as well as people changing their vote from the Democratic Party. This all factors into whether the GOP will end up with a net gain or loss.
The main issue is that a voting base of 74 million is fantastic in every definition of the word. Critics will argue that the GOP is starting from such a high point — the second-highest number of votes in the history of U.S. presidential elections by a whopping margin of 5 million votes — that there is nowhere to go but down.
While this is pure conjecture at this point, there is an even greater wild card with which the GOP may need to battle in 2024: a third-party candidate.
We can predict with certainty that the lion’s share of the 74 million votes cast for Trump in November will go to whichever candidate the GOP chooses for 2024 — truly without regard to who the candidate actually is. These voters are voting Republican no matter what. Mainstream political thinking is that the GOP needs to do nothing and no other party can do anything to pull them away.
Or can they?
Here’s how our wild card might play out: Trump or (insert your name of choice here) decides to run in 2024 as a right-of-center candidate, an alternative not only to the Democratic nominee but to the Republican as well.
What percentage of the vote would that candidate need to capture to ruin a GOP victory in 2024, assuming there was no other independent candidate at the political center or left of it?
Let’s look at the numbers. The 2020 election was decided by 7 million votes. That’s only 4 percent of the total vote of 156 million. To get a clear sense of the potential worst-case scenario here, we need to travel back close to 30 years to the 1992 election.
Ross Perot won 19 percent of the popular vote in 1992 with close to 20 million votes, helping enable President Bill Clinton’s victory with only 43 percent of the popular vote. Let’s cut that by two-thirds, just to be on the safe side. Let’s assume that a reasonably solid political machine is supporting this third-party candidate and that the person is reasonably well-funded.
Do we believe that the GOP can afford to lose 6.5 percent of the popular vote on top of whatever percentage they will lose from 2020 from disenfranchised voters tired of what they may see as a corrupt or completely broken system?
From this vantage point, it seems like the greatest GOP challenges over the next three years are well right of the political center line in the United States. They know from the Democratic side that they will be facing either President Joe Biden making a bid for his second term, or — far more likely — Vice President Kamala Harris or an even stronger nominee who may not yet even be on the public’s radar.
It’s far too easy to dismiss 1992 as a political outlier, the kind of systematic anomaly that occurs once in a few generations. But doing so would require dismissing the most important lesson that 1992 can teach a third-party candidate in 2024 — the awesome power of new media.
What propelled Perot to such a large percentage of the popular vote was television. Before deciding to run, Perot observed that the proliferation of cable TV that had begun in the late 1980s required something that he was uniquely qualified and fully prepared to deliver in 1992: a lot of content.
Content is and was king on the endless programming loop that still exists today. A compelling third-party candidate, as the outspoken billionaire was, filled up airtime that needed to be filled by something.
None of us can look four years into the future and understand what the next hot medium is going to be.
But for a third-party candidate who can, and who has the ability to build the right political machine around it, 2024 will be as good a year as any in the past century to make a run at true political disruption and prove that while 74 million people can’t all be wrong, some of them may be more than willing to shift their minds and hearts in a new direction.