Bill Weld’s Exploratory Committee is a Symptom of a Larger Problem for Trump’s GOP
Understanding Bill Weld’s potential impact on the 2020 Presidential Campaign
Former Massachusetts Governor Bill Weld announced the formation of an exploratory committee to challenge Donald Trump for the Republican Presidential nomination today. Weld is unlikely to win the nomination because he would be running against an incumbent President. However, Weld’s potential campaign would be important for what it represents: an abnormally large dissatisfaction within the Republican Party with the incumbent President, Donald Trump.
Polling data shows the size and extent of this dissatisfaction. A Monmouth University poll released on February 4th shows that over four out of ten Republicans and Republican-leaning independents think that Trump should face a primary challenger. However, over two-thirds of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents pick Trump when given possible hypotheticals (the poll did not test Weld’s name). These numbers show substantial dissatisfaction, but it’s not likely to prevent him from getting the nomination. Some Republicans seem to want Trump to face a primary challenger, but either seem to want Trump to beat a primary challenger or were not satisfied with the names tested against him.
The more accurate reflection of Republican dissatisfaction with Trump is likely the roughly one-quarter of conservatives who told Monmouth University’s polling team that someone else should be in office. The phrasing of the question suggests that these people are very unlikely to vote for Trump under any circumstances. The question on Republican dissatisfaction with Trump has been phrased differently by different pollsters, so they have resulted in answers between the low 20s and low 30s. Regardless of what the specific number is, it is a huge problem for Trump’s reelection campaign, which has no margin for error in the General Election. It also may complicate any plans Trump may have to keep the Republican Party in his image after he leaves office.
It’s important to recognize that the group of Republicans that are dissatisfied with Trump is not a monolithic bloc. If this group was a monolith, all of the non-Trump names tested by Monmouth University’s polling team would get the same amount of support. With this in mind, do not expect these voters to monolithically back Weld in the primary.
If Trump wins the nomination, the Republicans who are dissatisfied with Trump will still not act like a monolithic bloc. Possible behaviors that these voters could engage in are voting for the Democrat, casting a protest vote, or not voting for President. These voters are likely to split between those three options. It is also possible that a few of these voters may back Trump with serious reservations depending on how events unfold.
While Weld is not likely to beat Trump, he can still hurt his campaign. Weld's potential campaign is a very visible symbol of Republican dissatisfaction, and Trump is going to have to spend money to deal with it. His campaign has already raised $130 million for his reelection campaign (as of the end of 2018). However, less than $20 million of that had not been spent yet. The Trump campaign’s spending surged during the midterm elections. While money is not an issue for Trump due to his wealth, a long primary campaign may test his willingness to use his own wealth, especially if donors are maxing out their contributions to his campaign ($2700 is the legal limit for a primary).
A long primary campaign could also harden internal opposition to Trump. Republican voters will hear arguments against voting for Trump from Weld. The most effective ones will be repeated by the Democratic nominee in the General Election to dissuade the Republicans who supported Weld from supporting Trump. Hardened opposition within a political party to the nominee is an obstacle that makes electoral victory very difficult to achieve.
Weld has one path to force a long primary campaign. It runs through New Hampshire. New Hampshire is the closest geographically and demographically to his home state of Massachusetts. Independents can vote in the New Hamshire primary. This makes the New Hampshire primary electorate more moderate than the Iowa Caucus electorate. The Monmouth University polling data shows that a majority of independents think Trump should be replaced as President, so they are more likely to back Weld over Trump if they vote in the Republican primary.
New Hampshire also has the remains of John Kasich’s 2016 campaign, which he kept active with frequent visits. They would likely back Weld (if Kasich does not run) and there is nothing comparable in any other early state. New Hampshire also does not have the historical problems that Nevada has or the threat of disappearing for the cycle like South Carolina’s primary is. For these reasons, if Weld is going to force a long primary campaign, his campaign is going to need to live free or die.