Why the Moscow Primary Is So Important

The following is part of The Moscow Primary, and irregular series on yours truly’s speculations regarding the views of the 2024 Republican nomination contest from the most important player: the Kremlin.

This post will discuss why the Moscow Primary is so important, aided by a recent Bulwark poll on GOP voters. The poll reveals the uphill battle Ron DeSantis (or anyone else) faces against Trump during the election campaign.

At first, the figures look good for DeSantis:

  • In a head-to-head match, DeSantis leads Trump 52 percent to 30 percent, with 15 percent undecided and 3 percent saying they would not vote if those were the only two options.
  • With DeSantis, Trump, and “another candidate,” DeSantis got 44 percent, Trump got 28 percent, and the generic “another candidate” got 10 percent, with 17 percent undecided.
  • In a 10-candidate field, DeSantis got 39 percent, Trump 28 percent, Mike Pence 9 percent, Nikki Haley and Liz Cheney 4 percent each, and five other candidates registered at 1 percent. In this scenario, 13 percent of the respondents were undecided.

While this shows more candidates would cause problems for the Florida governor, it’s usually better to be leading in a poll than trailing in one. The visible trouble comes afterwards (emphasis in original).

Even more alarming for Republicans is that not all pluralities are created equal. For example, one question I was keen to answer with this poll is how many “Always Trumpers” would follow Trump if he lost the GOP primary and launched an independent bid for president.

And according to our poll, that 28 percent of Republican primary voters already locked in for Trump say they’ll support him even if he ran as an independent in the general election.

Twenty-eight percent!

So for DeSantis et al, it’s not about merely beating Donald Trump. It’s about keeping him out of the general election as a spoiler. As we’ll see, only one person can do that.

Let’s deal with the nomination battle first. Much of the commentary outside the GOP is about the naiveté inside the party about defeating Trump. McKay Coppins captures this best in The Atlantic by asking Republicans “how they plan” to get past Trump.

But ask them how they plan to do that, and the discussion quickly veers into the realm of hopeful hypotheticals. Maybe he’ll get indicted and his legal problems will overwhelm him. Maybe he’ll flame out early in the primaries, or just get bored with politics and wander away. Maybe the situation will resolve itself naturally: He’s old, after all—how many years can he have left?

This magical thinking pervaded my recent conversations with more than a dozen current and former elected GOP officials and party strategists. Faced with the prospect of another election cycle dominated by Trump and uncertain that he can actually be beaten in the primaries, many Republicans are quietly rooting for something to happen that will make him go away. And they would strongly prefer not to make it happen themselves.

“There is a desire for deus ex machina,” said one GOP consultant, who, like others I interviewed, requested anonymity to characterize private conversations taking place inside the party. “It’s like 2016 all over again, only more fatalistic.”

To be fair, no one in 2015 or 2016 was in DeSantis’ current position. The very large 2016 field meant no one really had more than 20% of the GOP vote in their corner until Trump announced his candidacy. Trump was able to ride his minority share to first place in New Hampshire and South Carolina. From there, the look of a winner brought its own new support.

However, Trump was also a policy outsider in 2015. He was antithetical to the Republican majority on trade and on Russia (to give two examples). That isn’t the case anymore. Whereas other Republicans in 2015 could use issues against Trump to win votes, he can now to do it to his opponents (DeSantis included). Trump has already taken to social media ripping his successor for arming Ukraine.

Given that a majority of Republican voters now oppose further aid to Ukraine, Trump can now claim to speak for the majority in his party on this issue. None of his would-be opponents have been as dovish on Ukraine as he has been. Either DeSantis tries to outdo Trump’s pro-Russian position or he’ll end up losing votes to Trump.

More to the point, stopping aid to Ukraine is priority number one for the Kremlin. So the Republican nominee will either be Trump himself or someone just as good (for Moscow) as Trump.

In the event that someone does manage to win the nomination from Trump, they would then be faced with Trump as an independent spoiler. Trump has made it clear how little he cares for the GOP. The grift potential of an independent run is patently obvious. Everything and everyone around him would be pushing him towards it – unless Moscow tells him not to do it.

That doesn’t happen if the Kremlin thinks the Republican nominee is too hostile to its interests.

In short, any Republican who wants to move on from Trump has to both defeat him for the nomination and keep him out of the general election. To do that, they’ll need help.

To get that help, they need to win the Moscow Primary.

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