At a senior center in Raymond, New Hampshire, last week, former Vice President Mike Pence was boasting about raising military spending under the Trump-Pence administration, while stressing the need to support Ukraine in its war against Russia. Asked the next day if Russian President Vladimir Putin was a war criminal, Mr. Pence didn’t hesitate: “Without question.”
Not far away, at a picnic in Salem, candidate Vivek Ramaswamy offered a different take. “We have to get the facts before we get to the bottom of that,” the pharmaceutical entrepreneur said when asked about Mr. Putin’s status as a potential war criminal. Speaking to voters on an unusually hot September day, Mr. Ramaswamy said he would prioritize the homefront over involvement in foreign conflicts. “My job is to keep us out of World War III while advancing American interests.”
Often in presidential primaries, candidates struggle to find ways to differentiate themselves. Largely agreeing on the main issues of the day, they wind up emphasizing slight nuances or leaning on stylistic distinctions.
The 2024 Republicans don’t have that problem.
From the debate stage to the campaign trail, whether they’re talking about Ukraine or abortion or the Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol, these candidates’ pitches have been so jarringly different from one another that voters might be forgiven for wondering if they’re truly from the same party.
The kaleidoscope of views on display could help the GOP attract some new supporters – including more independents, voters of color, and a younger generation that sees Reagan-style conservatism as hopelessly passé. At the same time, analysts say, the party is running the risk of coming across as incoherent, making it hard for voters to identify what it actually stands for. And parties that are deeply divided along policy lines often struggle at the ballot box.
“When political scientists for the past 20-plus years have compared the Republican and Democratic parties, a common refrain has been, ‘Well, the Democrats are this “big tent” party of different constituents who don’t have much in common – union people, highly educated individuals – but they agree to join forces for the purposes of trying to win elections,’” says David Barker, director of the Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies at American University. “By contrast, the conventional wisdom has been that Republicans are the ideological party rowing in the same boat ... which was why people used to say that Republicans had a leg up. Now we’ve really seen that turn upside down.”
It’s the ripple effect of a realignment that started when Donald Trump captured the White House in 2016 and has yet to be fully resolved. With Mr. Trump still dominant and pushing the GOP in a more populist direction, his rivals are caught between trying to emulate him and hewing to a more traditional conservatism – or trying to somehow have it both ways.
Staking out varied positions
In her own campaign stops across the Granite State last week, former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley advocated for a muscular foreign policy, similar to Mr. Pence’s pitch. But she put forward a very different message on the subject of a national abortion ban – essentially telling voters it’s not going to happen. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who was in his home state dealing with Hurricane Idalia, often sounds more populist than Mr. Trump, such as in his culture war battle with Disney. He has expressed skepticism about the COVID-19 vaccine, while Mr. Trump recently told interviewer Megyn Kelly that his decision to back the vaccine’s development, according to health officials, “saved 100 million lives.”
When it comes to Mr. Trump, the candidates have differing takes – at times, even from themselves. Ms. Haley has said he would be a weak general election candidate, calling him “the most disliked politician in America,” while also saying she’d back him if he were the nominee. Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie has essentially made his entire campaign about the need to prevent Mr. Trump from recapturing the White House. Mr. Ramaswamy, on the other hand, calls Mr. Trump the best president of the 21st century.
There’s always a spectrum within parties, notes Matthew Bartlett, a Republican strategist and New Hampshire native. But Mr. Trump fundamentally shifted the landscape for the GOP, so that even positions once seen as utterly heterodox are now “percolating” among the 2024 candidates.
“We were the party of fiscal responsibility, including entitlement reform. We were the party of free trade capitalism,” says Mr. Bartlett. “Flash-forward four years: Donald Trump says, ‘No more stupid wars. You’re not going to touch Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security. Oh, and by the way, it’s called fair trade, not free trade.’ And what happened? He won.”
While some candidates are calling for a return to core Republican ideas and principles, others seem to be saying, “Maybe Trump’s ideas are much closer to where voters and the base of the party is,” Mr. Bartlett adds.
As Trump leads, Ramaswamy echoes message
So far, Mr. Trump is the heavy favorite to win the nomination again, with formidable leads in most national polls. A late August poll of New Hampshire primary voters found the former president as the top choice for almost half of those surveyed.
“I like Donald J. Trump,” says David Hunt, wiping sweat and dirt from his arms as he takes a break from working outside his home in Windsor, New Hampshire. Mr. Hunt says his business drilling wells for homes has all but dried up due to rising interest rates and a difficult housing market. The farm stand that he runs with his wife, Laurie, where they sell local produce, honey, and maple butter through an honor system, has struggled as well. By comparison, Mr. Hunt says he “never made as much” money as he did during the Trump years.
When asked if he’d consider voting for anyone else in the GOP primary field, Mr. Hunt answers, “Vik.”
Indeed, Mr. Ramaswamy has tried to position himself as the inheritor of the MAGA mantle, though many New Hampshire voters like Mr. Hunt still struggle to pronounce his name. Mr. Ramaswamy calls his campaign “the leading edge of defining where the ‘America First’ movement goes from here.”
The Harvard- and Yale-educated lawyer, who made millions as a biotech entrepreneur, has never held elected office and says he’s only voted in two presidential elections – in 2004 for a Libertarian and in 2020 for President Trump.
At the first Republican debate in late August, Mr. Ramaswamy stood in the middle of the stage, fending off attacks from almost all the other candidates and throwing punches of his own. In the 24 hours that followed, there were more than 1 million Google searches of his name.
The crowd at the Ramaswamy picnic whistled and applauded when he vowed to abolish numerous government agencies, cut 75% of the federal workforce, and battle the “new secular cults” of COVID-19 and transgender issues. The GOP primary, he told the crowd, was a choice between “incremental reform” and “revolution.”
Mr. Ramaswamy’s rhetoric closely emulates Mr. Trump’s, and he echoes the former president’s depiction of America as in a state of decline. Indeed, one lesson other candidates seem to have taken from Mr. Trump’s political success is that style matters more than substance – and that many voters will be flexible on policy if they like a candidate’s posture.
“Right now, the Republican Party is about attitude and swagger,” says Mr. Bartlett, the GOP strategist. “Vivek has made some very inflammatory comments. It tends to resonate. It is not just what you say, but how you say it in the Republican Party.”
Can a return to Reaganism appeal?
At the other end of the spectrum is Mr. Pence, a 1990s-style politician in a blue blazer and dad sneakers, who has been calling for a return to Reaganesque Republicanism – the “three-legged stool” of religious traditionalism, foreign policy hawkishness, and free market sentiment – which he says would usher in a new “Morning in America.”
On the stump in New Hampshire, the former Trump vice president called out “Donald Trump and his imitators” for preaching a “siren song of populism” that has destabilized the GOP and aligned it with Democrats on many issues.
“We have come to a Republican time for choosing,” Mr. Pence told a crowd of students, several of whom said they were there for class credit, at Saint Anselm College in Manchester. “The question of the hour is not just who, but what will we offer the American people a year from this November? ... I believe that choice will determine the fate of the party and the course of our nation for years to come.”
If Mr. Pence’s meager crowds last week were any indication, however, the party may have already made its choice.
“I don’t like Pence,” said freshman Isiah Chamberlain after seeing the former vice president at a town hall at New England College in Henniker, New Hampshire. “I’d take any populist candidate over an elitist conservative.”
Still, others saw Mr. Pence’s message as worth heeding. Freshman Matthew Cryan said he liked the former vice president’s references to Ronald Reagan and his comments about standing firm against Mr. Putin. “I want to knock him down before he has the chance to get stronger.”
During the last debate, Mr. Pence was the only candidate onstage “who reflects what a president should be,” says Deana Gagnon, a store manager speaking outside a shopping center down the road from the Pence town hall in Raymond. Ms. Gagnon voted for Mr. Trump in 2020 but says she now finds him unpresidential.
“I don’t want a president for show,” she says. “I want a president who can make some change.”
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