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Republicans In Early Primary States Face A Choice: Protect Trump Or Their Place In Line

It’s been almost three decades since an incumbent president — George H.W. Bush in 1992 — faced a notable primary challenge. And while we don’t know yet if President Trump will have to fend off a major intra-party threat, that possibility weighs on the minds of state GOP officials. Those officials have to decide whether to hold — or not hold — primaries and caucuses in 2020. It’s an especially tough question for the traditionally early states like Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina, who now must decide whether to protect their threatened early-state status or protect Trump.

For years, Iowa and New Hampshire have kicked off the nomination process with the first caucus1 and first primary, respectively. And South Carolina Republicans2 started using a primary instead of a caucus in 1980 to position the state as the “first in the South.” But other states have tried to jump ahead or sidle up next to them in recent cycles, challenging their position as first in line.3 Increasingly, therefore, Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina have an interest in holding a contest, and holding it early. By altering how their contests are run or not holding them at all, these states could endanger their claims to early spots on the primary calendar.

But, even though Trump is very likely to prevail in them, more contests mean more risk for the president. Josh Putnam, a lecturer at the University of North Carolina Wilmington and creator of FrontloadingHQ, a website covering the presidential primary process, told me that state parties don’t usually alter their elections to help incumbents, but in cases where an incumbent has faced little or no opposition, state parties have sometimes skipped their primary or caucus, with the goal being to give state parties more control over the delegate selection process.

In at least two of the early states, protecting their status appears to be the top priority. Both Iowa and New Hampshire will offer Republican voters an opportunity to vote against Trump. Republican officials in South Carolina, in contrast, have hinted at a willingness to cancel its primary if it’s “what’s in the president’s best interest.”

Iowa is holding its caucuses

It sounds weird, but a caucus or primary can potentially be held without participants specifying who they support for president on a ballot. Colorado Republicans, for example, didn’t hold a presidential preference vote in 2016 to avoid having to follow Rule 16(a)(1) of the Republican Party, which says that if a state party holds a statewide presidential preference vote, it must be used to allocate national delegates.

So the fact that the Iowa GOP plans to hold a vote for president, despite not having held one for the last three Republican incumbents, is notable because a Trump opponent could win national delegates under the national party rules (depending on what delegate allocation format they use).4 And that’s because at this point, holding the caucuses is an act of self-preservation. The eventual GOP nominee hasn’t won Iowa since 2000, and other states are actively looking to skip ahead of it on the calendar.5 Republican Party of Iowa chairman Jeff Kaufmann recently told The Gazette, “We’ve had states that tried to jump ahead and I want to make very sure that this isn’t a foot in the door and in 2024 or 2028 we have problems in the Republican caucus.”

A GOP vote in Iowa would help keep the caucuses in the spotlight, and at least one poll shows that a large majority of Iowa Republicans want a caucus vote. A December survey by Des Moines Register/CNN/Mediacom found that even though 81 percent of Iowa Republicans approved of Trump, 63 percent welcomed potential challengers. If Trump’s popularity holds steady, this could work well for the state, as Trump would probably win the caucus vote and then the GOP nomination, ending the state’s losing streak.

South Carolina may cancel its primary

In 2017, South Carolina Republican Party chairman Drew McKissick said that he expected the state GOP executive committee to pass a resolution opposing a primary,6 and while that hasn’t happened yet, it is still a definite possibility. Not holding a primary would be consistent with what the party did in 1984 and 2004, but in both those elections, the Republican incumbents were essentially running unopposed. However, the South Carolina GOP did hold a primary in 1992, when George H.W. Bush faced a serious primary challenge in the form of Pat Buchanan.7 So if South Carolina declines to hold an election this time despite (or because of) serious opposition to Trump, that could signal an attempt to protect the president.

If there is no GOP primary in South Carolina, that could also mean no presidential preference vote to allocate national delegates.8 This means it could be easier for South Carolina Republicans to send a very pro-Trump delegation to the 2020 convention even if opposition to the president develops within his party. Instead of holding a binding primary to choose delegates, the party would use a caucus-convention system, which often has lower turnout and more conservative activists — many of whom strongly support Trump.

New Hampshire must hold its primary

Thanks to state law, New Hampshire will hold a primary regardless. Still, some Republicans pushed for the state GOP to support Trump openly, which would have upset the state’s tradition of its parties not endorsing candidates. The effort drew bipartisan backlash because of concerns that such an endorsement would harm the primary’s fairness and potentially threaten the state’s position as the “first in the nation” primary. Republican Gov. Chris Sununu argued that the state GOP needed to remain neutral so it could help unify the party after the primary season. In the face of this opposition, those calling for a Trump endorsement backed off at the end of 2018. New Hampshire has consistently fought off attempts by other states to step on its position as the first presidential primary, and state Republicans have decided against taking an action that could risk the state’s preeminent position.

The choices these three early states make — to protect the president or the status of their contests — will help determine the paths of potential Trump primary challengers in 2020. To be clear, this doesn’t mean the Republican primary will be flooded with major candidates. There have been only three sitting presidents who faced a notable primary challenge in recent history:9 Gerald Ford in 1976, Jimmy Carter in 1980 and the aforementioned George H.W. Bush in 1992. Each survived to win his party’s nomination, but perhaps tellingly, all three lost re-election.

It’s unclear what will happen in 2020. But one way in which 2019 is already different is decisions to potentially change election rules are being made in the midst of uncertainty about whether there will be a potential Trump primary challenger.

“These changes may influence challenger decisions in a way that they really have not — and have not needed to — in the past,” said Putnam. If most states decide not to alter their rules in an effort to help Trump in some way, they could give a prospective primary challenger a chance to demonstrate the president’s unpopularity. Or their votes might show that Trump has overwhelming support among Republicans. Time and these contests will tell.

FiveThirtyEight’s 2020 draft: Episode 2


  1. In some cycles, other states held caucuses before Iowa, but the state’s caucus vote has been a key early event in presidential primaries since the 1970s.

  2. In South Carolina, the state parties decide whether to hold a presidential primary.

  3. This can create a “frontloadingproblem, where states move up in the primary calendar to exert more influence on the nomination process, with the end result being too many states clumped together at the top of the election schedule.

  4. In 2016, Iowa Republicans used a highly proportional system to allocate delegates, but they could change to a winner-take-all system or another format.

  5. Only one incumbent Republican — Gerald Ford — has had to run in Iowa in recent years. Even when George H.W. Bush had a nationally recognized primary challenger in Pat Buchanan in 1992, he didn’t have to run in Iowa, perhaps because the state party wanted to protect him or because Buchanan mostly ignored Iowa to focus on the New Hampshire primary.

  6. The state GOP plans to make its decision this summer, but has up until 90 days before the primary date to do so.

  7. Bush beat Buchanan soundly in South Carolina, 67 percent to 26 percent.

  8. There could be a preference vote as a part of caucuses, but the state GOP didn’t do that in 2004 when there was no primary.

  9. Or at least since electoral reforms in the early 1970s set up much of the nomination process used by both parties today.

Geoffrey Skelley is a senior elections analyst at FiveThirtyEight.