Opinion | How to Make Trump Go Away

After more than three decades in and around politics, I now spend most of my time grappling with political questions in the classroom and in focus groups. There is one conundrum that fascinates me above others: Why does Donald Trump still generate such loyalty and devotion? And unlike 2016, can a different Republican win the nomination in 2024 who largely shares Mr. Trump’s agenda but not his personality?

To answer these questions, I have hosted more than two dozen focus groups with Trump voters across the country, the most recent for Straight Arrow News on Wednesday night to understand their mind-sets in the aftermath of his historic indictment in Manhattan. Many felt ignored and forgotten by the professional political class before Mr. Trump, and victimized and ridiculed for liking him now. Like Republican primary voters nationwide, the focus group participants still respect him, most still believe in him, a majority think the 2020 election was stolen, and half still want him to run again in 2024.

But there is a way forward for other Republican presidential contenders as well.

It begins by reflecting more closely on Mr. Trump’s rule-breaking, paradigm-shattering campaign in 2016 and all of his unforced errors since then. It accurately reflects the significant attitudinal and economic changes in America over the past eight years. And it requires an acceptance that pummeling him and attempting to decimate his base will not work. Trump voters are paying laserlike attention to all the candidates. If they think a candidate’s mission is to defeat their hero, the candidate will fail. But if a 2024 contender convinces them that he or she wants to listen to and learn from them, they’ll give that person a chance. Neither Marco Rubio or Ted Cruz understood this dynamic when they attacked Mr. Trump in 2016, and that’s why they failed.

So consider this a playbook for potential Republican candidates and for G.O.P. voters and conservative independents wanting someone other than Mr. Trump in 2024, a strategic road map based on informed experiences with Trump voters for the past eight years. This is what I’ve learned from these focus groups and research.

First, beating Mr. Trump requires humility. It starts by recognizing that you can’t win every voter. You can’t win even half of them: Mr. Trump’s support within the Republican Party isn’t just a mile wide, it’s also a mile deep. But based on my focus groups since 2015, roughly a third of Trump voters prioritize the character of the country and the people who run it — and that’s enough to change the 2024 outcome. It’s not about beating Mr. Trump with a competing ideology. It’s about offering Republicans the contrast they seek: a candidate who champions Mr. Trump’s agenda but with decency, civility and a commitment to personal responsibility and accountability.

Second, Mr. Trump has become his own version of the much-hated political establishment. Mar-a-Lago has become Grand Central Terminal for politicians, political hacks, lobbyists, and out-of-touch elites who have ignored, forgotten and betrayed the people they represent. Worse yet, with incessant fund-raising, often targeting people who can least afford to give, Mr. Trump has become a professional politician reflecting the political system he was elected to destroy. For more than seven years, he has used the same lines, the same rallies, the same jokes and the same chants. That’s perfectly fine for some Trump voters. But there’s a clear way to appeal to other Republican voters firmly focused on the future rather than on re-litigating the past. It starts with a simple campaign pitch along these lines: “We can do better. We must do better.”

Third, recognize that the average farmer, small business owner and veteran will hold greater sway with the Trump voter than the famous and the powerful. Having endorsements or campaign ads from members of Congress will generate less support than the emotional stories of people who, just like so many Trump supporters, were knocked down, got back up and are now helping others to do the same. They just need to be authentic — and be able to say that they have voted for Mr. Trump in 2016 and 2020 — so the Never Trump label won’t stick. Their best message: the Trump of today is not the Trump of 2015. In other words: “Donald Trump had my back in 2016. Now, it’s all about him. I didn’t leave Donald Trump. He left me.”

Fourth, compliment Mr. Trump’s presidency while you criticize the person. Trump focus groups are incredibly instructive in helping differentiate between the passionate support most Trump voters feel for his efforts and his accomplishments and the embarrassment and frustration they have with his comments and his behavior. For example, most Republicans like his tough talk on China, but they dislike his bullying behavior here at home. So applaud the administration before you criticize the man. “Donald Trump was a great president, but he wasn’t always a great role model. Today, more than ever, we need character — not just courage. We don’t need to insult people to make a point, or make a difference.”

Fifth, make it more about the grandchildren. Millions of Trump voters are old — really old. They love their grandchildren, so speak specifically about the grandkids and their grandparents will listen as well. “We mistake loud for leadership, condemnation for commitment. The values we teach our children should be the values we see in our president.”

The looming debt ceiling vote is the perfect hook. The increase in the annual deficit under Trump ranks as the third-largest increase, relative to the size of the economy, of any U.S. presidential administration. Long before Covid, Republicans in Congress were told by the Trump White House to spend more — and that spending contributed to the current debt crisis. Mr. Trump will say he was fiscally responsible, but the actual numbers don’t lie. “We can’t afford these deficits. We can’t afford this debt. We can’t afford Donald Trump.”

Sixth, there’s one character trait that unites just about everyone: an aversion to public piety while displaying private dishonesty. In a word, hypocrisy. Until now, that hasn’t worked for Trump’s opponents, but that’s because the examples weren’t personally relevant to Mr. Trump’s voters. During his 2016 campaign, Trump condemned Barack Obama repeatedly for his occasional rounds of golf, promising not to travel at taxpayer expense. What was Trump’s record? Close to 300 rounds of golf on his own personal courses in just four years, costing hardworking taxpayers roughly $150 million in additional security. This may sound minor, but delivered on the debate stage, it could be lethal. “While more than half of America was working paycheck to paycheck, he was working on his short game. And you paid for it!”

Seventh, you won’t be elected with Republicans alone. The successful candidate must appeal to independents as well. In 2016, Mr. Trump promised his voters that they would get tired of winning. But he alienated independents to such a degree that they abandoned Republicans and joined Democrats, giving America Speaker Nancy Pelosi in 2018, President Biden in 2020, and Majority Leader Schumer in 2020. Just one Senate seat in 2020 would have brought the Democratic agenda to a complete halt. Most of Mr. Trump’s endorsements in highly contested races in 2022 lost in a midterms surprise that few people (including me) anticipated. If Mr. Trump is the nominee in 2024, are Republicans fully confident he will win independents this time? The ex-president surely loses if Republicans come to believe that a vote for Mr. Trump in the primaries means the election of Mr. Biden in the general.

And eighth, you need to penetrate the conservative echo chamber. You need at least one of these on your side: Mark Levin, Dennis Prager, Ben Shapiro, Newt Gingrich and, of course, Tucker, Hannity or Laura. Thanks to the Dominion lawsuit, we all know what Fox News hosts say in private. The challenge is to get them to be as honest in public. That requires a candidate as tough as Mr. Trump, but more committed publicly to traditional conservative ideology like ending wasteful Washington spending — and the ability to get it done. “Some people want to make a statement. I want to make a difference.”

Among the likely Republican rivals to Mr. Trump for the nomination, no one is coming close yet to doing some or all of this. Ron DeSantis has only mildly criticized Mr. Trump, preferring an all-out assault on Disney instead. No worries. He has plenty of time to get his messaging in order. But when he and his colleagues step onto the Republican debate stage in August, they will have but one opportunity to prove they deserve the job by proving they understand the Trump voter.

To be clear, if Mr. Trump runs exclusively on his administration’s record, he probably wins the nomination. So far, he has proved himself incapable of doing so. Most Republicans applaud his economic and foreign policy successes and his impact on the bureaucracy and judiciary, particularly in comparison to his predecessor and now his successor.

But that’s not the Donald Trump of 2023. The cheerleading stops for many when asked to evaluate Mr. Trump’s ongoing public comments and behavior. In 2016, the campaign was about what he could do for you. Today, it’s about what is being done to him. If he becomes increasingly unhinged, or if his opponents focus on his tweets, his outbursts and his destructive personality, a sizable number of Republicans could choose someone else, as long as they prioritize core, time-tested priorities like lower taxes, less regulation, and less Washington.

Republicans want just about everything Mr. Trump did, without everything Mr. Trump is or says.

Frank Luntz is a focus group moderator, pollster, professor and communications strategist who worked for Republican candidates in previous elections.

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