Just before the ides of March, both President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump had won enough delegates to be the “presumptive nominees” of their parties. In this Election Report, voting and elections expert Rhodes Cook examines how the 2024 presidential campaign has flipped to the next stage, where the focus of both parties is to prepare for the fall election.

Document Outline
Mop-Up Stage
Republican Primaries
Democratic Primaries
Third-Party Candidates

Mop-Up Stage

Nikki Haley on the Republican side, and Rep. Dean Phillips on the Democratic side have retreated to the political sidelines. Still, the primaries go on, and will until early June. But candidates are no longer campaigning, the media has scaled-down their primary coverage, and voters must focus in larger part on down-ballot races to find a reason to cast a primary ballot. In short, we have entered what might be termed the “mop-up” stage of the presidential primary season.

It is a quiet period, one where presidential primary ballots will still be cast and counted in more than two dozen states from the middle of March to the end of spring. To be sure, the major party presidential nominations are already decided. Yet it will be worth seeing how many of the millions and millions of ballots left to be cast in the remaining primaries will not be for Trump or Biden, but will be “protest votes” for Haley on the GOP side or “Uncommitted” on the Democratic.

If the protest vote is large enough in one or both parties during this “mop-up” stage, it can be a sign, says the late, great political columnist Mark Shields, of “buyer’s remorse.” That in turn could have ramifications for the fall by showing the lingering electoral weaknesses of the geriatric Trump and Biden as the general election approaches.

To be sure, the two “presumptive nominees” have rolled up the vote in the primaries. Biden has been coasting through the Democratic contests from the start. He swept all 18 Democratic primaries held through Super Tuesday March 5 with 86 percent of the 8.6 million votes cast.

Republican Primaries

Running as a formidable quasi-incumbent with a passionate base, Trump took 72 percent of the 12.3 million Republican primary votes cast through Super Tuesday, dropping only Vermont and the District of Columbia (a party-run primary) to Haley in the process. Translated into actual votes, Trump won close to 9 million through March 5; Biden took almost 7.5 million.

Trump’s share of the GOP primary vote has been increasing since the first-in-the-nation primary in New Hampshire in late January, while Haley’s has been going down. She drew 43 percent of the ballots in the Granite state, 40 percent in her home state of South Carolina in late February, 27 percent in Michigan three days later, and 22 percent in the Super Tuesday vote-fest on March 5. In the three GOP primaries held on March 12, her first contests since quitting the race, Haley’s share continued to decline, as she took 19 percent in Washington state, 13 percent in Georgia, and 5 percent in Mississippi.

Yet she has made her mark with the slice of the GOP electorate that has problems with Trump – beginning with his volatile behavior and his plethora of legal issues that could jeopardize his election and that of other Republican candidates in the fall.

A number of Haley votes have come from “never Trumpers” who are not Republicans at all, but rather crossovers from the ranks of independents and Democrats passionate about casting an anti-Trump primary ballot. But Haley has also drawn support from mainstream Republicans who feel that they have been driven out of their party by Trump and his “Make America Great Again” (MAGA) crowd. To many of them, it has felt like a hostile takeover.

Nowadays, what might a significant protest vote for Haley look like in the final months of the primary season? From this vantage point, it would probably be 1 to 2 million more votes than the 3 million that she had already won through Super Tuesday, her final primary day as an active candidate.

As an inactive candidate, she is still a known commodity with a message that resonates among mainstream Republicans. In her first week off the campaign trail, she still drew about 250,000 votes in the trio of March 12 primaries, with well over half of her votes coming from Washington, a state that boasts a progressive heritage.

Haley’s name will remain on Republican primary ballots well into the spring. That will give her the opportunity to collect six-figure vote totals in an array of populous states voting over the next few weeks. It is a group that included Arizona, Florida, Illinois, and Ohio on March 19, plus New York and Wisconsin on April 2.

Basically, Haley has run best outside Republican strongholds in the Sun Belt. Of the six states in which she drew at least one-third of the Republican primary vote, three were in New England (Vermont, New Hampshire, and Massachusetts), two were in the South (South Carolina and Virginia), and one was in the West (Colorado). Of these six states, all but South Carolina were carried easily by Biden in the 2020 presidential election.

A microcosm of Haley’s support was evident in Super Tuesday’s Colorado GOP primary. She won the most progressive areas of the state: the state capital of Denver, academic-oriented Boulder County (home of the University of Colorado), and an array of liberal ski resort counties that lie in Colorado’s so-called “granola belt.” But any hopes of Haley defeating Trump statewide evaporated with her inability to crack the Denver suburbs, namely Adams, Arapahoe, Douglas, and Jefferson counties. Her vote share stayed below 40 percent in each of these four suburban counties.

Democratic Primaries

Unlike the Republican race, the contest for the Democratic nomination has lacked competition from the start. The Biden White House and the leadership of the Democratic Party were able to fend off any big-name challengers. That left “Uncommitted” ballot lines, available in some states but not in others, as the prime vehicle of protest against Biden.

To be sure, two other primary candidates have sought to project themselves as options to the president, Rep. Dean Phillips of Minnesota and self-help advocate Marianne Williamson. The latter’s candidacy has been a bit unusual. She initially quit the Democratic race in early February, then reentered in late February. But Williamson and Phillips are little known and lightly financed and neither has been able to gain much traction among Democratic primary voters.

That leaves the Uncommitted line, which has been a handy tool for Arab Americans and their progressive allies to voice their opposition to Biden’s Middle East policy. Specifically, they have wanted a cease-fire in Gaza to prevent further Israeli pummeling of Palestinian civilians.

The most prominent protest came in Michigan, where there is a substantial Arab American population in the southeast corner of the state. Uncommitted drew more than 100,000 Democratic primary votes in Michigan, nearly 90,000 in North Carolina, more than 85,000 in Washington, and more than 45,000 in Minnesota (which represented nearly 20 percent of the Democratic primary vote). If these Uncommitted voters would continue to withhold their ballots from Biden in the fall, it could swing Michigan and maybe even Minnesota to Trump. Washington state is firmly Democratic; North Carolina leans Republican.

But these days, this primary data is the stuff of detail only for political reporters and campaign strategists. The rest of the nation has largely moved on to the general election, with maps of electoral votes replacing lists of delegates.

The focus now is on the fall battleground states, a list that starts with the five that switched from Trump to Biden in 2020 (Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin).

Third-Party Candidates

Meanwhile, a slew of independent and third-party candidates is seeking to gain a spot on the ballot in as many states as possible. In an election between Biden and Trump that is expected to be quite close, even a comparatively few votes for these other candidates could tip the overall outcome. The list includes Robert F. Kennedy Jr., academician Cornel West, Jill Stein (the Green Party nominee in 2016), “No Labels,” a group that has yet to tap a presidential nominee but is presenting itself as a mainstream alternative, and the long-running Libertarian Party.

Polls these days show Kennedy (a son of the fabled senator) running best among the Biden-Trump alternatives. And he is already well along in picking a vice presidential running mate. His initial short list included star NFL quarterback Aaron Rodgers, an anti-vaccine skeptic like Kennedy, and Jesse Ventura, a former professional wrestler who was elected governor of Minnesota in 1998 as the candidate of Ross Perot’s Reform Party. Kennedy has indicated that he will announce his choice for vice president in late March.

Meanwhile, the campaign discourse has the air of a general election. Democrats are pounding away at issues ranging from reproductive rights to saving democracy from Trump and his MAGA supporters. Republicans assail Biden as old and corrupt, and have launched an impeachment inquiry against him in the House of Representatives.

This is what the mop-up stage of the 2024 presidential primaries looks like. Nearly all the surface action is geared to the fall election. But down in the weeds the presidential primaries continue, ready to add clues about the electoral strengths and weaknesses of two vulnerable “presumptive nominees.”

Rhodes Cook 3/18/24

Document Citation
Presidential primaries continue as attention shifts elsewhere. (2024).
Document ID: electrpts-2165-121499-3026397
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