How to be a 2024 GOP candidate for president — without actually running
Although high-profile Republicans like Donald Trump and Nikki Haley have already entered the race, a raft of other would-be candidates are waiting in the wings.
Before they formally became presidential candidates, some of the biggest names eyeing the White House in 2024 were running using every shadow campaign tactic imaginable, from book tours to endorsement bonanzas. But when asked if there was some kind of ulterior motive to their respective efforts, they often brushed the question aside as an affront.
The field of candidates seeking the Republican Party nomination in 2024 is fast-growing. Former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley announced last week she would run against her old boss, Donald Trump, making her the second big-name Republican to jump in. A second Indian American, the hedge fund partner and biopharma CEO Vivek Ramaswamy, followed suit a week later. The February announcement of Cranston, R.I., Mayor Steve Laffey brings the total of formal entrants in the field to four.
But much of the attention is being paid to politicos who are still running veritable shadow campaigns — national tours that look an awful lot like a White House bid but without all the regulations that come with an official announcement.
The frontrunner at the moment, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, batted away a reporter’s question about his plans, saying, “Wouldn’t you like to know.” Former Vice President Mike Pence, a possible contender for the nomination, says he’s been praying with his wife, former second lady Karen Pence, for months now and has been deflecting questions about the subject.
And there’s a raft of other Republicans waiting in the wings, with leadership PACs, book tours and prescriptions for saving the country (but not cutting Social Security — anymore). Former governors Asa Hutchinson and Larry Hogan have been teasing bids, as have sitting governors Chris Sununu, Kristi Noem and Glenn Youngkin. Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., has also drawn increased attention recently.
But what does it take to campaign without campaigning?
It all comes down to grabbing attention — as GOP elder Haley Barbour often says, all attention is good attention as long as you don’t end up in jail. (Trump embraced that maxim to the fullest, but he may be pushing his luck on the jail part, depending on what a series of state and federal prosecutors determine.)
Here are the top six techniques for running a shadow campaign for president — the campaign before the campaign.
Write a book — then tour like you mean it
Book tours give their politician authors an opportunity to visit various strategic places — New Hampshire, Iowa, South Carolina and Nevada to meet with voters, and Dallas, Manhattan and the Bay Area for fundraising dinners.
The books themselves are invariably formulaic. Your title should have a dream of a brighter America, which is presumably being salvaged from the modern hellscape.
Marco Rubio wrote two books before diving into the Republican race in 2016 and has a third one on the way in June. While that doesn’t mean he’s running, it also doesn’t mean he’s not running. (In 2015, Rubio said he wouldn’t run for reelection to the Senate if he ran for president. Then, after losing his White House bid, he reversed course and filed to run for his Senate seat — forcing a young congressman named DeSantis to look elsewhere for statewide office.)
DeSantis is releasing a book next week, almost a dozen years after his first book, “Dreams From Our Founding Fathers,” was published when he was running for Congress in 2011 as a tea party firebrand.
When he was a young state senator in Illinois running for the U.S. Senate, Barack Obama penned his famous memoir “Dreams From My Father.” Four years later, while he was running for president, he wrote “The Audacity of Hope: Reclaiming the American Dream.”
But the publication of a book is just the starting point. Though many of them become New York Times bestsellers — often inflated by political committee purchases — the book alone is never enough.
The critical next step is the book tour, which often looks a lot like a White House campaign — minus, perhaps, the gluttony of fried food.
Former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who has been aggressively teasing a White House bid, penned “Never Give an Inch,” a tough-talking memoir that helped put him onstage at the presidential libraries of Ronald Reagan and Richard Nixon as well as other stops across the country.
Months before making it official, Haley toured the country touting her third book, “If You Want Something Done...” Her South Carolina colleague Tim Scott published his second book last August, and his subsequent book tour took him across his home state last year, which is hardly out of place for the sitting senator but also an easy win for a possible bid.
And Pence wrote one of the most anticipated books of the 2024 cycle, “So Help Me God,” in which he revealed for the first time his feelings as rioters in the Capitol bore down on him and his family on Jan. 6, 2021. The long-awaited story from one of the few witnesses closest to Trump in the run-up to the infamous insurrection attracted a wave of media attention.
Just don’t ask Pence to tell any of that story under oath.
And of course Trump himself added another book to his collection in December 2021, 11 months before announcing his third run for the White House. He did not, however, preface it with a national tour — he already has near universal name recognition and, at least at the time, had much stronger support in the party.
Win an office — then run for the next one
DeSantis has been running a type of Rose Garden pre-campaign, one in which the current frontrunner appears above the fray and uses the trappings of his office to garner attention. It’s so named because it’s typically reserved for incumbent presidents who don’t want to look like they’re stooping down to give their opponents attention.
DeSantis, of course, is not in the White House, nor has he officially declared his intentions — that likely won’t happen until May. But he has been using the Florida governor’s office to generate news headlines, which has helped keep him even with or ahead of Trump in early polling. (The Miami Herald reported this week that DeSantis is so intensely watching that “earned media” from generating headlines that his staff puts a price tag on it — his firing of a local prosecutor who refused to prosecute abortion providers generated an estimated $2.4 million in “free” attention.)
He used Florida money to corral immigrants in Texas and fly them to Massachusetts — no matter that they never set foot in his state. He’s made his dispute with home-state behemoth Disney a centerpiece of his stump speech. He flew to Chicago recently to regale the local Fraternal Order of Police with his public safety plan in Florida.
And DeSantis, who Republican operatives have long said channels Fox News host Tucker Carlson, and by extension the far-right base of the party, better than any other likely candidate, has spent the entirety of Black History Month fighting … Black history.
It’s easier to do these things if you’re already running a state, a city, a Senate office or a hedge fund, or even a YouTube channel. In short, it’s always easier to get your next job if you’re already employed and turning heads in the current one.
It wasn’t that long ago that Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., was just another far-right conspiracy theorist yelling through mail slots in the halls of Congress.
Now Greene, firmly established on the national political scene, is on the other side of the mail slot, ensconced in House Speaker Kevin McCarthy’s leadership team. Her antics have continued — instead of talking space lasers, she posed with a white balloon for the State of the Union address — all while her own name is floating higher, specifically as a possible running mate with Trump.
Trolling can often crack the proverbial mail slot open enough to squeeze into the national conversation, but it’s hard to sustain. When Greene failed to produce said white balloon in the House chamber for the State of the Union, serial fabulist George Santos, a recently elected New York representative, quickly grabbed the spotlight by scrapping with Sen. Mitt Romney. Could he be a contender? Attention rarely hurts — but trolling is fleeting.
When veteran GOP operatives Lee Atwater and a relatively young congressman from Georgia named Newt Gingrich were training other Republican activists in the 1980s, they provided them with one of the quintessential campaign handbooks, “Flying Upside Down.” One of its maxims was to forgo the sensibilities of your country club friends and get down in the dirt — because only mud sticks.
“To win, Republicans have to overcome their aversion to controversy ... and learn to take the fight to the other side,” wrote handbook author and former Gingrich aide Joe Gaylord.
Almost four decades later, any scruples about getting down in the dirt have been largely abandoned.
Pols like to joke that if you want a real friend in D.C., get a dog. But even in the coldest of social climates, real relationships still matter.
As the 2024 race gets underway, former George W. Bush adviser Karl Rove started hosting donor meets — for everyone except Trump. The Reagan Foundation has hosted almost every serious candidate at its speaker series at the Reagan Library — except Trump. The Club for Growth, whose president was reportedly told by Trump to “go f*** yourself,” was also bringing in almost every big-name candidate — except Trump.
You may be noticing a pattern here.
In 2016, Trump trashed the “11th Commandment” made famous by Ronald Reagan, “Thou shalt not speak ill of fellow Republicans.” But maintaining some measure of comity — for example, not insinuating that your opponent is cheating on his wife or that his father killed John F. Kennedy — still goes a long way in the shadow campaign.
Enter the Fox News primary
If the objective is to be seen, the best way for conservatives to accomplish this is to appear on Fox News.
In the run-up to the 2016 election, Democratic operatives tracking the Republican field dubbed it the “Fox News primary” — the fight among ambitious governors, lawmakers and others to grab coveted airtime. And the same is still true eight years later, even with the emergence of competitors like Newsmax and former Trump adviser Steve Bannon’s podcast “War Room.”
It’s a central tenet of any campaign, shadow or otherwise: Get your message out to the voters. Sometimes the messengers themselves even get in on it.
Last year, Tucker Carlson flew to Iowa to rally evangelicals at a forum typically used as a launching pad for White House runs. He teased his own 2024 run, but Carlson fans say he’s more likely to stay as the chief vetter of all candidates. (Ramaswamy announced his bid on Carlson’s show.)
Years before that, as he writes in his new book, DeSantis won an endorsement from Trump in the Republican primary for Florida governor by saturating Fox News with a defense of the then president in the sprawling Trump-Russia scandal.
In politics, TV is still king, even if its power is waning.
Trump was known for having the phone numbers to most network and cable control rooms and for calling them directly, often landing on air just a few minutes later. A symbolic ticker of Trump “on the phone” appeared at the bottom of most screens throughout the 2016 cycle. Every other candidate had to show up in person.
By the time Trump entered the race in June 2015, he was already well known nationally because of his decades of media saturation, capped by his NBC reality show “The Apprentice.”
But this cycle, Trump has struggled to get the free Fox airtime he used to bask in, in part because of a $1.6 billion defamation suit filed by Dominion Voting Systems against Fox News claiming that the network, whose top talent helped spread Trump’s 2020 election lies, knowingly libeled the voting machine manufacturer. (A trove of texts between Fox’s top talent and executives, obtained in the lawsuit, showed that they knew Trump’s election claims were false but were concerned about losing profits to competitors like Newsmax.)
With Trump off the airwaves at Fox, the gate has opened to pretty much every other candidate or would-be candidate — even Pence, who has been a regular on air across all time slots.
Build a campaign in waiting
Nothing says shadow campaign like, well, a campaign.
Before she launched her White House bid, Haley’s group Stand for America paid for her to travel the country building her name recognition. Former Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan started his campaign-in-waiting, An America United, while still in office — and has kept it rolling since leaving office last month.
Just three months after leaving the White House in 2021, Pence launched his de facto campaign group, Advancing American Freedom, and touted a board of advisers that reads like a list of high-powered endorsements from top conservatives and evangelicals that any would-be candidate would envy — from former House Speaker Newt Gingrich to evangelical leader Robert Jeffress.
Even Trump himself kept a relatively small political operation in place at his South Florida Mar-a-Lago estate after leaving the White House, the same tight-knit team that later formed the core of his third White House bid.
Once you’ve got the de facto campaign in place, staffing it with big names is a surefire way to draw attention. Scott grabbed attention last week with the announcement that the former executive director of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, Rob Collins, and former Colorado Sen. Cory Gardner were working with him.
DeSantis, who’s known for burning through staff, caught even more attention for his would-be bid when he hired Phil Cox, the former executive director of the Republican Governors Association and a political operative widely respected in various corners of the party.
If you’ve already done all that — written a book, toured the country, hired a staff and trolled your way into national conversations that otherwise have nothing to do with you — guess what? You’re pretty much already running for president. The only thing left to do is actually run.