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"A major lesson for us is that this 2020 nonsense has got to stop.”

"A major lesson for us is that this 2020 nonsense has got to stop.”

Former Trump political consultant Sam Nunberg on what the midterms tell us about the political path forward

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Like many, I found last night’s midterm results somewhat perplexing. I know that many commentators have said that regardless of who wins the Senate, the results are a rejection of Trump and an endorsement of Florida governor Ron DeSantis, but is it that simple?

I asked Trump’s first political consultant, Sam Nunberg, who worked on the Trump 2016 campaign—and who also lives in Florida—for his take. My readers will be familiar with Sam by now, and what he said was fascinating.

The most urgent message, in Sam’s view, was the GOP has got to stop talking about the 2020 election and “move on.”

The second is that, yes, DeSantis could beat Trump in Iowa—but not if Trump gets indicted…

You can listen here or read below for a transcript of our conversation, edited for clarity.

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WARD: So I'm here with Sam Nunberg, who was Trump's first political advisor and worked on the campaign in 2016. Sam, I want to get your take on what happened last night. What do you think? Is what everyone is saying [true]? That this is the end of Trump? Do you agree with that?

NUNBERG:  Well, first off, I'll answer that question immediately. Look, it's not the end of Donald Trump until he either drops out of the primary or loses in 2024, if he's the nominee. Let's just look at this from a 10,000-foot view. This is one of the most interesting election midterm results you will ever see for a first-term president.

Now, what helped Joe Biden in the Senate races is the fact that this was a Democrat-leaning map. Republicans looked over the summer, immediately after Dobbs and during the January 6th hearings and constant news of Donald Trump and [then] it looked like [Democrats] would make significant gains in the Senate. Now, if you had told me at the beginning of last year that, with the races that were up, that Republicans could still take the majority, I would say that that was a good night for them. Joe Biden, towards the end, was able to close it.

The Democrats got lucky with some of the nominees, and, overall, the Senate is a terrible loss for Donald Trump. It's a terrible night. You had to look at Donald Trump's two major races that were going to be competitive. Yes, he endorsed JD Vance, but Vance was always going to win once he got the nomination. Ohio is a red state. Mike DeWine won by 25 points, but the races came down to [Mehmet] Oz and [Blake] Masters. Those were two nominees that Donald Trump deserved massive amounts of credit for getting them the primary wins. He therefore also deserves credit for both of their losses—both of their losses. And the Pennsylvania seat is one of the most significant ones because that had to be a hold for Republicans. Pat Toomey retired partly because of Donald Trump, but partly because of the nonsense that [Trump] did in 2020 in the aftermath of [the] Pennsylvania [vote]. So you can put this, once again, Donald Trump has screwed the Republican party in the Senate as he did in the Georgia races in 2021.

WARD: And obviously we still don't actually know how the Senate is going to turn out. I mean, they're still counting in Nevada and Arizona, and we know Georgia will be a runoff. But let me ask you a question that one person has posed to me this morning—which is not out there in the mainstream media—which is: Had Trump been on a ticket, would that have helped his candidates, do you think? Or not? I mean, would both sides have come out in even greater volume to vote?

NUNBERG: No, it would've hurt us even more. If somebody was telling you that and saying that because they're trying to support Trump and saying it wasn’t such a bad night for Trump, they're retarded! Donald Trump cost Republicans House races by putting out there over the weekend that he was going to announce by November 15th. He then flirted, made late deciders, late vote-getters—more votes are cast on election day no matter what. And he was putting out there that he may announce in Ohio on Monday night. And when you look at the DCCC strategy in blue states for Republican for House races that Republicans targeted, their ads, starting over the summer, weren't even about abortion. A lot of their ads were about candidates who were either endorsed or [who], in previous office, stood by Donald Trump. So all polling showed Joe Biden in the low forties. Those same polling samples showed Donald Trump in the mid-thirties on approval. His days are done; his days as a national election winner are done. If he's a nominee—and I'll gladly vote for him—I don't expect him to win. I think he would lose to Joe Biden again 2024.

WARD: Well, let me ask you this. I mean, you mentioned the polls. I heard, I think, Karl Rove [say] last night say that polls are broken. It's not possible to poll anymore because people don't have landlines and they don't want to take the time to answer the questions. And he never believed this idea that there'd be a red wave. He just thinks the system is broken. Do you have a view on that?

NUNBERG: Look, I'm not a pollster, but what I would say is, particularly on the Republican side, major pollsters such as Tony Fabrizio, he releases a poll for the Wall Street Journal [in August] showing Joe Biden still winning suburban women—over Trump. He then releases a poll in [November] showing that that number has completely flipped, and Trump is beating Joe Biden one-on-one with suburban women. That was ridiculous.

WARD: So how do you explain it then?

NUNBERG: I think that the factor that pollsters couldn't put in [their polling] is how much Donald Trump was going to play in their vote. Because he's out of office. And he inserted himself into the race at the end in ways that [meant that] not only was he campaigning for candidates, but he was saying it was going to be a referendum on whether or not he would beat Joe Biden in 2024. And in those targeted House races—states that he won't win, states and districts that he lost by a lot—those races…a lot of them didn't flip. For instance, a couple in New Jersey; the race at the end in Rhode Island for Democrats; New Hampshire; New Hampshire! I had heard the entire time that Republicans will win the two House seats [there] because Joe Biden's number was terrible in polling. His approval was terrible. But they also told me contemporaneously that Trump's number was even worse. And once again, it became a referendum. Trump inserted himself, and people started thinking about 2024. That's one of the reasons, but I think it's the main reason.

WARD: Well, obviously there's a lot of talking today about Ron DeSantis’s extraordinary victory in Florida. I mean, the consensus [among Republicans] is “move over Donald Trump, make way for Ron DeSantis.” I mean, is it that simple?

NUNBERG: It’s not that simple because Donald Trump is going to announce that he’s running; he’s announcing earlier than he even intended to because of the DOJ investigations. He thinks it’ll hold off an indictment, and he has a following within the Republican party. I would tell you that I think that [his] following in early primary state's caucus estates is lower than the national number. I think it's even lower than 40%. But then we'd have to see how many other candidates run. You'd have to see when Ron DeSantis announces. There are a lot of factors that go into this. And Ron DeSantis would have to win Iowa and/or New Hampshire. He'd have to win one of those early states—or both. So it'd have to be a complete immediate rebuke of Trump. And I don't know if that would happen because it would also mean that a lot of Trump's dedicated followers and base would have to understand or hopefully be able to move on from him for the general [election].

WARD: You don't think that they would naturally move to Ron DeSantis, who stands for many of the things that Trump does? He's just not got Trump’s personality.

NUNBERG: Well, I think there would be a slow bleed. There would be a slow bleed, and there continues to be a bleed. But let's say Donald is indicted—a lot of those followers will go back to him. There are other factors. Let's say Paul Ryan, let's say the Republican establishment comes out hard in public for DeSantis, and [Trump] can be seen as the establishment candidate; that's not going to help his cause. It really has to be that this is a referendum on the future, and it's not the future of the Republican Party—it's the future of the country and the populist working class Republican party. So it's a little more complicated than we think [and] than it should be. But I mean by any real barometer, Ron DeSantis was the winner last night, and Donald Trump was rejected. Joe Biden was rejected as well in a lot of races. Not as many as he should have should have been.

WARD:  So I mean, you are saying this was a referendum on Trump, but is there a way that, in fact, this could help the Republicans—that it's a wake-up call to them for 2024. That, in fact, if there had been a red wave, they might have gotten complacent. And is there any way that, in the long term, this is actually helpful to them?

NUNBERG: Well, I certainly think that this has completely taken out the canard that we should be talking about the 2020 election anymore. I'm interested to see what happens in this Georgia runoff. I suspect that if Donald Trump comes and campaigns for Herschel Walker that Warnock will win. I'm interested to see how Walker decides to manage that situation. That'll be very telling. All major candidates on the Republican side that ran on a “stolen” election from 2020—they all lost. And Kari Lake may squeak by. [But] the plan for her was to win by a large margin and come out and endorse Donald Trump. She lost a lot of her momentum in trying to be the new DeSantis last night. So this whole idea that Trump openly says that you need to talk about the 2020 election—I can't imagine the vast majority of the party thinking that’s a good idea.

WARD: So you know Trump, as do I. There are headlines saying he's blamed his wife Melania for choosing Mehmet Oz to run in Pennsylvania. How will he process this do you think?

NUNBERG: Well, he'll want to start blaming other people, but the reality of the situation is he’s smart ..he’s very, very smart—smarter than people think behind the scenes.

WARD: I agree with that.

NUNBERG: And he knows when something's getting hot, when something's hot, and when something's cooling down. And he knows that the “Trump movement” is cooling down. He clearly sees DeSantis as a threat. And he surely knows that last night was the worst case of all scenarios for him, especially with the Blake Masters race and the Oz race. So, it only could have gotten worse if Vance somehow lost, but Vance didn’t win because of Donald Trump.

WARD: Well, [Vance] won because the Republicans put over $30 million behind him.

NUNBERG: And that's another point. “Establishment money” had to save a lot of these candidates that Trump pushed over the top in the primary—such as Ted Bud, who ended up winning, but that race was much closer than all sides anticipated. So there’s one example. When I heard they had to put in another $30 million for Vance and spend it directly on Vance, I was very surprised. But when you look at a race like Blake Masters where they said no—McConnell particularly said, I'm not going to invest in that race, he's a weak candidate. McConnell faced a lot of criticism. He faced criticism including from me, but he turns out to be right.

WARD: He turns out to be right about Blake Masters, you mean?

NUNBERG: About Blake Masters. And there was nothing stopping Donald Trump from putting in $25 million in that race. He didn't spend any money on anyone else.

WARD: He raises money. He's a very effective fundraiser. And then he doesn't pass it out.

NUNBERG: He spent $15 million—something like that—on a bunch of races. On a bunch of races. Other groups are throwing $15 million on specific races, $25 million on specific races. He could have spent $75 million, let's say. Pick five races and spend $15 or pick three to spend $20. He didn't do that.

So that's another strike against him. And then when you look at Florida—Florida was just a clear Ron DeSantis machination. He didn't even take any national money. He raised hundreds of millions. He raised hundreds of millions of his own money. And Marco Rubio should be thanking him today. <laughs>

Because if DeSantis wasn't running, there was no governor's race [and] that race would've been much closer. Still, Rubio would've won, but it would've been another race where Mitch McConnell would've had to put in $25 million. There was just no need to put in money in the Rubio race.

WARD: On this [idea of] DeSantis is getting all this money—well, there are a lot of billionaires who live in Florida for tax reasons. I mean, you touched on this a little bit earlier, but I mean, you live in Florida, so you are probably possibly more familiar with Ron DeSantis than a lot of the rest of us. … My question is: Does Ron DeSantis… I know he’s obviously hugely popular and successful in Florida, but Florida is the land of a lot of Republican billionaires, wealthy people. Does he translate? Does he have the charisma to translate nationally?... I mean, he's in Florida. He's playing to a specific crowd. You’ve said he's got to show up in Iowa and New Hampshire. You see more of him than I do. I live in New York. You live in Florida. What's your take on that?

NUNBERG: My take is, especially after a bit traveling to Iowa over the summer, that DeSantis would probably beat Trump in Iowa. Trump campaigning in Iowa, he has the Terry Branstad’s—the former governor’s—machine behind him. And that's a machine that typically loses to grassroots, to church goers. These are the same people that voted for Ted Cruz. The last example in 2008—they voted for Huckabee over Romney. [In] 2012, they voted for Santorum over Romney… And I think Trump has a following, but, at the end of the day, I think DeSantis would end up ultimately winning Iowa and New Hampshire. And as I said before, he's going to have to close this out quickly to knock off Trump. I think he'd be able to do that. It would ultimately go to how long Trump would want to stay in after two early losses.

You know, a lot of people always say, Well, Donald's not going to run. Look, if he gets to next December, next November, and it's quite clear that Trump's going to have early losses, I could see him dropping out.

WARD: Do you have any idea, any thoughts on what kind of excuse he'd give?

NUNBERG: No, I don't know. I don't know, but I don't see him sitting around to lose.

WARD: Okay, so two more questions. The first is: Joe Biden. I'm reading today reports that he's now thinks he is definitely going to run again. From what you've just been saying, the Democrats came out to vote against Trump, not necessarily for Biden. Have I interpreted what you said right?

NUNBERG: Look, I think Democrats can be very happy. Joe Biden has proven that “Joe from Scranton” can hold Pennsylvania. He's proven that he can turn out a base of Democrats. But you also have to understand something else. This is also the new challenge for all pollsters. Politics is not going to be the same anymore, at least for the next four years for sure, including next midterm in 2026.

Because now, with early voting, mail-in voting, and with the Trump presidency, there is going to be massive midterm numbers. And that's going to be the new norm. We live in a very contentious country. We live in a country that is almost getting Balkanized in a weird way. And both sides have very different visions of what the future of the country is.

So with all those factors, the 2018 midterm was not an anomaly. And we have to understand that these midterms are going to have another 30 million votes than they used to pre-2018 midterms. That's just going to be the new norm. And the stakes are always going to be higher. But Joe Biden should be happy because he didn't lose a lot in the House.

We could still see him theoretically holding the Senate and even gaining a seat. I'm telling you: I think Laxalt will end up winning [in Nevada]. And that's a pickup [for Republicans]. Wisconsin was a mixed bag. Ron Johnson won, and Ron Johnson won because he ran against the radical candidate, while the longtime governor Tony Evers, who's a Democrat, still was able to maintain his seat and he was able to distinguish himself from the senatorial candidate. That's what Biden tries to do.

Now, Biden is also going to be happy because Trump, at least as of today, we believe is announcing that he's running, He's announcing his candidacy next week, and Biden is not wrong that he is the best option for Democrats to beat Donald Trump and that Donald Trump is a weak national candidate.

So he has a lot. But both of them—Trump and Biden—they both fear Ron DeSantis. That's quite clear, as they well should.

Let's look at this. The Republicans are about to win the House and they're going to win the House because of redistricting in Florida, because of a rejection of Democrat Covid policies in Nevada, because of a rejection of Democrat Covid policies and soft-on-crime policies in New York. Republicans are going to gain at least three to four seats out of New York. Who would've thought that that was going to happen?

But then you look at the neighboring state of New Jersey, where the governor barely won reelect[ion] against a Republican gubernatorial candidate who flatly rejected Trump and flatly rejected that the election was stolen in 2020. But with Donald Trump interjecting himself along with the Dobb's decision, I don't believe Democrats were losing a single seat in New Jersey. There's a lot of [GOP] House strategists and major money that lost targeted races. And there were races that Republicans actually lost last night, let alone didn't pick up

They failed on the Texas border. This is quite surprising. And the Hispanic vote is not a homogeneous nationally. It's not homogeneous anyway, based on nationalities. So, you have to look at the Hispanic vote as if it's a regional-type vote. And African American men are up for grabs in each race. There's a certain segment of them that will vote Republican. Many of them voted for Raphael Warnock and then they voted for Brian Kemp, the Republican candidate on the top of the ticket. So the electoral map and the electorate continues to be fluid.

WARD: What are Republican operatives saying? What are they thinking that they have to rethink? The consultant class—the people who advise Mehmet Oz…

NUNBERG: Well, the people who advised Mehmet Oz have stale thinking that nobody was going to worry about Donald Trump and Mehmet Oz was undercover because of Fetterman’s cognitive problems. Mehmet Oz had a terrible debate himself, and his responses were terrible. He flip-flopped on guns. He came out saying that he was going to work with Democrats—that’s not what Republican voters in this climate want to hear. And that was one of the reasons why Fetterman overperformed and actually got Trump voters in rural districts. He did. He got Trump voters.

WARD: What's the message to the consultants?

NUNBERG: Well, I think it depends where you are. If you're in New Hampshire today, the message is polling is terrible.

If you're somebody who won a Senate race, but you won it by 10 points less than the governor, your message is that it was smart to use Trump for the primary and you needed him. And it was smart to stay away from him as much as you could in the general [election]. And the other issue is the following: It looked like Dobbs and abortion [weren’t] going to be galvanizing issue[s], but [they] ended up being more.

For instance, in Virginia 7, Abigail Spanburger—she ended up winning by a lot, and she ran literally on abortion. That's all she ran on.

And another candidate—Glenn Youngkin…didn't have a very good night because there were three targeted races in Virginia, and he only won one of them.

And then you have a candidate like Adam Laxalt who, yes, was endorsed by Trump, but he held him at arms’ length even during the primary. And he wanted Ron DeSantis there. He wanted senators there. So I mean, I think a major lesson for us is that this 2020 nonsense has got to stop. It's off the table, it’s got to stop. It doesn't matter whether we're right or wrong—and I'm not saying we're right or wrong. We lost that issue. We've lost that issue. Move on. The same way Republicans have lost and we’ve had to move on—and Trump was very smart about it—we’ve lost that issue about cutting Medicare, about cutting social security. Move on. We've lost. That's not where the country is anymore.

WARD: What, though, do the Republicans do about Dobbs? Because, as you say, that ended up playing a much bigger part of last night than people had thought.

NUNBERG: I think Republican—where they can—governors, I think they have to either keep the status quo and not vote to prohibit abortion completely or vote for 15 weeks and health exceptions not including mental health. I don't want to hear that a woman needs an abortion at eight months because she's depressed. … That may not be where I am, but that's where the country is.

WARD: Sam, incredibly helpful. I know how busy you are and that was just incredibly helpful. Thank you.

NUNBERG: It's almost ironic. Let me finish with this. We're going to end up codifying Roe. That's what's going to end up having to happen, unfortunately.

WARD: So walk me through that.

NUNBERG: Well, because Roe essentially said that … after four and a half months, essentially, that there are allowed to be prohibitions. And I think that that's really where the country is, right? It's not where I am once again, but that's where the country is. But I think the Republicans also have the ability that they can also put a lot more resources as well into crisis pregnancy centers, into adoptions.

So, let me just finish with this: I used to tell my friends who are pro-life with no exceptions that if you’re pro-life with no exceptions, the Roe V Wade decision actually helped you. [It] actually helped you because America didn't think it should be decided by the courts. And it was too radical a decision at the time… It helped the cause of life. What I mean is that overall, it helped the cause of life. It helped the cause of life. You didn't want to be pro-choice without any exceptions. You couldn't say you're pro-abortion at nine months. You can't say that. Now, Republicans are put on the defense on this as well. We were never on the defense on it. We weren't on the defense when Roe v. Wade was law. I think it was bad law, but we weren't on the defense. And, from a political point of view not a legal point of view, we were. But with that, let's see what happens. I mean, theoretically for all, I know that Nancy Pelosi's still Speaker—I doubt it though. I think Republicans will end up winning, and I think you can come to me in a couple weeks. I have no idea what's going to happen in Georgia.

WARD: All right. I will do so, Sam. It's always a pleasure. Thank you.

NUNBERG: Thank you, Vicky. Thank you very much.

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