May 2, 2023, 6:02pm EDT

Activists whipped Democrats hard left in 2020. Why isn’t the right doing the same to Republicans in 2024?

Bonnie Jo Mount/The Washington Post via Getty Images

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The Scene

The demand from Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America was simple: If a presidential candidate didn’t endorse a federal ban on abortion after 15 weeks of pregnancy, or “we will oppose” you.

Last week, when Nikki Haley spoke at the group’s headquarters about “national consensus” on abortion, she didn’t outright endorse the 15-week ban. In fact, she called any federal law unlikely, unless Republicans won a 60-seat Senate majority.

The response from SBA Pro-Life: Praise for Haley’s “compassionate” tone, and satisfaction that she’d already, privately, agreed to “protecting unborn children by at least 15 weeks.” The response a few days later, when Donald Trump told New Hampshire’s WMUR that he’d be “looking at” abortion limits, but provided no details, was silence, even though the 15-week demand was a direct response to Trump's evasiveness.

As the GOP’s presidential field fills out — South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott joins in 20 days, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis is waiting for the state legislature to wrap up work this week — its candidates are getting few real policy demands from activists, interest groups, or even the people showing up to ask them questions on the trail.

It’s a night-and-day difference with recent, competitive primaries, especially the one that Joe Biden won four years ago. Progressive groups mobilized volunteers to ask them tough questions on camera; organized cattle calls where they were given yes-or-no litmus tests on issues like abortion rights and climate change; and even helped some candidates come up with immigration policy that differentiated them from the field.


“I’d have people come up to me all the time, stick an iPhone in my face, and say: Do you support this bill?” recalled ex-Maryland congressman John Delaney, the first candidate to announce for the 2020 Democratic nomination, who dropped out shortly before the Iowa caucuses. “The implication was that if you didn’t say yes on the spot, you’d lose the support of whatever organization they were representing.”

Most of those activists didn’t want Biden to be the nominee, but they succeeded in shaping the primary. The ACLU’s “Rights for All” activists got candidates on record for ideas like restoring voting rights to felons; the Sunrise Movement’s team confronted candidates, like Beto O’Rourke, whose climate plans didn’t make America carbon-neutral by 2030.

At this point in the 2020 campaign, the progressive group She the People had just wrapped an all-day summit where candidates were asked how they’d improve Black maternal health and stop murders of Indigenous woman; within a month, following a campaign by NARAL, Biden had abandoned his decades-long support of the Hyde Amendment, a rider on spending bills that prevents federal money from paying for abortion.

“I’m surprised that Republicans aren’t doing this,” said Aimee Allison, the founder of She the People. “There are differences between DeSantis and Trump on substantive issues — on immigration, on the budget. They aren’t taking the chance to ask them.”

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David's view

It wasn’t always this way on the right. When Donald Trump first ran in 2016, Republican positions were under the microscope of groups like the Heritage Foundation and interest group scores were considered essential prizes to be won in a wide-open primary field.


Trump’s victory put him at the top of the conservative hierarchy instead and changed the lobbying calculus — demand he take a position on your issue, and you’re more likely to get ignored than answered.

“I think conservatives have learned that you don't move Donald Trump by publicly pressuring him,” said Faiz Shakir, who managed Bernie Sanders’s 2020 presidential campaign, and before that, helped design the ACLU’s candidate accountability program. “You try to make everything sound like it's a great idea for him. You do it largely behind the scenes, and quietly.”

With Trump still dominating in polls, the trend has continued. This gentleman’s agreement between conservative activists and Republican candidates has set this campaign on easy mode.

Trump will participate in a CNN town hall next week, and has taken questions from a traveling press corps. He’s also sketched out a far-reaching policy agenda — abortion aside — so it hasn’t mattered much when his sit-downs with friendly conservative interviews reveal nothing new. (Sample question from Fox News host Mark Levin in his Trump exclusive last week: “You have a connection with working men. I mean, what do you think it is, beyond politics?”)

But the rest of the field isn’t getting much pressure to differentiate from Trump, or flank him from the right. When Nikki Haley, Tim Scott, and Asa Hutchinson were summoned to the Palmetto Family Council’s conference in South Carolina, the social conservative hosts mostly asked about their biographies; one asked Haley how she managed to be “so nice” inside the political arena.


It wasn’t much different at the Iowa Faith & Freedom Coalition’s spring meeting outside Des Moines last month, where the state’s GOP chairman Jeff Kaufmann and new Republican attorney general Brenna Bird kept the questions for Mike Pence, Vivek Ramaswamy, Asa Hutchinson, and longer-shot candidates open-ended. How would they fight “the woke left?” How would they bring Iowa-style education policies to Washington?

“I think they introduced themselves well,” Kaufmann said after the candidates left the stage.

Conservative interest groups don’t have, and so far are not craving, the sort of influence left-leaning groups got in 2019. That year’s Democratic primary was a coming-out party for groups that had plenty of new resources after Trump’s 2016 win, and new street teams after the first Sanders campaign organized the young left.

They had a chance to get candidates on record on issues the Obama-era Democrats ignored or dismissed, and they took it. Immigration rights protesters disrupted one of Biden’s answers when a debate didn’t touch on their issue; at another Biden town hall, an organizer with Movimiento Cosecha stood toe-to-toe with Biden, demanding that he promise to “stop all deportations from day one with executive action.”

Nothing like that’s happening in the GOP race, which will be decided by voters who say they’re satisfied with the Trump record and mostly debating if he’s the right person to build on it. Most Democrats were satisfied with the Obama record, too, but he stepped aside and let the party figure out its next steps mostly on their own.

Conservative donors don’t have the same space to shape the GOP future this cycle. And they’re not interested in standing up pressure groups to get candidates on the record, before they’re ready to be.

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Room for Disagreement

Not everyone on the right is happy about how this is unfolding, even if the light touch is creating fewer yes-or-no litmus tests and candidate crises. LiveAction founder and president Lila Rose called Haley’s abortion speech “disappointing” and disagreed with its “defeatism,” as well as its substance, including “calls for more contraception… which creates a culture where abortion is the back-up plan.”

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  • RNC chair Ronna McDaniel tells anyone who’ll listen that Republicans need an answer on abortion, at least, even if they’re not getting dogged right now for specifics. “The guidance we're going to give to our candidates is you have to address this head on,” she told Fox News Sunday this weekend.

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