The First Case for Republican Leadership Is Made in Wisconsin

In the first Republican primary debate of the 2024 election season, Republicans made their case to their party clear: Joe Biden’s past four years of leadership is failing the nation and it’s time to change leadership. And like every primary, they just disagree as to who should be the leader of that change. Eight candidates—Governor Doug Burgum, former Governor Chris Christie, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, former UN Ambassador Nikki Haley, former Governor Asa Hutchinson, former Vice President Mike Pence, businessman Vivek Ramaswamy, and Senator Tim Scott—faced off at the Reagan Presidential Library to make their case that they should receive the party’s nomination. While the debate was at times fiery, a few core themes emerged that will be critical to watch and can tell us what to expect as we head into this extended 2024 election season.

Here are six themes to follow from last night’s Republican primary debate:

1. Republicans will anchor their campaigns on the economy this primary season.

As was the case in the 2022 election, inflation and the economy are once again the key issues driving this presidential primary season. Regardless of what the economic indicators are, most Americans feel like the economy is worse off today than it was before President Biden took office. Consider the numbers: During the midterms, over 90% of Americans were concerned about the US economy and inflation. Most Americans say the Biden administration could be doing more to combat inflation. If voters do not feel they are better off today than they were four years ago, then Republicans will have an effective rallying cry—especially among moderates—that they can use nationally against the current President.

One minor caveat, however: Despite the economy being top of mind during the midterms, critical issues like abortion also drove turnout in many places, enabling Democrats to expand their lead in the US Senate and stem losses in the House of Representatives. While the economy is a focus, it’s not a magic bullet to end the debate.

2. Republicans are still defining their party’s stance on abortion.

Both Republicans and Democrats believe that abortion will be one of the key issues during the 2024 election cycle. Pro-choice Democrats have campaigned on the issue at the local and federal level and, before the debate, Biden’s campaign blanketed with ads backing the right to choose that featured Dark Brandon—the President’s extremely memeable alter ego, riffing off conservatives’ “Let’s Go Brandon” chant.

Republicans, however, have had a tricky relationship with the issue. Many have said that decisions on abortion should be left to the states while other candidates have backed federal restrictions, offering a range of numbers on what week of pregnancy an abortion can occur. Because a patchwork of abortion policies is in effect across the country, many organizations (including private companies and the US military) have had to redefine and clarify policies that determine if they offer abortion services to their employee base—to the ire or praise of local and federal lawmakers. We will see if abortion can drive Democrats to the polls for a third election in a row, but in the meantime, we should expect this scrutiny over companies’ actions over this issue to continue as we get deeper into the 2024 election cycle.

3. Some Republicans are calling for a new generation of leadership.

Despite DeSantis being center stage on debate night, the majority of attacks targeted Vivek Ramaswamy. This was no accident. Ramaswamy, who just turned 38, made his case clear: “I think we need someone from a different generation to lead this country forward.” The response from Vice President Pence: “We don’t need to bring in a rookie.”

The call for a new generation of leadership is normal. We’ve seen this in many presidential debates—including Amy Klobuchar and Pete Buttigieg in the 2020 Democratic Primary debates, and Ronald Reagan vs. Walter Mondale in the 1984 Presidential debates—where younger candidates insist it’s time for their generation to lead. It also echoes an ongoing theme we see in today’s workplace, where older generations' views of work are slowly being replaced by those of Millennials and Gen Zers who are growing into leadership roles. There are questions that always plague this inevitable change: What are the best ways to work with and empower the next generation? How will this change our organizations? It’s critical that organizations understand the changing demographics of their growing workforce and audiences as they mature and adapt with the changing times.

4. China and Ukraine will dominate the foreign policy debate.

The foreign policy conversation fell along two lines. First, Republicans see trade competitiveness as a key issue for American economic success. They point to US trade policy on China as one reason why America’s economic security has been weak under Biden and express great concern that the US continues to lose manufacturing jobs to China at a cost to the US economy. That’s why Republicans were extremely critical of Biden’s foreign policy agenda during the debate. Many candidates pointed to China as one of the biggest threats to American sovereignty today, arguing that Biden was too soft on China. Several candidates framed the climate change debate as a competitiveness issue with China—that climate change is a problem but should not be used to advance policies that help China and hurt America—though one candidate, Vivek Ramaswamy, went so far as to call climate change a hoax. Second, the question of US support for Ukraine also dominated the discussion. Candidates discussed whether it’s appropriate for the US to continue spending federal dollars to help Ukraine win the war against Russia. Both Ramaswamy and Governor DeSantis insisted they would cut off funding for the war effort.

This foreign policy conversation is critical in today's globalized, evolving business world. Right now, our economy is changing tremendously in the face of artificial intelligence, economic and supply chain shifts around the world, and climate challenges. Businesses are consistently reevaluating where they can get workers and supplies, and how to best set up supply lines to get products to market. An economic climate where tensions are high with China, India and other manufacturing hubs around the world can harm businesses. As a result, businesses must be agile and work closely with regulators to advocate for the best case for their workforce, shareholders and investors, while not wading too deep into the political conversations that generally govern election foreign policy conversations. Companies also need to assess what is noise and what is real, and the reality is that, despite strong rhetoric, foreign policy issues fall low on voter priorities. We are a long way from knowing who will set foreign policy and Republican one-upping on “tough on China” rhetoric in early debates is mostly noise. 

5. Republicans are warning the Department of Justice has been weaponized against Donald Trump… and is coming for their voters next.

Absent from the stage, it took a full hour for former President Trump to be mentioned directly in the primary debate (though Vice President Pence half-mentioned his former boss early on in reference to the Trump-Pence administration). When the former President was finally mentioned—“the elephant not in the room”—it was in the context of his indictments and what would happen if he were the eventual nominee. Six of eight candidates said they would support the President as nominee (Christie and Hutchinson declined).

But the red line that ran through this moment was the idea that the Department of Justice, under President Biden and General Garland, has been weaponized to persecute the former President and Republicans around the nation. Candidates cited Trump's indictments and Hunter Biden’s plea deal as evidence. The erosion of trust in institutions, specifically reflected by American's trust in government falling to 42%, has been a common theme over the past few elections and will only erode further as we near the court cases surrounding the former President and the 2024 elections. As trust in institutions erodes, more trusted institutions often rise and take their place. Companies and organizations should be prepared to lead in areas that are relevant to them and their key stakeholders.

6. The culture wars are not going away.

The debate started out discussing Oliver Anthony’s hit song, “Rich Men North of Richmond,” which has leapt to the top of Billboard’s Hot 100 for its take on taxes, welfare, and politicians that want “total control”—all issues overshadowing the debate.

In the 2020 and 2022 elections, the culture war conversations were consistent. Public reaction to this song, as well as the candidates’ responses to it on stage, should remind people that these cultural issues, like transgender athletes' participation in sports, the right to abortion, critical race theory, and ideas around "wokeness", are not going away. Organizations with broad constituencies should keep this in mind as they develop and build initiatives that are designed to speak to their employees, investors, and other key stakeholders.