PHOENIX — Donald Trump has the respect of the newest generation of conservatives. But at the nation’s largest annual gathering of MAGA Millennials and Gen Z-ers, talk of the former president has centered on his legacy, rather than anticipation about his political future.
The young voters who were drawn to a Republican Party led by Trump are already open to another leader becoming the face of the GOP. That, of course, is Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, Trump’s top potential rival in a 2024 primary.
Neither Trump nor DeSantis are scheduled to speak at Turning Point USA’s AmericaFest conference, a four-day event that marks the first major public gathering of conservative activists since Trump announced a third presidential run in mid-November.
Turning Point’s 11,000 attendees packed a convention hall and breakout rooms to hear from right-wing commentators and a handful of elected officials, most of whom railed against “woke” liberalism and RINO Republicans.
At times from the stage here, Trump and his policies were praised. So were DeSantis’. But aside from unsuccessful Arizona gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake, speakers largely shied away from the nascent 2024 campaign, with most declining to pledge loyalty to Trump in his comeback presidential bid.
“I love both of them so much. So I don’t really want to deal with the fact that they might have to run against each other,” said Kevin Flaherty, a 19-year-old conference attendee from Detroit. But Flaherty said he would support DeSantis over Trump, believing the Florida governor would have greater appeal to independent voters.
The balancing act was on full display during the event’s opening session Saturday, when the night’s headline speaker, Fox News host Tucker Carlson, was asked by a young audience member which of the two men he would support in a presidential primary.
Carlson laughed nervously. He suggested his endorsement wouldn’t matter much anyway. He touted DeSantis’ undeniable appeal among voters in Florida and beyond.
Then, Carlson proceeded to talk about Trump in the past tense.
“I’m so grateful that Donald Trump ran in 2016. Donald Trump completely changed my view of everything,” Carlson said. “He showed up and said things like, ‘Why don’t we have a border?’ Or my personal favorite is like, ‘What’s the point of NATO?’
“And it just exposed the whole thing, and I’m so grateful to have seen that.”
Carlson told attendees he is “not endorsing anybody” in the next presidential primary. And he’s not making any guesses, either, as to which man will emerge victorious.
“At this point, it does seem like two forces moving toward one another at high speed,” Carlson said of the possible Trump-DeSantis matchup he’s watching unfold. “So we are two years minus one month out from the presidential election, and I am completely comfortable putting my total ignorance on full and florid display, and telling you I have no freaking idea. But I can’t wait to see it.”
Obvious Trump acolytes — his own son, Donald Trump Jr., and future daughter-in-law Kimberly Guilfoyle — talked him up. But they focused on touting Trump’s record during his term in the White House, without making specific mention of his latest campaign. Trump Jr. teased that his father was the best person qualified to “stand up not just to the Democrats, but the donor class as well.”
Guilfoyle at one point read off a list of Trump’s accomplishments in office, before eventually ending her speech with the former president’s signature campaign slogan — that the crowd could “make America great again.”
Lake, a charismatic former television news reporter, became an instant sensation on the right by championing Trump’s disproven stolen-election theories — as she did Sunday concerning her own race, which she lost last month. She received applause when she declared she wanted to see Trump back in office.
“That man cares more about this country than anybody I know,” Lake said.
But other one-time Trump loyalists held back.
Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.), who was among the most vocal members of Congress to refuse to certify the 2020 election results, didn’t mention Trump in his speech.
Kayleigh McEnany, one of Trump’s former press secretaries, reminisced on moments from her time working in the White House and how she faced challenges on the job. But her talk focused on Trump of the past, without mention of him returning to office.
While the Republican Jewish Coalition’s annual leadership meeting last month featured speeches by a slate of potential 2024 candidates, including DeSantis, the Las Vegas event was more intimate and geared toward donors. In Phoenix, the vast majority of people in attendance appeared to be still in their 20s.
During Turning Point’s July student gathering, Trump overwhelmingly won the straw poll, receiving 79 percent support to DeSantis’ 19 percent when both were options in a hypothetical 2024 primary. The poll was sponsored by Turning Point’s political arm, Turning Point Action.
There will be no redo of the poll at the December conference. Instead, the organization will conduct a survey of attendees on their preference for Republican National Committee chair, as Ronna McDaniel faces a challenge in next month’s leadership election.
New national surveys released last week showed a Republican base moving away from Trump ahead of the 2024 presidential primary. Separate polls from the Wall Street Journal and USA Today/Suffolk University found DeSantis leading Trump by double digits in a hypothetical head-to-head primary matchup, while other polling shows the former president’s favorability among Republicans dropping this fall.
Pete Duke, a 21-year-old attending the University of Tennessee, said he appreciates Trump, but it’s an “easy choice” to pick DeSantis as the party’s nominee in 2024. The problem with Trump? “All he does is talk about 2020,” Duke said.
“What I’m hearing from people my age is — everyone who says ‘Let’s go Brandon’ at these football games, you ask them — they’ll say Ron DeSantis is our leader,” Duke continued. “Not Trump. And they all like Trump.”
The Republican Party’s youngest activists certainly like Trump. The event’s exhibit hall included far fewer kiosks selling Trump memorabilia than recent conservative conferences targeting an older demographic — here they were replaced by dozens of ring lights at selfie stations. But signs of Trump were still everywhere.
Grace Rykaczewski, a 22-year-old from New Jersey, clutched a T-shirt dress she had just purchased featuring a grid of Trump’s facial expressions. As of now, Rykaczewski said she plans to support Trump, given his impact on the anti-abortion movement in the United States. But she thinks Trump and DeSantis are “both really great options.”
Acknowledging that DeSantis had signed a 15-week abortion ban this year, Rykaczewski said she could be won over if the Florida governor pursues stricter abortion legislation — and she wants to see younger blood in the White House.
“I think that DeSantis is awesome. I love that he has a young family,” Rykaczewski said. “There would potentially be a time where if DeSantis were to step up and be the pro-life advocate that I would need him to be, that I probably would support him.”