Despite criticism from within his own party after the recent midterm elections, Trump still enters the Republican primaries with advantages no other potential candidate has.
A shift occurred last week among Republicans and conservative media following the letdown of the GOP’s disappointing midterm election results, a pivot both quick and startling: “Donald Trump certainly is not the leader of the Republican Party,” Daily Wire founder and podcaster Ben Shapiro said. The Wall Street Journal published an editorial calling the former president the “Republican Party’s Biggest Loser.” GOP lawmakers and thought leaders speculated openly over whether it was time that Trump was stripped of the mantle of the party. And the former president’s favorite hometown newspaper, the New York Post, dubbed him “Trumpty Dumpty.” “Don … had a great fall,” the tabloid said, while declaring his rival and potential 2024 foe Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis “DeFuture.”
And when the former president announced Tuesday that he would make a comeback bid for the White House, response was similarly mixed, if not chilly. Only a handful of Republican members of Congress backed him, while others either said they hoped there would be more options in the primary or just scurried away from reporters’ questions on Capitol Hill. Attention turned to polls showing that DeSantis would best him in hypothetical primary competitions, and even his own daughter and former adviser Ivanka Trump released a non-committal statement separating herself from his campaign without even an explicit endorsement.
The narrative that has colaced in the past week as a result is one of a wounded, weakened Trump and a party wondering if it is finally time to move on.
But that narrative – untested and only just in its infancy – runs up against a number of facts suggesting Trump, with his rabidly supportive base and enormous warchest, still remains in many ways in a much stronger position heading into a Republican primary than any other potential GOP candidate.
Trump is “universally known, generally liked, has a certain segment of people who are passionate supporters of him, has more money than he’ll ever need, gets a tremendous amount of press coverage for everything he does and says. And he’s won it before. He’s done it before,” says David Hopkins, an associate professor of political science at Boston College and expert on party dynamics.
“So there’s a certain amount of wishful thinking behind people who want to discount him or think that the election results of last week will sort of convince Republican voters that Trump’s a loser and they should abandon him,” he says.
A Die-Hard Advantage
Trump has been the GOP’s North Star for the last six years, and his influence on the party is almost impossible to overstate.
So-called “election denialism” has been the scaffolding on which Trump has draped his entire political persona in the last two years, and though many high-profile election deniers lost their races last week, prompting introspection among some Republican tastemakers, the fact remains that a third of Americans – including 61% of Republicans – believe that the 2020 election was stolen from Trump based solely on the word of the former president and his surrogates, and in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary.
Data confirms enormously high support among the Republican base: 95% of Republicans who voted in the midterms had a favorable view of Trump, according to exit polls, and he enjoys 78% favorability among all Republicans, another recent poll showed. Trump has maintained that support through two impeachments, numerous criminal and civil investigations, a number of major controversies and after the insurrection at the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, which was catalyzed by his lies about election fraud.
Though some of the most recent polling suggests that Trump’s support among Republicans may be falling slightly, within that general support lies a core group of 35 to 40% of “always-Trumpers,” says Whit Ayers, GOP strategist and president of North Star Opinion Research. “They believe he hung the moon, they’ll walk through a wall of flame for him, they’ll defend him until hell freezes over.”
That faction has filled rally crowds even two years after Trump left office. There is an entire economy of Trump T-shirts and apparel, a proliferation of cartoons and memes, and a Trump-owned social media community for them to share their enthusiasm. No other potential candidate – including DeSantis, with his rising national profile – can yet boast the same.
Many of those die-hard supporters come from the far-right of the party. And Trump has done his part in shoring up their support, increasingly associating himself with groups like the QAnon movement that accept and amplify far-flung conspiracy theories.
“If you have a segment of people who really are committed to you and they’re going to stick with you no matter what happens, and they’re going to turn out in the snow in the Iowa caucus to vote for you and support you when not a lot of other people are turning out – that’s an advantage,” Hopkins says. But Trump starts with that – like no other candidate, you know, or plausible alternative candidate in this race does.”
And those supporters have over the last six-plus years helped shape Trump not only into the GOP’s top politician but into the head of a cultural movement – something Trump seemed to reference directly in his speech announcing his 2024 bid.
“This is not a task for a politician or a conventional candidate, it is a task for a great movement that embodies the courage, confidence, and the spirit of the American people,” he said during a scripted portion of his remarks.
To win the primary, a candidate needs a plurality rather than a majority. Though Trump’s core supporters would not, on their own, guarantee his victory in the primaries if it becomes a one-on-one contest with another candidate – as demonstrated by recent polls showing his loss in several states in hypothetical head-to-head matchups against DeSantis – his path could be much easier if two or more serious contenders split the vote of, what Ayers estimates, is about half of Republicans who supported Trump but are tired of his controversies and open to supporting someone else.
DeSantis has not declared his intention to run in 2024, though he has raised his national profile in the last year. Former Vice President Mike Pence in careful recent interviews promoting his new book has also alluded to the fact that he may consider a run, or, at the very least, that other Republicans are considering it. Rumors also swirl around outgoing Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, who has positioned himself as a moderate Republican, and Virginia Gov. Glen Youngkin, among others.
Though some in the party have begun to rally around DeSantis despite the fact that he has not made his 2024 intentions clear, it’s impossible at this point to predict how large the field of candidates will be and how the party’s support will disperse.
“If he has a field similar to the size that he had in 2016, there will be other candidates who will carve up the non-Trump vote and make it easier for Donald Trump to win a nomination,” Ayers says, referring to the 17 contenders who sought the GOP nomination that year. “On the other hand, if the non-Trump people coalesce around an alternative, then it makes it far more difficult for Trump to win.” Trump, too, has the added advantage of an enormous cache of campaign money on hand – at least $100 million, according to reports – that he has built up over the last several years. And while much of that money is held by his political action committee and won’t be directly accessible by candidate Trump, it will still be spent in a manner that aligns with his interests. Trump, too, has the added advantage of an enormous cache of campaign money on hand – at least $100 million, according to reports – that he has built up over the last several years. And while much of that money is held by his political action committee and won’t be directly accessible by candidate Trump, it will still be spent in a manner that aligns with his interests.
The New York Post, owned by Murdoch, has thus far dubbed the former president “Toxic Trump” and teased its story on his speech this week from the front page with the headline, “Florida Man Makes Announcement.” Murdoch’s Fox News network, on the other hand, has been a bit kinder. While the network did cut away eventually from Trump’s address Tuesday and some of its guests have criticized him, many of its prominent hosts continue to express cautious support for the former president.
Trump has also perennially portrayed himself as the victim of politically motivated attacks and investigations, often positioning himself as an underdog and an outsider – qualities that helped get him elected to the White House in 2016 in the first place. Criticism from elected Republicans and those in the media may, in fact, feed into that narrative, which history has proven is popular among GOP voters.
And of all of the unknowns swirling around Trump’s candidacy and the direction of the GOP, one of the biggest remains the impact of – and impact on – the numerous, ongoing civil and criminal investigations into Trump, his associates, his family and his business.
Attorney General Merrick Garland is currently weighing a potential indictment against Trump for the former president’s handling and hoarding of classified documents after he left office, including documents reportedly containing deeply sensitive intelligence on China and information on Iran’s missile program.
Trump is also facing an active and ongoing civil lawsuit filed by New York Attorney General Letitia James, who is suing him, his adult children and the Trump Organization for years of what prosecutors say is widespread fraud and for misleading banks. Similar allegations are also at the center of a criminal investigation led by the Manhattan district attorney’s office.
In addition to those probes, Trump is a central figure in a criminal investigation in Georgia, where a Fulton County district attorney is investigating whether Trump and his associates illegally interfered with the 2020 election.
Though an indictment handed down by Garland or in Georgia would undoubtedly be a serious escalation of those probes and would likely hamper any other candidate’s prospects, there is also evidence to suggest that it could actually help Trump politically. Support for Trump in a hypothetical primary peaked in August, after FBI agents raided his residence at Mar-a-Lago resort in Palm Beach, Florida, searching for the missing classified documents. Around the same time, the House committee investigating the events of Jan. 6 also turned a particularly scrutinizing eye on him.
“We’ve never faced anything remotely like what the political impact of that would be,” Ayers says of a possible indictment. “There’s no question it’ll create at least a short-term boost for him. The question is whether, if it goes on, it will enhance the argument of those who are saying that he is a whole lot less electable and the only way to win an election is to nominate somebody else.”
It’s not clear when other candidates will enter the race. Trump, for his part, has remained defiant and characteristically brash in the face of the discussions around him and his role in the party.
And there’s little reason to think that the criticism will engender substantial change in Trump as a candidate or political figure. On Thursday, Trump posted on his social networking site Truth Social about the Fox News ratings during his televised announcement.
“We’ve been through Trump being counted out before. We’ve been through him being seen as being old news and somehow going away before,” Hopkins says.
“And there’s a long tradition of candidates being hyped as giant-killing presidential contenders and then flopping in the primaries. And one thing we can say about Trump is that he’s won the nomination before. He’s proven he can do that. And none of the people running against him have yet proven that,” he says.