The Trump cliff: Can anyone pull the GOP back from the ledge?


The Trump cliff: Can anyone pull the GOP back from the ledge?

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A few months before the first ballots are cast, Republican primary voters appear ready to assume an arduous task: running a candidate battling multiple indictments in multiple jurisdictions and almost as many civil cases in what looks likely to be a competitive presidential election.

Former President Donald Trump has a commanding lead in the polls. He beats his GOP primary opponents by nearly 39 points in the national RealClearPolitics average. The same aggregate shows him up 31 points in New Hampshire. The last two polls in that aggregate have him ahead by 40. He is winning by 30.7 in South Carolina and 26 in Iowa.


Trump is positioned to win all 169 California delegates to the 2024 Republican National Convention under new rules that make the state winner-take-all for a candidate who can win an absolute majority. A Los Angeles Times-University of California, Berkeley, Institute of Governmental Studies poll shows the former president receiving 55% of the vote.

Most polling shows that Republicans are not only undeterred by Trump’s legal woes. They are so incensed by them that they are prepared to nominate him for the third time to strike a blow against what they regard as the two-tiered system of justice.

The central challenge ahead of the other 2024 Republican presidential candidates is to convince their party’s voters that whatever they think of the legal merits of the cases against Trump, this is an unnecessary risk that would handicap the party in its bid to defeat President Joe Biden.

The candidates making this argument will also have to behave as if they believe it. This means shuttering vanity campaigns and auditions for administration jobs ranging from the vice presidency to postmaster general while there is still time to coalesce around a viable Trump alternative.

Gov. Ron DeSantis (R-FL), entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy, former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley, former Vice President Mike Pence, and Sen. Tim Scott (R-SC) all deserve an opportunity to make their case as to why they should be that alternative — former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie likely has a ceiling on his support that would preclude him from winning the nomination, and the other candidates have had a negligible impact on the race so far. But they should also each be realistic about their prospects and willing to bow out if a realistic path is not there.

Does this sound unrealistic? To find a recent precedent for this type of coordination for the good of the party, one need only go back to the 2020 Democratic primaries. Well after voting started, Democrats looked like they were about to blunder into nominating a socialist who few of them believed could win a general election.

Biden’s campaign wasn’t just a polling disappointment. He actually finished fourth in Iowa and fifth in New Hampshire, where he failed to break into double digits. Biden managed to finish second in Nevada, but even there he lost to Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) by nearly 23 points.

“Former Vice President Joe Biden’s presidential hopes are finished,” CNBC commentator Jake Novak wrote in February 2020. “You can expect him to maybe stay in the race for another three weeks or so until the Super Tuesday primaries are over, but that’s about it.”

“Yes, there are a couple of examples of candidates who failed in Iowa and New Hampshire who went to win their party’s presidential nomination,” he continued. “But none failed as spectacularly as Biden has.”

The op-ed was headlined “Here’s why Joe Biden’s campaign collapsed so quickly.” Less than four months later, Biden clinched the Democratic nomination.

We are already reading similar commentary about the 2024 Republican race based on polling data before a single vote is cast. It is easy to consign Novak’s analysis to a place in history alongside the Chicago Tribune’s infamous “Dewey Defeats Truman” headline. But based on the historical precedents at the time, it was sound. Democrats merely found themselves in a situation without precedent — or if there was one, it was nominating George McGovern in 1972 and losing in a 49-state landslide.

Two things saved Democrats from risking a winnable presidential election that Republicans can learn from next year. The first is that South Carolina Democrats, especially the state’s black primary voters, pulled the party back from the ledge. They salvaged the campaign of their safest general election candidate and set him on a path to the nomination, reducing the rest of the field to also-rans.

The second is that other Democratic candidates who did not want Sanders to be the nominee dropped out and mostly endorsed Biden. South Carolina suggested that only Biden could assemble the coalition of black and centrist Democrats necessary to beat Sanders. Pete Buttigieg, Michael Bloomberg, and Amy Klobuchar heeded that verdict.

In February, the Democratic field was crowded. By early March, it was not. Biden had a fairly clean shot at a race that weeks before looked unwinnable. If DeSantis and company wish to emulate Biden on nothing else, this is the trajectory each of them must hope for — and make happen for the candidate best positioned to take on Trump when it matters most.

Yet the Republicans’ job will be much more difficult than the Democrats of yesteryear. Sanders was only going to be able to win the nomination with a plurality. Many have long harbored similar hopes about Trump, pointing to polls that suggest his hardcore base maxes out at around 35% or 40% of the GOP primary electorate.

The problem is that Trump has the capacity to win majority support. The most recent CNN poll has him winning 52% of the Republican vote nationally. The Wall Street Journal has Trump at 59%. There is exactly one poll in the RealClearPolitics average that has Trump below 50% nationally, and even it shows the former president leading by 27 points.

There is no national primary, of course. But these numbers are suggestive of what might happen once the race heads to multiple states and media markets simultaneously if nothing happens to alter its dynamics before then.

That’s why the early states are critical. They allow other candidates to compete with the front-runner on something closer to even terms. And Trump is below 50% in Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina.

Nevertheless, Trump’s leads in those states are nearly as big as in the national polls. That’s because DeSantis is hovering around 20% in Iowa, half that in New Hampshire, and somewhere in between in South Carolina. Scott is inching closer to him in Iowa, at least in some polls. Christie is not far behind DeSantis in New Hampshire. Native son and daughter Scott and Haley are close to DeSantis in South Carolina, where all three combined are averaging 36.3% support to Trump’s 45.7%.

Thus, while winnowing the Republican field increases the chances of a non-Trump candidate winning, it does not guarantee it. Moreover, the failure of any candidate to be truly competitive keeps more of them in the race.

DeSantis is best positioned against Trump when you look at his favorability ratings among Republicans and the percentage of primary voters willing to consider him for president. The Florida governor also has the money to wage a competitive campaign. But in the polls that test the question that matters most — who would you vote for today in your state’s nominating contest — he has failed to narrow the gap. (DeSantis’s allies, it should be noted, have done polling that shows him doing better against both Trump and Biden than most of the public polls.)

A big part of the theory of the DeSantis campaign is that he could peel off the soft Trump supporters from the former president while consolidating other Republicans who want fresher options. After he came out of the midterm elections a big winner while many Trump-endorsed candidates flatlined, it looked like a no-brainer.

Instead, if the public polls are to be believed, Trump has held on to most of his soft supporters, rallying the base after his first indictment. Anti-Trump Republicans have split between those who are more orthodox conservatives than the former president and those who are more centrist, with the latter gravitating to candidates like Christie. Others want candidates who are more overtly opposed to Trump than DeSantis has positioned himself to be, opening lanes for Pence, Christie, and possibly Haley.

While only Trump and DeSantis are consistently polling in the double digits, Ramaswamy, Haley, Pence, Christie, and Scott combined add up to 22.7% in the national RealClearPolitics average. That’s a nontrivial slice of the primary electorate and one that as a matter of pure arithmetic could return DeSantis to his peak poll numbers.

DeSantis’s failure to launch has the effect of convincing other lower-polling candidates to stay in the race because he has failed to threaten Trump seriously, and they should be given the chance to do so. At some point, however, they too must be able to show they can actually compete with Trump.

In the immediate aftermath of the first Republican debate, multiple candidates received favorable publicity, and some got polling bumps. “Poll after poll — in the early states and nationally — show Nikki gaining ground,” Haley campaign manager Betsy Ankney wrote in a post-debate memo. “She’s the only candidate who has consistently gained.”

Perhaps another candidate can bypass DeSantis. The risk, however, is that the non-Trump vote further fractures as multiple candidates gain meaningful pockets of support but none approach the former president.

Trump has the top tier all to himself, with DeSantis in sole possession of the second tier. Third-tier candidates moving into the second tier won’t move the needle unless that is the beginning rather than the end of their momentum.

A final obstacle is that Republican voters do not broadly share the same electability concerns about Trump that some Democrats had about Sanders four years ago. A recent Monmouth University poll found 69% of them thought Trump was probably or definitely the GOP’s strongest candidate against Biden. Indeed, most likely Iowa caucusgoers believe Trump beat Biden in 2020, according to last month’s NBC News-Des Moines Register-Mediacom poll. And Trump is doing better against Biden in the public polling averages right now than at any point in the last cycle, after outperforming his final poll numbers in the last two presidential elections.

Republicans running against Trump have a lot working against them. The question is how effectively they can make the argument that dragging Trump across the general election finish line under the cumulative weight of all his legal predicaments will require an even greater exertion.

Trump and his political action committees have already diverted tens of millions of dollars that could be spent trying to beat Biden to paying the former president’s growing legal bills. These expenses are only going to mount in the coming months.

Myriad legal challenges against Trump threaten his availability to campaign. The E. Jean Carroll defamation case trial date is the same day as the Iowa caucuses. One federal trial is scheduled to begin the day before Super Tuesday. Another commences two months before the convention.

Precious days on the campaign trail will instead be spent inside a courtroom. Trump will of course still dominate the headlines. A single conviction will intensify attempts to disqualify Trump from state ballots, forcing the former president’s campaign to fight like a third-party candidate for ballot access amid all the other legal battles.

If Trump is incarcerated, it will threaten his availability to govern as much as his ability to campaign. There are conflicting poll numbers about how forgiving Republican primary voters will be if Trump is in prison. But there’s ample reason to doubt the broader electorate will be inclined to support a candidate in a cell.

This reflects a problem that existed before Trump was in so much legal trouble: His popularity with Republicans vastly exceeds his support among voters as a whole in a way that already made him a risky general election candidate.

A Trump-Biden rematch would pit two unpopular senior citizens against each other, each with an established track record as president. Other Republicans could more easily make the election a referendum on Biden or more effectively capitalize on concerns about the oldest president’s age, shared even by many Democrats.

The most recent CNN poll testing Biden against Republican candidates shows all the candidates being competitive, but several do better than Trump. Haley does best of all, beating Biden 49% to 43%.

All of this would seem to be a powerful argument for some other Republican candidate to make against nominating Trump. It isn’t landing with GOP primary voters yet for two reasons.

One is that Trump has been effective at making his problems the GOP primary voters’ problems. He has not only successfully framed the various criminal and civil cases against him as a form of Democratic election interference. He maintains similar problems will befall other Republican candidates once he is out of the way and that rank-and-file Republican voters themselves could be victims of legal double standards and the belief that acting on views many of them personally hold about the 2020 election amounts to a criminal conspiracy.

If Trump succeeds in making this case to Republican voters, there is not much his primary opponents can do about it. The second reason the contention Trump is a problematic nominee isn’t breaking through is entirely within their control: No Republican with a real shot at the nomination is willing to forcefully make it.

Most of the candidates other than Ramaswamy have made this argument at various points, including DeSantis. None have stuck with it as a day-to-day part of their messaging other than the single-digit Never Trumpers.

Perhaps once you beat the drum about Trump’s electability and suitability too loudly or too often, you inevitably become one of those single-digit Never Trump candidates. Such forthrightness carries the risk of failure. It’s also all but certain that if Trump is nominated and does lose next November, he will blame Republicans who said he couldn’t win. Either way, there is an unavoidable downside to telling Republican voters they got the Trump question wrong twice and are about to do so a third time.


Nevertheless, everyone in the 2024 GOP presidential race has chosen to run against Trump. What every one of them is doing is already failing. At some point, it calls to mind Trump’s 2016 question to black voters: “What the hell do you have to lose?”

Except the answer is clear: the 2024 election.

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