Former President Donald Trump‘s comments about the 2024 presidential race, his abortion stance, and his ever-increasing poll numbers during two campaign stops in Iowa this week may indicate that post-Labor Day, Trump is gearing his campaign toward a general election that is focused on defeating President Joe Biden next year as opposed to relitigating the 2020 election or directly engaging his GOP competitors.
Trump has consistently pushed supporters at “Caucus Commitment” events to turn out voters during the make-or-break Jan. 15 Iowa caucuses, part of a strategic effort of his to barnstorm Iowa, including five more campaign events in the Hawkeye State over the next six weeks. He later stood by his previous remarks that six-week abortion bans enacted by Republicans, including his top rival, Gov. Ron DeSantis (R-FL), were a “terrible thing.”
At a campaign stop in Dubuque, Iowa, on Wednesday, he warned that abortion restrictions that exclude extenuating circumstances such as rape, incest, or the health of the mother may harm the GOP in further elections. “Without the exceptions, it is very difficult to win elections. We would probably lose the majorities in 2024 without the exceptions, and perhaps the presidency itself,” Trump said.
His efforts to dominate the first-in-the-nation caucuses, along with his refusal to bow to external pressures to support a federal abortion ban, suggest Trump is moving beyond the GOP primary race and attempting to set his sights on winning moderate and independent voters who will help decide the election.
“He’s definitely in general election mode. He’s skipping debates. He’s barely talking about his opponents. He’s clearly focused on Joe Biden and the November 2024 election,” national Republican strategist Brian Seitchik told the Washington Examiner.
The former president’s campaign pointed to Trump’s large lead in national and state polls as part of his dedication to winning the race. The campaign is also bringing on Alex Meyer, a former member of the Republican National Committee’s political data team, as a senior adviser focusing on Iowa and Missouri. “Polling shows President Trump leading by nearly 40 points, but as he always tells us, put the pedal to the metal,” said a Trump spokesperson. “We don’t play prevent defense, and his aggressive upcoming schedule reflects President Trump’s continued commitment to earning support in Iowa one voter at a time.”
A RealClearPolitics national poll average shows Trump leading DeSantis 58.8% to 12.5%, a more than 46 percentage point advantage. Other polls reflect Trump’s domination of the GOP field. A new CNN-University of New Hampshire poll showed Trump receiving 39% support among Republican voters while DeSantis garnered 10%, a 13 percentage point drop since the poll was conducted in July.
Jeffrey Lazarus, a political scientist at Georgia State University, told the Washington Examiner that Trump could likely become the next GOP standard-bearer given his command of the field. “I might be calling this prematurely, but I don’t see how anybody in the Republican field beats Trump,” he said.
“If you’re a strategic Republican politician, the only reason you take a hard-line stance on abortion is to win a primary election because that stance doesn’t win general elections,” Lazarus further elaborated. “So the abortion comment to me is a sign that Trump thinks he has the primary sewn up. And I happen to agree with him on that one very small thing.”
J. Miles Coleman, associate editor of Sabato’s Crystal Ball at the University of Virginia Center for Politics, agreed that Trump’s path to the GOP nomination is more likely than not. “It seems like most of us pundits and forecasters are coming to peace with Trump is probably going to be the nominee,” he said. “You know, we’ll see how was how his legal drama unfolds.”
Trump is facing four criminal cases since leaving office, with two of the cases, one federal and the other in Georgia, regarding his subsequent actions after losing to Biden in 2020 and allegedly attempting to overturn the elections. However, Trump has consistently seen his fundraising and poll numbers increase as his legal problems continue.
In the wake of 2020 and Democrats maintaining control of the Senate in 2022, some prominent Republicans have called for the GOP to move beyond Trump’s claim of “election interference” and focus more on reclaiming the White House and control of Congress. In July, Gov. Brian Kemp (R-GA) warned Trump and other Republican presidential hopefuls that the path to winning must look forward when he announced he wouldn’t seek the presidency. “If you feel like the election was stolen — I know there’s people that are out there that do, there’s others that, you know, don’t, but it doesn’t really matter. The people want to know what you’re going to do,” Kemp told CNN host Kaitlan Collins.
Seitchik noted that he hasn’t seen any internal polling or research from the Trump campaign on the voters who supported the former president during the 2016 election but not in 2020 but said Trump would adapt to win the voters he needs. “He’s going to focus on issues that he thinks bring those folks back. If that includes discussing the 2020 election, then he’ll do that,” he said. “If not, I suspect he’s going to move on to the issues that motivate those folks. And that draws the strongest contrast with Joe Biden and his failed policies.”
“It does not mean that he does not believe the race was stolen from him. But he is astute enough to reorient the focus if that’s what it’s going to take to get back to the White House,” he added.
But Lazarus, the Georgia political scientist, also cautioned that Trump could revert to once-again stewing over the 2020 election at future events. “Trump cannot be other than who he is. He’s almost completely guileless,” he said. “More or less what I see out of Trump is the same thing I’ve seen out of Trump for the past seven or eight years, which is he wants to run the government like it’s his own personal fiefdom.”
Appealing to moderates on abortion and attempting to block DeSantis in Iowa aren’t the only actions Trump is taking as he prepares to possibly face off against Biden. Instead of attending the second RNC debate, Trump is instead scheduled to give a prime-time speech to striking United Auto Workers, another sign of his appeal to the everyday voter reminiscent of his 2016 campaign.
“In 2016, he was perceived as the more moderate Republican or at least a relatively malleable Republican. He was not a hard-right tea partier like [Sen.] Ted Cruz, or at least that was the perception,” said UVA’s Coleman. But as Biden’s reelection campaign attempts to retain Midwest states that backed him in 2020, Coleman said the former president may see an opening to use populism to appeal to potential voters. “Contrast that to someone like [Sen.] Tim Scott, who was more the more traditional type of Republican,” Coleman added.
On the UAW strike, Scott told NBC News this week, “I think Ronald Reagan gave us a great example when federal employees decided they were going to strike. He said, ‘You strike, you’re fired.’ Simple concept to me. To the extent that we can use that once again, absolutely.”
In contrast, “That’s not the tone Trump took, so I thought that was very smart,” Coleman said.
It remains to be seen whether any other Trump rival can dethrone his control of the base, but as of now, Trump may be betting that he’ll have another opportunity to run against Biden and return to office, aided by supporters aggrieved by the 2020 election.
“There are those who say this is the greatest political movement of all time. I think it is,” Trump told attendees at a Maquoketa, Iowa, rally on Wednesday about his “Make America Great Again” supporters. Later that same day, he told a crowd in Dubuque, “Under our leadership, the forgotten man and woman will be forgotten no longer with your help, your love, and your vote. We will put America first, and we will make America great again, greater than ever before.”