What Trump is doing right

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Trump speaks in East Palestine, Ohio, in the aftermath of the Norfolk Southern train derailment, Feb. 22, 2023.<br/> <i>Matt Freed/AP</i>

What Trump is doing right

Former President Donald Trump has been leading the 2024 Republican presidential race for months, one of the most consistent trends of the past year as the Iowa caucuses fast approach.

Morning Consult, the Messenger-HarrisX, CNN, CBS News, and Tipp-Insights are among the recent national polls that show Trump with 60% of the vote or better. Trump is at 58.5%, good for a 44.1-point lead over his next nearest competitor, according to the RealClearPolitics average.


Most of the other candidates are in the single digits. All are below 20%. Some are starting to drop out. Of the five candidates other than Trump who qualified for the third Republican presidential debate, four were still running a week later. Former Vice President Mike Pence didn’t make it that far.

Trump’s national lead is often downplayed by opponents who point out there is no national primary. It stands to reason, however, that if Trump is polling at around 60% nationally, that would probably be his vote share in a number of states if the election was held today. This is especially true once Super Tuesday rolls around and candidates have to compete in multiple states and media markets simultaneously.

The outlook in the early states, where candidates can compete with the front-runner on something closer to even terms, is only marginally better for Trump. Yes, he is averaging below 50% in the first nominating contests, though the last two polls in South Carolina have him cracking a majority of the vote. That’s still good for a lead of 30.3 points in Iowa, 31.7 points in New Hampshire, and 30.2 points in Nikki Haley’s Palmetto State.

There haven’t been as many polls in the Nevada caucuses that are up after, and none are particularly recent. In late September through early October, CNN had Trump leading by 52 points, with 65% of the vote.

Looking at Trump’s huge polling lead, most analysts have focused on what the other candidates have done wrong. Gov. Ron DeSantis (R-FL) has been nowhere nearly as competitive with Trump as expected, though their own numbers have persistently shown him closer to the former president than most of the other public polling.

Haley has done the most to take advantage of the Trump-less debates, joining DeSantis in the low double digits in some national surveys and moving into a distant second place in the averages for New Hampshire as well as South Carolina. But she hasn’t really threatened Trump’s lead anywhere and isn’t consistently outpolling DeSantis, and the more sophisticated polls show her lagging behind the Florida governor as Republicans’ second choice.

Entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy had a boomlet of sorts. So did Sen. Tim Scott (R-SC) in Iowa, at least before he suspended his campaign. Neither lasted very long before fading. And not much can be said about the other Republican campaigns, either those still occurring or already of blessed memory.

Certainly, these candidates have made their share of mistakes. None have figured out how to campaign effectively against a man facing more than 90 criminal charges. By contrast, indicted Sen. Bob Menendez (D-NJ) is on the precipice of being run out of Congress by members of his own party.

Like the 16 Republicans who competed against Trump in 2016, the 2024 field has been unable to keep him from sucking up all the oxygen in the room. While Trump’s celebrity made his first group of rivals look small by comparison, his quasi-incumbency performs the same role this time around.

The Republicans running against Trump boast many fine accomplishments, as their campaigns regularly remind us. None of them has ever been president, however. Trump has.

But Trump isn’t running away with the Republican nomination simply because his opponents have done things wrong. In recent months, Trump has done a lot right.

A warning sign to both President Joe Biden and the other Republican candidates should have been detected in February, when Trump visited East Palestine, Ohio. The community had been the scene of a train derailment that pumped toxic chemicals into the air.

Trump beat Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg to East Palestine. Biden inexplicably still hasn’t been there. While he joked about handing out Trump bottled water, the trip revealed the former president still had bottled up some of what made him such a force in 2015-16.

When Trump can overcome his true nature and think about people besides himself, he becomes formidable. He has sharp, gut-level political instincts that are frequently dulled by his grievances and paranoia. Luckily for his opponents, he can seldom suppress these self-destructive urges for very long.

But in this year’s Republican nomination fight, Trump has so far done a masterful job of making his personal problems sound to the base like something bigger than himself. The indictments and the New York trial aimed at destroying his business empire are about the two-tiered system of justice, which has been weaponized against conservatives as varied as anti-abortion activists and parents protesting at school board meetings. Even the Jan. 6 rioters are, in Trump’s parlance, “hostages,” a sign that views about the 2020 election that are widely held among the rank and file are somehow being criminalized.

Trump’s jealousy of DeSantis and irritation with Haley’s “disloyalty” are similarly personal vendettas Trump has turned into larger crusades. Trump often tells the story of how he endorsed DeSantis for governor of Florida in 2018 and what happened shortly afterward.

“I’m watching a newscast, I’m watching a fake newscast, and they say, ‘Would you run against the president?’ He shouts, ‘I have no comments,’” Trump said in New Hampshire in August. “To me, that means he’s running. So I said, ‘That son of a b**** is running. Can you believe it?’”

When telling the same story at an Alabama Republican fundraising dinner, Trump suggested that country singer Lee Greenwood, who was sitting in the audience after performing his signature “God Bless the USA,” should write a song about DeSantis’s treachery.

Yes, this is Trumpian pettiness on full display. Barry Goldwater had similar feelings about Ronald Reagan surpassing him. But Goldwater did not make it a standard part of his stump speech or his personal mission to ruin Reagan’s political career.

At the same time, there is a reason Trump repeats this story even when speaking at podiums marked with the state Republican insignia as donors scarf down their chicken dinners. He is arguing that DeSantis and Haley are not to be trusted, that the GOP base should regard his rivals with the same suspicion.

Speaking at the South Carolina state GOP fundraising dinner, Trump said Haley, a former governor of the state, was “afraid” to come. Trump was the keynote speaker and introduced by the sitting governor as “the former and next president.”

“You’ve got to show up at these events, Nikki,” Trump taunted. “Oh, did I say that?” A bit of trash-talking, but the message was sent: Trump was there.

Trump is also showing what is for him a great deal of message discipline. The viral moments from unconventional asides — Trump imagining Biden looking at the polls and saying, “Indict the motherf***er” — and unhelpful tirades continue but at a reduced pace. Fact-checkers still have a field day going through his remarks.

But Trump has a sustained argument for why things were better when he was in office than under Biden. He maintains that the good things that are happening now, such as low unemployment and robust economic growth, were true during his term until the pandemic. The bad things, such as inflation, the border crisis, the war in Ukraine, and the war in Gaza, were not.

“All of this horror and yet Joe Biden is traveling around the country pretending he’s an economic genius — in fact, he’s an economic arsonist, and Bidenomics is incinerating American wealth in an inferno of inflation, taxation, submission, and failure,” Trump says in his stump speech.

This meshes well with public polling, and Democratic concerns, that the Bidenomics message is painting a picture of the economy that voters, especially in battleground states, do not recognize.

“The choice in this election is between a Biden economic bust and a Trump economic boom,” he says, with some variations, on the campaign trail. “Crooked Joe cares only about enriching his own family — I care about enriching your family.”

There is no shortage of Trump-style hyperbole. “Today, under Joe Biden,” he says, “the Marxists, fascists, and communists are not just tearing down statues. They’re tearing down our economy, they’re dismantling our borders, they’re destroying our laws, they’re looting our middle class, mutilating our children, desecrating our Constitution, and perverting our military, our White House, and our highly weaponized Department of Justice, weaponized like never before.” Our country, he concludes, “is being destroyed.”

Many voters will hear this and find it over the top. But 66.2% say the country is on the wrong track compared to just 25.3% who say it is moving in the right direction. That isn’t necessarily predictive of Biden’s fortunes, especially this far out from the election. Yet it does suggest an angry and pessimistic electorate.

Anger and pessimism are conditions under which Trump thrives and incumbents usually don’t. That’s why Democrats are nervous about the polls showing them losing, however narrowly, to Trump, a man they regard as manifestly unfit for office. None of the decades of history showing candidates overcoming polling deficits when the election is a year away offer much comfort.

What Democrats have used with some success to overcome economic anxieties is abortion. Here, Trump is also consistent. He takes credit for the reversal of Roe v. Wade and his “three great Supreme Court justices.” He hails the “tremendous power to negotiate” abortion laws this has bestowed on pro-lifers.

But Trump also also cites Reagan in declaring it is important to allow exceptions to abortion bans, especially for rape, incest, and to save the mother’s life. He argues the focus should be put on Democrats’ advocacy for late-term abortion. And he endorses leaving it up to the states where possible.

“This moves the issue back to the states, where all legal scholars felt it should be,” is the standard Trump line on Roe’s reversal. That could bite the front-runner in Iowa. It is an abortion message crafted for the general election, however.

Above all, Trump has maintained an emotional connection with his core voters that none of his competitors can rival. There are some Floridians who would similarly walk through broken glass to vote for DeSantis after witnessing his pandemic leadership. But there is also a sense in which the Florida governor is trying to intellectualize what is fundamentally a visceral phenomenon, as Trump understands.

Trump has managed to create the impression that he and his voters are in this together — the indictments, the hostile media coverage, the economic challenges, even the opposition from fellow Republicans. Each legal case, each attempt to disqualify Trump from a state ballot, only seems to strengthen his voters’ resolve. It can be a difficult thing for opponents to break.

None of this obviates the enormous risks of nominating Trump. At any moment, one of the grand pianos hanging by a thread above him in the form of these various legal cases could come crashing down on his head. Trump’s availability to govern, much less campaign, is in jeopardy.

Millions of dollars are already being transferred from Trump’s campaign coffers to his legal bills. While he is likely to be able to repeat his free media advantage from past campaigns, even using his trials to do so, this is at some point going to be a problem against the Democratic fundraising juggernaut. Republicans often found themselves outspent during this year’s elections and last year’s midterm election disappointment.

Then there is the advisability of Republicans challenging an aging and unpopular incumbent with a candidate only slightly younger and more popular than him. An Ohio exit poll found that just 25% of voters wanted Biden to run again in 2024. But only 33% said the same for Trump, in a state he won by 8 points in 2020.

For all Trump’s deep connection with his base, he is also passionately despised by millions. His approval and favorability ratings are frequently underwater. In the current RealClearPolitics average, his favorability rating is a point below Biden’s. And while he could win a competitive race against Biden, it is also not difficult to imagine a scenario in which the bottom drops out for Trump and puts a winnable presidential race out of reach.

There is also the significant matter of who would staff a second Trump administration. Many of those who made the first one work will either be unwilling to serve in a second because of the events of Jan. 6 or have been disqualified in Trump’s eyes for what they have had to say about either the 2020 election or the Capitol riot.

While Trump has run an effective and at times surprisingly substantive campaign, he has also repeatedly suggested that he is envisioning a vengeance tour. Perhaps his loose talk about indicting political opponents would be abandoned as quickly in office as the “lock her up” chants about Hillary Clinton in 2017. After his legal saga and assuming he believes even a portion of what he says about the Bidens, that outcome cannot be guaranteed.

The former president has been strikingly resilient in the face of adversity. But he is also at least the partial creator of most of the problems he must overcome. The case for Republicans moving on from him and taking the fight directly to Biden is nearly airtight. Yet here we are.

A Republican strategist once put it this way: “Trump may not be your cup of tea. But for now, he is the cup of tea.”

Trump and his strongest supporters like to portray him as the foremost winner in national politics. The results of 2018, 2020, and to a lesser extent 2022 argue against that image. At the same time, his detractors mock the “tired of winning” phrase as they cast Trump as one of his reality TV show competitors instead: the biggest loser.

Neither is true. Trump bottomed out faster than George W. Bush and never came close to his highs. But he also has steered clear of Bush’s lows. Nearly eight years of Trump as titular head of the party has left Republicans on the cusp of unified control of the federal government — or being shut out completely.

Overall, Trump has largely traded some voters for others and put together a coalition that is more efficiently distributed for Electoral College purposes than that of the two prior GOP nominees. A Reagan- or Richard Nixon-style 49-state landslide coalition, however, it is not. There are nevertheless reasons he is in the position to pull a Grover Cleveland.


Trump is like a talented but interception-prone quarterback who always keeps both teams in the game. He is central to both parties’ hopes for high turnout next year. He is not Tom Brady, but he isn’t Ryan Leaf either. He is closer to Josh Allen or Brett Favre.

We are now nearing the fourth quarter. Will any other Republicans figure out how to get in the game?

W. James Antle III is executive editor of the Washington Examiner magazine.

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