In 10 short months, presidential caucus-goers in Iowa will fire the official starting pistol on the 2024 race for the White House. For Republicans hoping to challenge the party’s standard-bearer for the nomination, though, it may already be too late.
The indictment of former president Donald Trump by a Manhattan grand jury has catapulted him to the top of the polls, rallying his supporters and swamping him in campaign donations. Trump raked in more than $4 million in donations within 24 hours of the indictment. He couldn’t have scripted a better recharge for his flagging third attempt at a second term.
Trump’s appeal to voters has always relied on portraying himself as a victim of a progressive left determined to silence him. As such, Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg, a Democrat, played right into Trump’s hands by delivering what, by most assessments, is a weak case that the former president violated campaign finance law during the 2016 campaign.
Winning the sympathy vote isn’t the same as winning the White House. That requires earning a majority of the vote in the general election, something Republicans haven’t done in the last four presidential contests.
Trump’s superpower has always been his ability to endure circumstances that would make others cringe. It’s one of the reasons his base adores him. Yet, even under the favorable conditions presented by the Electoral College, a Trump win in 2024 is, at best, a roll of the dice.
This week revealed that few Republican hopefuls can rival the former president’s popularity with the party’s base.
Polling after the indictment showed Trump leading the pack of Republican nomination hopefuls with 47 percent of support among Republican and Republican-leaning voters. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, with 33 percent support, was the only Republican who presented a serious challenge. Everyone else was in single digits.
DeSantis hasn’t officially entered the race, but few doubt his intention once the Florida legislative session wraps in May. Far from being scared off by his second-place finish, DeSantis’ showing only bolsters the case for his candidacy.
Any candidate under indictment undoubtedly faces longer odds of winning the general election. There are also the investigations into Trump’s handling of classified documents and the grand jury inquiry into election tampering accusations in Georgia that have yet to play out.
At some point, Republicans must choose the candidate with the best chance of taking back the White House, which means expanding the party’s current coalition. If the GOP base isn’t interested in winning the election that counts, what’s the point of being a party?
DeSantis offers Republicans an alternative with similar appeal among Trump’s populist base but without the legal minefield. He’s also a winner, sweeping into power in 2020 with a majority and long coattails that gave Florida Republicans a trifecta over the levers of power in the state.
Trump and DeSantis share a few similarities in policy, and they have a pugilist’s willingness to throw a punch, but they differ significantly in style. While Trump was playing the victim on social media this week, DeSantis was busy governing the third-most-populous state in the nation.
DeSantis has drawn criticism for appearing aloof and detached from the baby-kissing and glad-handing required on the national campaign trail. Still, he is free of the gaffs and grievance politics that define Trump.
DeSantis has established a solid following among GOP donors, too. The DeSantis-aligned Never Back Down super PAC raised $30 million last month. DeSantis also has $82 million in his state political committee, which could be transferred to Never Back Down or another entity supporting him when DeSantis announces.
Trump caught lightning in a bottle in 2016. His surprise victory over Hillary Clinton redefined presidential politics and shook up a staid GOP. Since then, though, his record has been defined by one disappointment after another. From losing the White House to Joe Biden in 2020 to not one but two Senate races in Georgia to the political fallout from January 6 to this week’s indictment in New York, the Republican Party under Trump has struggled to regain its mojo. Republican primary voters must decide which of the two candidates can go the distance and accomplish their conservative policy priorities.
Do Republicans want to cut the deficit, strengthen the border, and win the global competition with China or settle old scores and “own the libs”? There may not be a consensus on the answer to that question today, but Republicans need to decide soon. One thing is sure; the GOP can’t afford to spend another cycle looking backward and arguing over the outcome of the 2020 election.
I’m a lifelong conservative likely to support the candidate who wins the GOP nomination regardless. That said, voting for a winner this time would be nice.
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