The past few months have been rough on former president Donald Trump, and the road ahead for him looks similarly rutted. He may be the favorite to become the Republican nominee in 2024, but in venturing out this weekend to New Hampshire and South Carolina, he was confronted with some of the obstacles that lie in his path.
His campaign for president, which he announced in November, has been lackluster — lacking in energy, lacking in a fresh or coherent message, lacking in an outpouring of support from top officials. He has been roundly criticized for saddling the party with weak candidates in the midterm elections, which probably cost the GOP control of the Senate and some key governorships. Some leaders have long seen him as a loser. What’s different now is that some, including former House speaker Paul D. Ryan, are saying it out loud.
This nomination contest is unfolding in sharp contrast to the race in 2016, most notably in the slow pace of activity. Although Trump waited until June 2015 to announce for president in the 2016 election, at this moment eight years ago, the GOP contest was underway. Candidates had appeared at a forum in Iowa, and many were jockeying for staffers, endorsements, pledges of money and media attention.
This year Trump is the lone announced candidate. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, after a big reelection victory, is drawing outsize interest from donors and many rank-and-file Republicans. Other Republicans are looking at running but are in no hurry to get into the race.
Eight years ago, the 2016 race began as an apparent free-for-all with an enormous field of well-experienced candidates. Today, the 2024 nomination campaign looks like a contest dominated by Trump and DeSantis. If there is an analogy, it could be the 2008 Democratic race, where the competition between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton suffocated other qualified candidates.
Trump is weaker than he once was; DeSantis is untested nationally. That gives other prospective candidates hope that there will be an opening for someone else.
Those others will be counting on stumbles by Trump and DeSantis. Absent that, they could struggle to find enough oxygen to sustain themselves long enough to prove they are viable contenders.
The biggest problem is that Trump still could dominate a divided field of challengers, piling up delegates under winner-take-all rules with only a plurality of the vote — as he did in 2016. He won the nomination although a majority of Republican primary voters were backing others.
Republican strategists who oppose Trump as their nominee recognize that a big and divided field is the former president’s best friend as he tries for a comeback, but they are not certain there will be any way to coalesce around a single rival. Some polls now show DeSantis ahead of Trump in a head-to-head matchup, should it devolve quickly into a two-person race, but that’s before any campaigning.
The state of play in the early states highlights Trump’s challenges. The Washington Post reported Jan. 22 that the former president is having trouble getting endorsements from elected officials and other prominent Republicans in South Carolina, a state where he had once enjoyed deep support after winning the crowded 2016 primary with 33 percent of the vote.
Trump still has the backing of Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), who famously said after the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol that he was done with Trump. “Count me out,” Graham said, only to quickly scramble back into the Trump camp. Trump also has the support of South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster, who was elevated to his current post when Trump named then-Gov. Nikki Haley to the post of U.S. ambassador to the United Nations at the start of his presidency.
Haley appears on the cusp of announcing her own candidacy for president, after awkwardly seesawing on the question of whether she would ever challenge her former boss. She is assembling a campaign team and told Fox News recently, “I’ve never lost a race.”
The state’s other senator, Tim Scott (R), is actively weighing a candidacy, one that probably would have as a core message presenting a contrast to the harshness of Trump’s years in office as well as to the culture-war focus of DeSantis.
In New Hampshire, Trump’s appearance Saturday came just days after a poll by the University of New Hampshire that showed DeSantis the plurality favorite among Republicans and Republican-leaning independents. In the new poll, 42 percent say they favor DeSantis to 30 percent for Trump. The trend line for Trump has been steadily declining since the summer of 2021, when he was favored by 47 percent. DeSantis also was the second choice of 30 percent of New Hampshire Republicans, to 14 percent for Trump.
Trump’s victory in New Hampshire in 2016, after he finished second in Iowa (he claimed that election was stolen by Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas) provided the springboard that, with a victory in South Carolina, put him on the path to the nomination. Today, a majority of Granite State Republicans say they hope he doesn’t even run — and a bigger majority say they hope DeSantis does.
“There is a growing desire for people, even those who have been with him in the past, to see who else is out there,” said Jim Merrill, a Republican strategist in the state.
Iowa could offer its own challenges for Trump. Evangelical Christians have played a significant role in past caucuses. Before 2020, the three previous GOP caucus winners — Mike Huckabee, the former Arkansas governor, in 2008; Rick Santorum, the former senator from Pennsylvania, in 2012; and Cruz in 2016 — had deep connections to Christian conservatives.
As president, Trump won significant support from the evangelical community in large part because of his nomination of three Supreme Court justices who voted to overturn Roe v. Wade. It’s not clear today whether he can count on those kinds of conservative voters in next year’s caucus voting.
Leading elected and former elected officials in Iowa are remaining neutral for now. That number includes some who have been Trump supporters. Around the time of his announcement in November, Trump’s team put pressure on elected officials to endorse him, without success, according to a Republican strategist who spoke on the condition of anonymity to be able to comment freely.
Beyond Trump and DeSantis, the list of possible candidates is lengthy and includes Mike Pence, who under normal circumstances would have potentially strong standing as a former vice president. His ties to the evangelical community would give him a base from which to start building support. But as a former vice president who has broken with the former president, his prospects appear far more challenging.
There are other Republicans who will try to find a way to appeal to Trump loyalists as well as to those hungering to move on from the Trump era. Among them is Mike Pompeo, Trump’s former secretary of state, who has offered hints of a potential candidacy while promoting a new take-no-prisoners book this month. The prospective field also includes never-Trumpers like Larry Hogan, the former governor of Maryland, Chris Christie, the former governor of New Jersey, and New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu.
The DeSantis timetable is influenced by Florida’s legislative session, which is scheduled to end in early May. DeSantis, like George W. Bush in 1999, will use the session both as an excuse to delay any formal announcement and to highlight his governing priorities and put together a record that he can use to present a contrast with Trump, who has done nothing of substance since leaving the presidency.
But he will not spend all his time in Florida. His forthcoming book, “The Courage to Be Free,” is due out at the end of February. He will do a promotional tour that is likely to put him in some of the early states in March. A campaign announcement, if there is one, isn’t likely until early summer, at which point he will experience the difference between running for governor in a big state and running for president.
There’s one other aspect of the Republican contest that could present the party with problems, although that will come only after what could be a bruising campaign for the nomination. That is the prospect that someone other than Trump wins the nomination and the question of how the former president will react. He has shown he’s a sore loser, and few think he would go quietly. Can anyone imagine Trump with arms raised, clasping hands with the person who beat him on the stage at the national convention in the summer of 2024?
For all the potential problems facing Trump, political allies of President Biden’s and some leading Republicans still see him as the most likely Republican nominee in 2024 and as a formidable general election candidate. His influence on the Republican Party remains sizable; his core supporters remain loyal.
But the fascination and excitement that greeted him in the summer of 2015 have diminished. Whether someone can take advantage of that is the biggest question about the Republican race.