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…
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