What’s really happening in the 2024 Republican presidential primary race?
Anyone who claims to know for sure is either boasting or lying, and the clues we’re getting from the establishment media only tell part of the story. Late last week, for example, another poll came out showing former president Donald Trump widening his lead over his nearest potential rival, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis.
Then came the now infamous indictment of the former president in New York City. Will it make a huge difference as some pundits suggest?
Hurry up and wait is the order of the hour, as anxious conservatives watch with helpless anticipation to discover what will happen next. It’s hard to be patient, but time will tell. In a piece titled “DeSantis vs. Trump as the tortoise and the hare”, W. James Antle III wrote at the Washington Examiner last week:
“DeSantis could still be weeks away from getting into the race. Trump has been running for president almost nonstop since 2015 and has toyed with campaigns as far back as 1999. There is an element of risk to both strategies.
“The risk for Trump is that he will wear his material and himself out before voters are paying serious attention, making DeSantis’s point to Republicans that the former president isn’t focused on the right things for him… DeSantis’s calm demeanor will become an asset. The risk for DeSantis is that he winds up being defined by Trump before entering the Republican primaries. … if DeSantis looks too calculating for the GOP base, it could prove damaging if not fatal.
“In Aesop’s fable, the arrogant hare taunts the tortoise for getting nowhere. The hare then loses in an embarrassing fashion. It remains to be seen whether slow and steady also wins the presidential race.”
Antle’s is an interesting thought, one I hadn’t really pondered, mostly because Trump has always acted like he’s done lately and DeSantis, for as much press as he’s received the past few years, remains somewhat of an unknown quantity to those outside the confines of his home state. DeSantis appears to be legit, but folks want to know more… a lot more.
Don’t forget, as of today, there is no “race” and the rabbit can run his mouth all he likes until the tortoise actually gives in and consents to the duel. Ron DeSantis hasn’t taken the bait – yet. An interview or two where the governor addressed a few of the 2024 issues doesn’t qualify as a full-bore “Yeah, I’m gonna run” commitment.
Polls provide a snapshot in time, but little else. Trump clearly leads, but is his margin durable? Most Republicans need to see the candidate field square off against each other – then, maybe, there will be some real movement and opinions will soften towards the former president’s challengers.
And, again, how will Alvin Bragg’s indictment influence the Republican electorate? Besides, for those who surmised Trump’s recent advances in the pre-primary polls signal the beginning of the end for the yet-to-declare Ron DeSantis, couldn’t it be said that the survey results are merely probing for the floor of where the governor’s support might be?
Lots of political experts talk about “ceilings” of political backing, but very little time and energy is devoted to discussing where the bottom is found. Many longtime observers have speculated, for example, that Donald Trump’s “ceiling” is in the mid-forties, meaning it would be very difficult for the former president to convince enough fence-sitters, first-time voters and skeptical independents to abandon their previous preferences and take up Trump’s banner now.
Polling data would seem to play this out, as Trump’s approval numbers haven’t appreciably moved in months, with his positive figure around 40 percent and his disapproval needle anchored in the low to mid-50s. As was recently pointed out to me by an astute political watcher who I happen to be related to, the MAGA hat wearing folks at Walmart aren’t going to greatly expand in numbers.
While I can’t say for sure whether this theory has validity, I analogize Trump’s backers to the Confederate population during the civil war (not ideologically for the race-mongers out there itching for me to say Trumpers are slavery supporters and racists). During the lead-up to fighting, men from both sides volunteered by the hundreds of thousands to fight for their respective causes. As the fighting dragged on and the armies were worn down through attrition, the Union and the Confederacy resorted to drafts to replenish their ranks.
In the Union’s particular case, draft riots took place in several large cities (the worst of which was in New York City, something we rarely hear about in today’s version of “everything good versus everything evil” history), forcing Abraham Lincoln and the U.S. powers-that-be to consider deepening their pool of available men. Perhaps because of this necessity, Lincoln authorized the formation of “colored” units manned by freed men or former slaves.
These all-black (with white officers) regiments greatly added to the bulk of the Union army, and by the time the calendar reached 1864, were helping tip the scale against the Confederacy. Since the southern states had much smaller populations by comparison – and a significant portion of those numbers were enslaved – the available manpower was much more limited than their counterparts.
Put more succinctly, there was no way for the South to replace its losses, while the Union was regularly recruiting and training new troops all the time. I won’t claim that the addition of black soldiers was the single factor allowing for a U.S. victory, but the dwindling Confederate forces can’t be denied. (Note: the desperate Confederate government considered putting together black regiments of their own at the end of the war, but to my knowledge, none ever saw action.)
Donald Trump appears to be facing a similar ranks-filling dilemma. Trump roused the imaginations of a whole new class of voters in 2016, made up of disgruntled former white working-class Democrats, and “forgotten” Americans in rust belt states who’d had it with the promises of more jobs and better lives from the political class, but primarily the Democrat party. Then there were first-time voters who saw Trump as a refreshing politician who wasn’t beholden to the Washington swamp establishment and Americans of all races and backgrounds who thought their nation was losing its identity and bought into Trump’s “America First” MAGA platform.
This group was largely with Trump in 2020 as well, and from numerous establishment media reports, was attracting novel voters with some regularity. I myself met a representation of folks who told me (largely because my son often wore a TRUMP mask) they voted for the first time because of Trump. When Election Day came, Trump counted nearly 75 million votes nationally, over eleven million more than he’d won four years previous in an Electoral College victory.
Senile Joe Biden somehow totaled over 81 million. How? I still wonder.
The lesson being that Trump has likely already reached his “ceiling” of support, whereas Ron DeSantis remains an unknown. How many of those 80 million-plus ballot casters are lining up to choose Biden again? How many 2020 Democrat voters have had it with Democrat malfeasance and outright lies and will possibly jump to the Republicans this time?
Republicans won three million more votes than Democrats did in the 2022 midterms, but gained only a limited number of House seats – and lost control of the senate. Even in the worst of conditions for Democrats (economy, unpopular incumbent president, cultural backlash), there was no “wave” for the GOP.
Lots of conservatives I know are excited about Ron DeSantis for the possibility that his “upside” is much higher than Trump’s. And, as hinted at earlier, the Florida governor’s sinking following of late may simply mark the floor of where he has to begin building a coalition of primary voters to oust Trump.
There are signs of Trump fatigue everywhere. Last week, for instance, former Congressman Jason Chaffetz, now a regular Fox News contributor, called Trump’s performance on the Sean Hannity show “absolutely horrific”. I only caught the part of the program where Trump described his relationship with DeSantis before the former’s 2018 endorsement, and I cringed at the eminently successful Sunshine State governor being depicted as needy and pathetic.
That may have been the case when Trump and DeSantis met before the 2018 Florida primary, but ever since, the 44-year-old governor has possessed the heart of a lion and woke dystopia slayer. Does anyone now discount DeSantis because of what Trump said? I don’t.
DeSantis still has much to prove if he’s going to win over eternally skeptical Republican primary voters, but Trump weariness is real and the former president had better watch his tone if he’s to keep an electoral base together. Trump’s “tent” doesn’t seem like it could expand a whole lot, but DeSantis offers the possibility of attracting lots of new people. This assumes, again, that the “only Trump” supporters would be open to making a change somewhere down the line.
Slow and steady may win some races but in today’s political environment, a candidate can’t afford to let his or her main opponents get too far out in front. We may be just discovering the “floor” of Ron DeSantis’s support, or it could very well be there’s more room for Trump’s “ceiling” to go higher. We’ll know more once DeSantis provides the signal to start the contest.
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