Donald Trump is running for president against a Republican Establishment that wants nothing to do with him. Many in the billionaire class, including Rupert Murdoch, Ronald Lauder, and Stephen Schwarzman, have moved on. His endorsement list is puny. Controversy, as always, threatens to derail it all: Trump recently dined at Mar-a-Lago with Nick Fuentes, a white nationalist and Holocaust denier, and refused to disavow him. Fuentes had arrived with Kanye West, the rapper who now goes by Ye, and West does little these days but make furious anti-Semitic remarks. “This is a fucking nightmare,” one longtime Trump adviser told NBC News.
The year, of course, is 2022, but you’d be forgiven for thinking it was 2015 or early 2016, when Trump roiled a Republican primary few believed he would actually win and seemed to kick up absurd and disturbing headlines every day, each enough to kneecap the average politician. This time, Trump is a former president, and many in his party do appear tired of him. Almost all of the Trumpist gubernatorial and senate candidates were demolished in the midterms, while his top potential White House rival, Florida governor Ron DeSantis, posted a commanding reelection win. As of Monday, prediction markets project DeSantis, not Trump, to be the Republican nominee in 2024. If there was ever a smart money candidate, it would be the erstwhile Trump ally, who’s just 44 and a proven winner with hard-core Republicans and moderates alike.
It may be time, at last, to bet against Trump. Or perhaps Trump’s very first primary victory offers another cautionary tale: He is not invulnerable, but he is perennially popular enough with the Republican grassroots to survive. Assuming DeSantis runs — and all signs point that way — he will need as few candidates as possible in the field. The sooner the field narrows, the sooner DeSantis can hoover up endorsements and convince voters in crucial early primary states such as New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Nevada that he’s the most viable front-runner. Though Trump proved in 2016 the Republican Party lacked the power to rally against him, DeSantis may be more potent than any of the rivals party elites couldn’t settle on at the time, whether it was Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, or Ted Cruz. DeSantis, in some ways, marries the best attributes of all those failed contenders: He has Bush’s remarkable fundraising prowess, Cruz’s connection with the base, and Rubio’s blessing of geography. If you’re going to run in a Republican primary, it doesn’t hurt to be from one of the most delegate-rich states.
Trump’s hope, then, is that the field of his rivals grows. Several Trump-skeptical Republicans are already mulling bids, including Mike Pence, his former vice-president. Nikki Haley, whom Trump appointed to be the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, has inched back toward her anti-Trump roots, and could launch a bid. Glenn Youngkin, the Republican governor of Virginia, who exists very much in the DeSantis mold, may run. Others could enter the fray if they believe Trump is vulnerable enough. A fractured field is good for Trump for obvious reasons: It means his rivals will be chasing and slicing up the sizable but still limited number of Republicans who don’t want Trump to run for president again.
Trump doubters may want to familiarize themselves with the contours of the 2016 primary, which featured a confusing mix of proportional and winner-take-all states. To be the Republican nominee, you need to claim the most delegates, and there is no Democrat-like superdelegate system to bail out party favorites. It’s a race to a certain number, which was 1,237 in 2016. Trump himself, ironically, would come to benefit enormously from a system that was designed to foreclose the possibility of a drawn-out primary fight. In 2012, Mitt Romney had nearly lost to several different far-right and populist insurgents, with a few candidates trading polling leads before Romney was able to close them out, to the relief of Republican politicians, operatives, and megadonors. When Trump first burst on the scene, winner-take-all primaries — states that awarded all their delegates to the candidate who finished first — were supposed to stop him in his tracks, as well as a primary calendar intended to be shorter than the one Romney encountered in 2012. If Trump was another factional contender, like Pat Buchanan or Ron Paul, he could finish second or third in a divided field and walk away with nothing, rather than carry a significant number of delegates forward.
Trump actually lost the opening caucuses in Iowa before proving himself adept in all voting formats. He won the biggest proportion of the delegates in a divided New Hampshire primary, an outcome anti-Trump forces were able, at the time, to hand-wave away. What would happen in South Carolina or even Florida, larger states where Trump had to finish first again? The answer came swiftly: Trump won South Carolina, walking away with every single delegate and flummoxing Republicans who were sure that his mockery of Jeb Bush’s support for the Iraq War would undo him in a state that steadfastly backed the military. The field was fractured enough in March that Trump could keep racking up first-place finishes in winner-take-all states. Rubio’s last stand was his home state of Florida, where Trump humiliated him on March 15: All 99 delegates went to Trump, and the primary was effectively over.
Will history repeat itself? Trump might be more popular with Republicans now than he was in the early days of 2016, when conservatives were unsure whether a twice-divorced former Democrat from New York could really be trusted. For evangelical Christians, Trump is an easy sell now, having delivered the Supreme Court that overturned Roe v. Wade. He may have the stench of failure from losing to Joe Biden in 2020, but enough Republicans showing up for primaries now believe his election lies. The unhinged election deniers couldn’t beat mainstream Democrats; they had little trouble, though, winning nominations for statewide offices throughout America. Eighty percent of registered Republican voters have a favorable view of Trump, and only 11 percent have an unfavorable view. He holds formidable leads over DeSantis in most national and early primary state polls. For the most fevered Republican voters, Trump might be more revered than Ronald Reagan. Peeling them away — and winning the rest who are still fine enough with the 45th president — will be DeSantis’s most consequential challenge.