The United States presidential election is just under 300 days away and the country is in a sour mood.
Even though the US economy is among the best performing in the developed world, with strong employment and wages rising, inflation receding and interest rate cuts coming, 75 per cent of voters believe the country is on the wrong track. Trump versus Biden II is a huge yawn. Joe Biden’s approval rating is in the mid-30s, the lowest of any incumbent president at this stage in the cycle. Biden can’t win from there.
Biden is viewed as too old, in decline and not up to the job – certainly not for another four years. It doesn’t matter that he has enacted the most sweeping domestic policy agenda in decades – on rebuilding America, education, seniors, jobs, healthcare, climate change – and snookered the Republicans in congress at every turn, avoiding both a government shutdown and the first-ever default on America’s debts. The polls are shocking: more than half of the country’s voters feel harmed by Biden’s policies, while 49 per cent said Donald Trump’s agenda personally helped them.
Trump, meanwhile, is more erratic than ever, spiking previously unspeakable themes with Nazi-talk (immigrants are “poisoning the blood” of the country and he will rid the country of “vermin”) and declaring the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs should be executed for “treason”. He signed off yuletide greetings to his opponents on his preferred social media platform, Truth Social: “MAY THEY ROT IN HELL. AGAIN, MERRY CHRISTMAS!” Yet because Trump presents so emphatically, he is perceived by many as much more capable than Biden.
Trump has turned enormous adversities into potent political weapons. His base – more than 60 per cent of Republicans – firmly believes he is the victim of a Biden/radical Democrat/Department of Justice conspiracy to drive him from the race. Every indictment and challenge to his appearance on the ballot is seen as wanton election interference. They buy this narrative overwhelmingly, together with a belief that Biden is not the legitimate president, that the January 6 attack on the Capitol was not seriously violent and that it is time to move on.
Polling suggests Trump could lose up to a quarter of his Republican voters if he is convicted of a felony – he faces 91 criminal charges in four major trials – but Trump is doing all in his power to clog the judicial process and postpone the formal courtroom trial proceedings. From indictments on his acting criminally to overturn the 2020 election to mishandling classified documents, Trump does not want any guilty verdicts before the November election.
The key to Trump’s success thus far – brilliantly conceived and executed – is this formulation to his base, which he reiterates forcefully at every campaign rally: “I consider it a great badge of courage. I’m being indicted for you.” If Trump is taken down, there is nothing to protect his supporters from Biden and the radical Democrats. “In the end, they’re not after me, they’re after you.”
Given that syllogism, when Republican candidates such as Ron DeSantis and Nikki Haley attack Trump, they are attacking his supporters – who cannot and will not then turn to voting for rivals who want to take Trump out. For Trump’s competitors, this is a cunning conundrum in which he will always prevail.
Trump today is within reach of sweeping the first four Republican primaries. How does this all play out, beginning in Iowa?
Iowa is the state where DeSantis, the governor of Florida, has staked his campaign. If he were to beat Trump in this first primary, the race could break open. In his home state in 2022, DeSantis won a smashing re-election victory. He was the dynamic battler against the radical left Democrats on immigration, crime and abortion rights. He led the anti-woke crusade on multiple fronts: what was taught in schools, what books were in libraries, access to health services by transgender people. His pitch extended even to curbing corporate involvement in environmental and social equity issues – as governor, he took on Disney, one of the largest investors and employers in Florida, because of its support for gay rights. To many Republicans and in the conservative media, including the Murdochs and Fox News, DeSantis looked like “Trump without the baggage” – the man who could deliver the Trump agenda without his chaos.
It is hard to understand how DeSantis could romp to a 20-point victory in Florida and then sink like a stone. But he has. Last year, DeSantis simply could not connect with voters. He was all self-absorption with none of Trump’s charisma. His speech was replete with machine-gun acronyms – ESG (environmental, social and governance investing) and DEI (diversity, equity and inclusion). DeSantis had all the money he needed, he visited all 99 counties in Iowa, and he still has not overtaken Trump.
From the rest of the field, it was Nikki Haley, former governor of South Carolina and Trump’s United Nations ambassador, who emerged as the other viable contender. She’s a woman of Indian heritage and friendly style who conveys fidelity to Ronald Reagan’s vision of the country and America’s traditional role in the world, along with some Trumpism on immigration, trade, climate and education.
Haley’s popularity has been surging with Republicans who are more moderate and who want to turn the page on Trump. As DeSantis plummets, can Haley evolve into a comet?
Her game plan, together with DeSantis, is to hold Trump under 50 per cent in Iowa on January 15. If DeSantis loses, he is done. No one can see where else he might beat Trump, who is ahead even in Florida. DeSantis will run out of money and his campaign will halt.
Eight days later is the New Hampshire contest. Haley has the endorsement of its popular governor, Chris Sununu. New Hampshire’s contrarian voters love to upend conventional wisdom. Haley is within single digits of overtaking Trump and may yet be able to best him. She must have a win there to convince Republicans she can defeat him elsewhere.
Historically, however, even a win for the underdog upstart in New Hampshire doesn’t secure them the presidential nomination. The next contests will likely prove very difficult for Haley. The Nevada caucus is on February 8. As the year ended, Trump was polling close to 70 per cent there and he has cornered the most influential local endorsers.
The caucus in South Carolina, Haley’s home state, is on February 24. The local Republican party has moved further to the right since she was governor seven years ago. Trump has a 29-point lead there and support from the powerful local senator, Lindsey Graham. If Haley is buried there, she too is done.
In 2016, in his first White House run, it took Trump until May 3 to drive the heretics from the temple and seal the Republican nomination. This year, by the above calculus, Trump will have 90 extra days to frame and build his campaign against Joe Biden.
During this period, Biden faces impeachment in the House of Representatives and a southern border out of control. His position on two wars is looking shaky: Ukraine is in stalemate and support for Israel – among Democrats and younger voters – is falling.
In December 2019, Trump’s overall approval was at 42 per cent – and Biden defeated him nearly 11 months later. In December 2023, Biden’s approval was lower, at 38 per cent.
Nothing is static in politics. There will be surprises. But for now, Trump’s winter avalanche has crushing force.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on January 13, 2024 as "Inside the US Republican primaries: the Trump avalanche".
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