Kash Jain ’24
With just over four months left until the 2024 Iowa Republican presidential caucuses, the contest to decide who will face President Joe Biden next November doesn’t seem particularly competitive.
Despite a primary crowded with big names, one towers above all: former President Donald Trump, attempting a comeback bid. Trump has sat at or above 50% in national polling for the entire duration of the primary. His decision not to appear among his fellow candidates at the first debate has hardly impaired his chances; he remains a clear favorite among potential primary voters and, thus, a clear favorite for the nomination. At present, he appears to be headed for a commanding victory, a far wider margin than his 2016 plurality win.
The former president’s primary opposition comes from Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, who once appeared to be a formidable opponent. For a moment, it seemed as though DeSantis could sell himself as an alternative to Trump: far-right, but without the brash rhetoric. Whether the portrait of DeSantis painted by Republican electeds and operatives was ever truly accurate is questionable; regardless, the hopes of his candidacy have fallen with his polling. Vivek Ramaswamy, a businessman with bold policy stances, has gained some ground and significant attention from voters and the media, but he’s struggled to break even 10% in the polls.
Outside of DeSantis, the only current office-holders are South Carolina Senator Tim Scott, who lacks a single notable policy difference from Trump, and North Dakota Governor Doug Burgum, a name that elicits little more than “who?” The rest of the field consists of has-beens, people whose titles are delivered with “former” before them. These are names that may still carry weight, but not enough to propel one to victory at the national level.
This isn’t to say that a candidate who doesn’t currently hold an elected office is necessarily a poor one — Trump, of course, is a former president, and Biden ran in 2020 as a former vice president. However, most of the “formers” of today are too distant from the modern GOP to be seriously considered by its voters. They’ve been left behind by an increasingly-extreme party governed by activists eager to weaponize political power.
Beyond his position as token opposition, there’s no demand for a “common-sense” candidate like former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie. There’s no appetite for a foreign-policy focused candidate like former South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley. This is a party whose voters have moved beyond them and aren’t interested in looking back.
The remaining serious alternatives all share Trump’s far-right stances or have even moved beyond him, like DeSantis and Ramaswamy. Their stances are relevant enough for voters to seriously consider them — but, they both fall to one question: why are they a better candidate than Trump? It’s difficult to find a response, especially given how Trump is perceived by voters. He won nationally in 2016, and many Republican voters still erroneously believe that the 2020 election was stolen from him. Even with the declining support for his brand among the general electorate, Republicans regard him as someone who can win, and they’re still entertained by him.
The series of indictments against the former president may make him appear worse to many voters, but they only bolster his credibility among Republicans. There is a distinct perception, one that Trump has effectively latched onto: that he is under attack. He is viewed as a political opponent who is being persecuted, someone who is being unfairly targeted and hasn’t done anything wrong. Seventy seven percent of likely GOP primary voters believe that the indictment in Georgia is politically motivated, and said indictment was followed by a 25% growth in Trump’s margin over DeSantis. The indictments have created a rally around the flag, as conservatives turn from potential alternatives to support someone they perceive as being under attack.
While things can always change, Trump’s dominance over the field seems unlikely to fade — if anything, as his legal troubles continue, Republican voters will likely coalesce around him even more. There’s no appetite for a serious, moderate alternative, and even more right-wing ones will struggle to sell themselves over the nationally-tested former President.