The shift from Trump-centric primaries to Trump-only primaries has been nowhere more evident than in the days following last week’s Trump impeachment. The case virtually sidelined him from the campaign trail, with Trump visiting a Miami courthouse to enter a not guilty plea in his confidential documents case before visiting a Miami restaurant and then returning to his golf club in Bedminster for a fundraiser.
But even in his absence from the pushes of Iowa and New Hampshire, Trump was omnipresent, a reality that quickly solidified itself as the rule, not the exception, in the ongoing 2024 primary battle.
« No one is thinking outside the box about how to effectively communicate the existential threat and dilemma the party finds itself in, » said a Republican strategist who is unaffiliated with any campaign, but who has been granted anonymity for speak frankly about campaign strategies.
“There is a not inconsiderable possibility that our party’s candidate will be accused and go to prison. Putting aside how you feel about it, we can’t rule from a prison cell. I just think people are afraid to have this discussion. And when you duck and hide from it, that’s why the oxygen gets sucked out of the room.
The difficulty for Trump’s competitors is that nothing, not even prosecution, seems to be dragging Trump down. Trump’s polling doesn’t appear to change, no matter how many times his rivals have noted his mishandling of national secrets, after Trump pleaded not guilty to charges of keeping top-secret government documents at his Palm Beach home and that he obstructed a government investigation into his possession of classified material.
But even worse for its rivals: Each of They Subsequent race entries also did not lead to many electoral movements. In 2016, Trump entered the poll race in the single digits. But he now has more than half the market share of the primary electorate, in some cases topping 50 percent in polls and leaving his competitors little room for any post-announcement poll increases.
« It’s like they’re challenging a sitting president, and somehow Donald Trump is a legitimate president in the minds of many Republican primary voters, » said Christine Matthews, president of Bellwether Research, who voted for the former presidential hopeful. and former Maryland Governor Larry Hogan. “That might explain why there isn’t a rebound. It’s not a completely open field. And we’re looking at all these new faces that are popping up, it’s like they’re challengers for an incumbent.
In that environment, it has become nearly impossible for Trump’s opponents to break through. When Trump’s challengers made a splash last week, it only came in response to Trump.
Vivek Ramaswamy held a press conference on the sidelines of Trump’s impeachment in Miami to challenge his contenders to pardon Trump if elected. Nikki Haley has drawn attention, but for her evolving response to the docs case. And Gov. Ron DeSantis was in Florida to oversee the state budget, which was overshadowed by the Trump news.
“He has all the right enemies,” Trump pollster Jim McLaughlin said. “And what happens is when you have an event like this, all those righteous enemies, especially in a Republican primary, are attacking it right now. So it helps him. When he went up, DeSantis went down.
The media circus that has surrounded Trump over the past week was partly by design. The Trump campaign knew that an unannounced stop at Versailles, an iconic restaurant in the heart of Little Havana, would cause a stir with South Florida’s Republican-leaning Cuban pocket. He also knew he would be irresistible to the cameras and give the campaign control of the first post-impeachment images of Trump, since the courtroom appearance did not allow photographers.
Subsequently, Trump’s remarks, in which he set out his arguments against the prosecution, attracted the attention of television networks. Coverage of the event reached the front pages of major newspapers.
« Trump just has this knack for understanding the moment … You have to use your imagination, and it’s clear Vivek was the only candidate with any imagination, because he was clever what he did over there, saying you know, ‘ I’ll forgive Trump when I’m elected president,’ which no one thinks will happen, but now he’s warned everyone else, » said a Trump adviser who declined to discuss the campaign freely. « That’s what you do in politics. »
Steven Cheung, spokesman for the Trump campaign, taunted the rival candidates. « What we’ve done at the Versailles restaurant and Bedminster shows that we can do it better on our worst day than they can do on their best day, » he said.
Trump’s ability to grab the spotlight is no revelation. But for a field of Republican candidates eager to differentiate themselves from the former president, it’s becoming an increasingly pressing problem.
Former Vice President Mike Pence met with the Wall Street Journal’s editorial board last week for an interview that focused largely on his views on the indictment. But he briefly barged into an interview on Fox Business’ « Kudlow » the following day, when he appeared to receive little short of an endorsement from the Fox host and Trump’s former National Economic Council director. « I don’t think there is anyone more qualified than you » Kudlow exclaimed.
Ramaswamy, who did his best to intercept Trump’s whirlwind media week with his press conference, denied in an interview that he did it to garner headlines.
« If you believe in something, you show up, » he said.
An adviser to another of Trump’s rivals, Sen. Tim Scott, said the campaign hasn’t been fazed by its degree of media coverage since Trump’s latest accusation. Despite a Fox News interview shortly after the news of Trump’s indictment focused almost entirely on Trump news, Scott’s interviews with conservative media outlets since have only briefly touched on the former president.
Scott has addressed only light questions about the allegation in interviews with Mark Levin and Simon Conway, and Sean Hannity has announced he’s holding a televised town hall with Scott this week in South Carolina.
Even Haley managed to get some headlines about the kind of news her campaign is pushing. Local media in Iowa covered her campaign team launch in the state, while South Carolina news teased an upcoming town hall election. But the major national headlines Haley drew were for her comments on Trump’s prosecution — first that Trump was « reckless » and then that she would still be « inclined » to forgive him if he were convicted of the charges federal.
For many Republican strategists, it’s unclear when, if ever, the dynamic will change.
« It’s almost like you’re playing pool, » said a Republican strategist who declined to be named to discuss the campaign freely. “You have to break at the beginning and nothing broke the triangle. Trump is the 8 ball in the center and he’s not going anywhere for now. I’m curious to see what the fuck people will do. »