This week brought news that Donald Trump is facing yet another criminal investigation—into his 2016 hush-money payoff to the adult-film star Stormy Daniels—and that former South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley, who served in his Administration, is set to announce her 2024 candidacy in a couple of weeks. These developments came days after Trump set out on the campaign trail again for the first time, making appearances in New Hampshire and South Carolina. Taking place in two small venues—a high-school auditorium and the second-floor lobby of a state house—these events were very different from Trump’s trademark stadium rallies.
Establishment Republicans derided Trump’s début. “He’s turning into Mott the Hoople and doing the state-fair tour,” the G.O.P. strategist Mike Murphy, who advised Jeb Bush during the 2016 primaries, told me. “It’s like a half-life. He’s shrinking.” Murphy wasn’t just referring to the small crowds that attended Trump’s events but also to polls indicating that many Republican voters don’t want the former President to be the G.O.P. candidate in 2024. With his legal troubles mounting and more Republican challengers on the horizon, Trump needs to rekindle some of the excitement among G.O.P. primary voters that he did in 2016. But does he have anything new to offer?
Judging by the speech he delivered in Salem, New Hampshire, which lasted nearly an hour, the answer is no. He began by reminding the audience that he has won two New Hampshire primaries, and repeating his false voter-fraud claims: “And, by the way, I believe we also won two general elections, if you want to know the truth.” Then he vowed to keep attacking Joe Biden and the “radical Democrats,” saying, “I think in many cases they are Marxists and communists.” Trump brought up some of the investigations he is involved in, complaining, “I’m the only one they go after.” He also mentioned Antifa, gas stoves, and trans women competing in college sports.
Finally, the former President turned to what he described as a “bold, ambitious agenda.” This, though, also turned out to be nothing new. In order of delivery, it consisted of restoring the draconian measures that he employed at the southern border; waging war on Mexican drug cartels; eliminating federal funding for schools that teach “critical race theory or left-wing gender ideology”; ending Joe Biden’s “war on energy”; and rebuilding the “greatest economy in the history of our world.” In Trump’s telling, achieving the latter goal was simply a matter of lowering taxes, reducing Chinese imports, and forcing Chinese companies to divest any U.S. holdings that put “national security at risk.”
After watching Trump’s windy address in New Hampshire, I went back and read the transcript of the speech he made at Trump Tower on June 16, 2015, when he announced his first Presidential bid. On that occasion, too, he spoke about immigration and the economy, but the difference was that his remarks then seemed shockingly outside the mainstream. Trump accused Mexico of sending “rapists” across the border. And he vowed to bring good jobs back to the United States by remaking trade relationships with China and other countries. “We have all the cards, but we don’t know how to use them,” he declared, portraying himself as a master negotiator who knew how to deal with tough adversaries. “We don’t even know that we have the cards, because our leaders don’t understand the game.”
Fanning ethnic and racial resentments by using inflammatory language about immigrants and presenting himself as an outsider who could upend the political and economic status quo provided Trump with a distinct platform, the efficacy of which rival candidates, as well as pundits, greatly underestimated. Today, however, Trump is an ex-President rather than an outsider, and many of his policy positions are no longer new and distinctive. On the Republican side, virtually everybody emphasizes immigration and vows to close the southern border. And there is now a remarkable bipartisan consensus about confronting China on the economy, even if this involves violating some of the pre-trade principles that the United States promulgated for sixty years after the Second World War.
“Trump’s problem is there are too many Trumps,” John Sides, a political scientist at Vanderbilt who has co-authored books on the 2016 and 2020 elections, told me. “That doesn’t mean he can’t win. It just means it’s going to be a different type of primary.” Sides pointed to immigration policy as an example. Given its salience to Republican voters and the surge of migrants and asylum seekers at the southern border, which recently prompted the Biden Administration to change policy, it may be wise for Trump to make it a central campaign issue again, Sides said. “But,” he added, “I don’t think he’s going to stand out from the pack on the basis of his anti-immigration rhetoric when maybe his No. 1 opponent is shipping immigrants from San Antonio to Martha’s Vineyard.”
Sides was referring to Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, of course, who is also threatening to outflank Trump on fighting the right-wing culture war in schools. As a governor, DeSantis has more power than Trump to do things such as banning books from school libraries and rejecting certain courses he considers too “woke.” In the debased internal logic of today’s G.O.P., this means the political advantage in this area will likely remain with DeSantis.
That said, the Florida governor is untested at the national level, and Trump undoubtedly retains broad support at the base of the Republican Party—as evidenced by the Trump flags and campaign signs that still festoon many parts of the country, and by surveys of potential voters in the G.O.P. primary. The Real Clear Politics poll average lists three national polls that were carried out in January. They showed Trump leading the potential field by twelve points (Economist/YouGov), twenty points (Harvard/Harris), and twenty-six points (Emerson College). Also, the fact that so many Republican leaders are unwilling to break publicly with Trump shows that they still fear his ability to rally the base of the Party against them.
Murphy, the former Jeb Bush adviser, said Trump’s support is declining, and he pointed to state polls showing Trump trailing DeSantis in Florida and elsewhere. “In the places where Republicans have already tasted another dog food, he’s not doing well,” Murphy said. “It’s true that’s not happened yet in places like Iowa, Oklahoma, and Texas, but it’s still early.” For this reason, among others, Murphy said the national polls showing Trump well ahead, such as the one he brought up in his New Hampshire speech, are likely to prove unreliable. Quoting Milton Gwirtzman, a Washington fixture of old who advised the Kennedys, Murphy said that in Presidential primaries national polls don’t mean anything until after the first state contest has taken place.
That won’t be for nearly another year, a fact that should give anyone pause before making predictions. One thing that does already seem clear, though, is that a good deal will depend on how many other Republicans enter the contest. The more candidates that follow Haley’s lead, the more likely it is that the non-Trump vote will be divided (as it was in 2016). After the first few G.O.P. primaries, where delegates are allocated in proportion to votes, many of the rest are winner take all, which means a candidate could win many delegates with a mere plurality of support. Murphy conceded that this is a potential advantage for Trump, but he insisted that the former President is in serious trouble. “He can’t take six months more of decline,” he said. “If he does, the whole narrative will turn against him.” ♦