Every day we see more evidence that Donald Trump has jumped the shark — poor fundraising, deteriorating elite GOP support, mounting criminal legal peril and more. Meanwhile, Ron DeSantis, coming off a resounding reelection win, has all the malevolence and lib-owning of Trump and none of the baggage. The only remaining bright spot for Trump are the polls which continue to show him … well, to be the leader of the GOP and the odds-on favorite to be the 2024 GOP nominee. Yes, that’s what I’m saying. Don’t believe the hype: Trump is still the guy. And if you look at recent polls he seems to be becoming more the guy rather than less as we get further from the November election.
In five of the last six primary polls, Trump has led DeSantis by at least 10 points. In the last three his margins have been 15 (Fox), 23 (Harvard-Harris) and 30 (Emerson).
It’s true that this is very early in the primary process. The field is incomplete. But that matters much less than it normally would. Everybody knows who Trump is, what he represents and what kind of president he would be. Because of this, the question at the heart of the primary is clear and unlikely to change: Trump or not? The answer to that question could change. But the question is very unlikely to do so.
What could change the answer? The most obvious thing would be serious indictments which change perception of the man or, more concretely, raise the possibility that he’ll be in prison by January 2025. For a conventional politician that would be the end. But given who Trump is and the dynamics of today’s Republican Party, it seems at least as likely that indictments would make it even harder for any Republican to criticize him. His faux-martyrdom is likely to make him untouchable. Rivals intent on tearing him down would be forced in spite of themselves to defend him. If they’re not defending him as such they’d be forced to attack his purported persecutors, which amounts to the same thing.
He is diminished, wounded, weaker, older. But he still dominates the GOP, not unlike the over-mighty warlord who deeply divided the GOP but could not be dislodged and won the party nomination on that basis in 2016. I know the contrary arguments and in themselves they make a certain sense. But nothing we’re seeing suggests any dynamic that would change this equation.