I’ve treated it as a given that Trump is the nominee in 2024 if he wants to be. But today’s “Major Announcement” from Trump, which ended up being a new set of NFT playing cards with Trump in a bulging Superman suit, crystalizes my growing doubts about whether he still has the juice to go another round. We’ve also seen a couple polls this week which show a clear majority of self-described Republican primary voters prefer Ron DeSantis over Trump, albeit with DeSantis continuing Trump’s policies. But polls can change. Nor does a poll more than a year out from the first primary capture all the kinetic dimensions of an actual primary battle. What is less changeable are the growing signs that Trump is just a loser.
I don’t mean this in a demeaning sense but a descriptive one. Again and again since the November election Trump keeps coming up short. Each effort to regain the initiative, reassert some control over the GOP, comes up short. This can seem like he’s just lost his touch. He’s fully seven years older than when he first got into this in the summer of 2015. He’s also been holed up at Mar-a-Lago for much of the last year, beset by an increasingly severe set of legal challenges. He doesn’t have access to Twitter (though Elon Musk actually did reinstate his account a couple weeks ago) and it’s been a long time since he has been willing to go on air anywhere but among the host of true-believer digital cable networks his presidency spawned.
I can’t figure how much it is him or the context of the moment. But I think it’s more the latter. Trump is about winning and dominating. Right now he’s not doing either. The poor midterm result was a huge repudiation. But Trump is more vulnerable to setbacks than other politicians since winning is not only the goal. It’s the ideology itself. He’s falling behind his Republican rivals. His followers are losing at the polls. He has reverse after reverse in the courts. Often it seems like his 2024 bid is just a ploy to stay out of jail, which is hardly an exciting campaign slogan: Trump 2024, Because the Boss Doesn’t Want to Do Time. The same bag of tricks doesn’t have the same impact when he has the stink of a loser about him. And he does.
Trump still has plenty of potential advantages. The more beatable he looks in the polls the more challengers he’ll draw. Many party leaders hope for something like a bloodless palace coup in which DeSantis eliminates Trump and painlessly stands in for him. But there are plenty of ambitious Republicans who want a shot at the big prize as well. If Trump looks beatable, as he currently does, there’s next to no chance DeSantis gets a clear shot at him. That helps Trump a lot since his 30%-40% support among Republicans in a hypothetical primary battle is certainly far more durable than anyone else’s. On his own, DeSantis gets everyone who’s tired of Trump. With others, the anti-Trump vote gets divided.
I still don’t know that I’d bet against him. But he does continue to lose juice. And even starting the campaign in earnest is a year away.