Donald Trump is 40 points ahead in the Republican primary race and doesn’t appear to be slipping any. But being a curmudgeon, I need to point out that not one single vote has been cast for any candidate for president. In fact, there are still four months until the first caucus in Iowa is held.
That means that lightning could strike any of the candidates — even fading heroes like Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis.
DeSantis is still running second to Trump, though his original strategy has failed miserably. Voters apparently don’t want the most anti-woke or populist candidate. They seem to want Trump — come hell or high water. And it will be Trump who defines the issues the Republican Party will run on. Voters will tailor their beliefs to place them in line with Trump’s views.
This would seem to preclude any serious challenges to Trump coming out of this debate. But there are some indications that Republican-leaning independents — about 25% of the GOP primary electorate — don’t support Trump in nearly the numbers that Republicans support him.
The problem is that there are going to be seven candidates on that stage tonight, splitting the anti-Trump and Never Trump vote.
What happened to all that talk about GOP whales donating hundreds of millions of dollars to stop Trump?
“Where were all these people who were speaking a big game [about stopping Trump] when it came time to put rubber on the road?” an adviser to another campaign complained to NBC News. “The bare minimum they could have done was make sure he was so damaged that he wasn’t sitting at 50% in the polls. But because they sat on their hands, they’ve essentially ceded the nomination to him, and it’s through inaction.”
The Republican donor class is a fickle bunch. Being successful businessmen, they want a sure thing in which to invest their money. Ron DeSantis — a disappointment on so many levels — has already had his shot. Vivek Ramaswamy has so many flip-flops no one’s quite sure whether he’s a Democrat or Republican.
The only candidate to gain in the polls since the first GOP debate has been Nikki Haley. Admittedly, it’s sort of a joke to say that she “gained” much. She went from 3.2% in the national polls to 5.4%. But she did make a significant jump in Iowa — up to 9%, which is good for third place. She’s in second at 14.7% in her home state of South Carolina, and at 13.7% in New Hampshire, also good for second.
If any candidate has a chance to gain a smidgen of momentum tonight, it’s probably Haley.
I don’t mean to overstate Haley’s case. The first threshold of “electability” is winning a primary, of course, and as I said last week, I can’t imagine where a traditional conservative like her would find the votes to do that in an electorate like this one. I quote myself: “The Republican Party in 2023 is a party by and for demagogues. Nikki Haley isn’t a demagogue.” Her realistic best-case scenario is something like the short end of a 66-33 split with Trump.
But I do think it’s possible that she’ll ultimately consolidate the party’s Trump-leery vote, and that the process might begin on Wednesday night.
The truth is, any GOP candidate would probably win in 2024 if Biden runs. That’s why there will come a time when panic sets in for the Democrats, and a few very high-ranking party members — Barack Obama? — will confront Biden and tell him to go into retirement.
Until then, Republicans have a primary contest. And for those anti-Trump and Never Trump Republicans, that means trying to consolidate the field to one or two candidates who might draw some of those hundreds of millions of dollars sitting out there, waiting for the right candidate to show their stuff.
Stranger things have happened in politics. Big leads have disappeared virtually overnight. Hillary Clinton led Barack Obama by 29 points at the end of October 2007. Howard Dean looked unstoppable after the Iowa Caucus in 2004.
One final observation: the voters are wild for a different matchup than Trump-Biden. That’s a dynamic that may mean something if a third-party candidate entered the race.