Conventional wisdom sees Donald Trump as either the man to beat for the Republican nomination, or at least a protracted fight to the finish with Ron DeSantis. But could Trump break out and not even make it to the Iowa caucuses?
It’s not as far fetched as you might think. In fact, it’s not far-fetched at all.
Trump has serious strategic problems, electoral problems, not to mention legal troubles. They all add up to a very rough development over the next few months. Everyone knows Trump hates losing. When confronted with losing, he either claims he was cheated or gives up.
A year from now, Trump could be far enough behind DeSantis that surrender will be the only way to avoid defeat.
Bad numbers keep getting worse
Trump’s polls have been weak for over a year, with the percentage of Republicans who want him to run consistently falling 20 points or more below his approval ratings. He’s found it difficult to score over 50 percent in poll tests against Republicans who aren’t even running yet.
And those numbers keep getting worse.
Both YouGov and Morning Consult conducted post-election benchmarks, and Trump’s fortunes are generally falling. Morning Consult has the best poll numbers for Trump, but Trump’s positive rating with Republicans was just under 80 percent. While 61 percent of Republicans still want Trump to run, 73 percent of independents don’t. Trump’s poll test against DeSantis fell from a preliminary 48-26 percent advantage to a 47-33 percent advantage, down 8 points.
The YouGov poll is a disaster for Trump. Within a week, Trump fell from 81 percent approval to 77 percent. Worse, Republicans who want him to run have plummeted from 60 percent to just 47 percent. DeSantis has a 46 to 39 percent advantage on the election test. YouGov polled all voters at a Trump-DeSantis election and every demographic group preferred DeSantis except for Hispanics, who were evenly split. Conservatives favored DeSantis 51 percent to 33 percent, a disaster for Trump.
Dull and directionless Donald
But Trump’s biggest problem going forward is that he has nothing new to offer.
His campaign announcement showed a man trudging forward. After months of making a “big announcement” that everyone knew he was going to get in the race for, the actual event was an anti-climax. Instead of a big show, America saw Trump walk into a gaudy country club ballroom and blast his way through a haphazard teleprompter speech.
It offered nothing really new or interesting. Aside from moving from blaming Democrats for stealing the 2020 election to blaming China (watch out for this becoming an issue), Trump has just lapped up old promises and complained about Biden. What’s the message? Trump Had Four Years To Build A Wall And Didn’t, So Give Him A Second Chance? Trump hasn’t drained the swamp, but will he do it this time? And there was no follow-up. No big rally in Iowa or New Hampshire. Trump spoke and that was it.
It all adds up to a candidate with no message, no credibility and even – eventually – no showmanship.
Given all his votes, how does Trump win or even stop the bleeding?
Pivots don’t work
That lackluster Mar-a-Lago speech may have been an attempt to “rotate” in response to the beating Trump candidates delivered during the midterm elections.
It’s possible that Trump and his advisers have realized that blaming Democrats for “stealing” the 2020 election simply has no effect, and they’ve been eyeing a new bogeyman: China is universally unpopular — maybe they thought he could avoid reversing his “stop stealing” allegations, blaming Xi Jinping and the CCP. Actual evidence was never a requirement for these guys. But Trump and his followers are too deep into the original reasoning for this new move to work.
Trump uses the teleprompter whenever he thinks “statesmanlike” action is needed. Again, he and his collaborators likely took a cue from the midterms as voters rejected candidates struggling to be the most obnoxious person in the room. But Trump’s whole thing is to be loud and attack without limits. Trump is just too deep into this character, too one-dimensional, and doesn’t have the political skills to pull off a “new Nixon” transformation. There will be no “new Trump”.
To make matters worse, Trump has become a loser. Big GOP donors have bailed out. Republican governors were meeting just hours away in Orlando — none saw fit to make it to Palm Beach, an unthinkable snub a year ago. No GOP senator attended; Instead, they voted for Trump pray noire, Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), back as their leader. Even daughter Ivanka was a no-show. The participants were a collection of MAGA table scraps.
Over the summer, I wrote about President Biden’s and Trump’s political co-dependence. That dynamic has shifted as Trump took on the heat for the GOP’s underperforming and Biden was energized by the Democrats’ relatively good year. Biden’s ascendant isn’t hurting Trump as much as it’s helping DeSantis. With the prospect of Biden as the Democratic nominee, DeSantis most likely looks a lot better for Republicans, at least for now.
The contrast between a new, energetic candidate in DeSantis and the aging, slip-up-prone Biden hurts Trump. Better to have a 46-year-old (2024) winner against the creaking 82-year-old Biden than the only slightly less geriatric, dull, underdog Trump.
The YouGov poll showed that 54 percent of voters believe Biden’s age affects his ability to become president, while just 18 percent disagree. Among the independents, the total is 51 to 8 percent. All demographics and both parties have at least a majority that thinks Biden’s age is an issue.
All in all, nothing works for Trump. He runs on fumes.
Giving up is better than losing
If Trump is staring at defeat by next December, I suspect he’ll find a way to get out — maybe to fight “unfair” prosecutions, maybe to deal with a false health scare, or — less likely — to get out of his giving in to his wife and family . Maybe it’s a combination. There’s no way Trump will beg for votes in Iowa and New Hampshire only to be turned away. He may be a little delusional, but he can read the polls.
Too many experts and politicians have been burned by Trump. The lazy and safe way is to be careful when writing Trump’s political obituary. But political conditions have changed drastically from the days when Trump rode high, and political connoisseurs were more concerned with wishful thinking than real analysis.
Today Trump is in a much darker place.
He offers nothing to reverse his decline.
Only the self-destruction of his opponents – whether DeSantis or Mike Pence – could change the game. It’s possible, but that means Trump’s future is at the mercy of others. And given his own self-destructive tendencies, it would take an epic series of meltdowns to shore up Trump.
Keith Naughton, Ph.D., is co-founder of Silent Majority Strategies, a public and regulatory affairs consultancy. Naughton is a former campaign adviser in Pennsylvania. Follow him on Twitter @KNaughton711.