The Very Invisible Republican Primary

Column: Trump wins if Republican challengers don't make a case against him

May 12, 2023

Donald Trump won the presidency by the seat of his pants in 2016. Republicans have lost the House, the White House, the Senate, and governor's mansions in the years since. He has been impeached twice. In the past month he has been indicted by a Manhattan grand jury and found liable, in a separate civil suit, for sexual assault and defamation. He remains in legal jeopardy, with prosecutors in Washington, D.C., and Atlanta, Georgia, mulling charges in cases related to the 2020 election and to his transfer of classified documents to his Florida home. He has the highest unfavorable rating of any politician in the Real Clear Politics (RCP) average of polls and less than zero interest in changing his public image.

Yet Trump is far and away the leader for the 2024 Republican nomination and is neck-and-neck with Joe Biden in general election matchups. In the RCP average he has a 30-point lead over the next closest GOP competitor, Florida governor Ron DeSantis, and is essentially tied with the incumbent president. Both the primary and general contests are a long way away, of course—but early GOP frontrunners tend to win the nomination, and Biden's age and economic record are reasons for Democrats to worry.

Why is Trump doing so well? Is it because he has constructed "an impenetrable political force field," as National Review editor in chief Rich Lowry suggests? I'm skeptical. Polls are not the same as elections, and Trump's electoral record is not especially impressive. Most voters do not like him, have voted against him, and more likely than not will vote against him again. Nor has Trump’s force field repelled attacks from his fellow Republicans. There haven't been attacks to repel. Trump is advancing toward the GOP nomination and looks competitive against Biden for a simple reason: He faces no resistance.

This has been a truly invisible primary. Historically, the frontrunner comes under attack from his or her rivals. Think Rudy Giuliani and Hillary Clinton in 2008, Mitt Romney in 2012, Jeb Bush and Hillary Clinton in 2016, or Joe Biden in 2020. The rivals make the case that they, not the frontrunner, should lead their party in the next election. They base their arguments on policy differences. They share their concerns about the frontrunner's character. They draw specific contrasts between candidacies, and they are not afraid to say that the frontrunner is wrong or incompetent or unelectable. Republican primaries since 2008 have been especially raucous. Candidates all but fling themselves at each other.

Not this year. It's as if we have two incumbent presidents in this race, and neither faces a serious internal threat. Besides Trump, at present there are four declared Republican candidates with 1 percent or more of the GOP primary vote. Only one, former Arkansas governor Asa Hutchinson, has said that the verdict in the E. Jean Carroll rape and defamation case "should be treated with seriousness and is another example of the indefensible behavior of Donald Trump."

Radio talk show host Larry Elder responded to the Trump news by naming women who have accused President Biden and former president Bill Clinton of sexual misconduct. Entrepreneur and author Vivek Ramaswamy defended Trump and said that Carroll's suit was politically motivated. Former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley told radio host Hugh Hewitt that "I'm not going to get into that," that "we've gotta leave the baggage and the negativity behind," and that "it's not my case, it's his case."

Most of the Republicans who might launch presidential bids in the coming months are just as evasive. They mix praise of Trump while lamenting his weaknesses. They pretend that he doesn't exist while dropping implied criticisms of his effectiveness and demeanor. Only former New Jersey governor Chris Christie slams Trump in the manner that you would expect from a competitor. Responding to Trump's refusal in a CNN town hall to say which side he preferred to win the war in Ukraine, Christie told Hewitt, "I think he's a coward, and I think he's a puppet of Putin." Now them's fightin' words.

And they are rare. Trump's closest rival, DeSantis, seems to be moving toward a June campaign launch. His book rollout, international trade mission, and successful legislative session have not reversed his decline in the polls. Nor have the millions of dollars a pro-DeSantis super PAC has spent in TV ads highlighting his biography. Other than a sly remark ahead of Trump's indictment over hush money payments to a stripper, DeSantis hasn't gone after the former president either directly or indirectly. His pre-announcement strategy has been to out-MAGA Trump on foreign policy and the culture war while avoiding a one-on-one clash with the frontrunner.

The results have been disappointing. Trump's positions appear closer to the center of the electorate on entitlements, abortion, and the economy, while his ferocious political and personal attacks on DeSantis have been left unanswered. His lead over the Florida governor has grown.

Maybe that will change when DeSantis makes his candidacy official. An anti-Trump tweet and statement from the DeSantis-supporting super PAC after the CNN town hall suggests that things may get spicy; we don't know. The point is that DeSantis will have to go high on the Scoville scale if he wants to catch up with Trump. His current approach is not working.

The reluctance of the Republican field to confront the frontrunner has created a weird situation in which Trump inadvertently delivers the arguments both for and against his candidacy. Trump's political cunning, rhetorical talent, and gut connection with the grassroots are evident in his public appearances and speeches. His serious liabilities are on display when he is the subject of legal action or defends his remarks on the infamous Access Hollywood tape.

We are so used to Republican presidential candidates praising, ignoring, or appeasing the former president that it came as a shock when Sen. Todd Young of Indiana told CNN on May 11 that he won't support Trump and, when pressed for a reason, said, "Where do I begin?" It's hard to imagine a candidate other than Hutchinson or Christie saying the same. Which is why Trump looks untouchable.

He's not, though. It's at least plausible that a Republican could consolidate college-educated GOP voters and make inroads into Trump's non-college coalition, especially if that Republican narrows the field to two candidates. First, though, that Republican would have to explain why he or she should be the nominee instead of Trump.

The Democrats understand that Joe Biden's best—perhaps sole—chance for a second term is to remobilize the anti-Trump coalition that has appeared in every post-2016 cycle except 2021. This primary may end up an exercise in obeisance, but the general won't be. Contrasts will be drawn. Memories will be jogged. Fears will be revived. If Republican challengers won't say why Donald Trump should be denied the presidency, Democrats will.