The USA, (Brussels Morning Newspaper) Over the last three decades or so Ralph Reed has been an advocate for an ugly bigoted Christian theocracy, an apologist for the fascistic movement led by Donald Trump and a slick talking self-righteous political operative who while embracing Christianity has strayed very far from the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth. However, like and arrogant fascistic and broken clock, he is right twice a day.
A few weeks ago, on the eve of the Faith and Freedom conference, where most of the major GOP candidates made their appeal to their party’s fanatical theocratic base, Reed told Politico, “Coming into this weekend, Trump is in as formidable position as any titular frontrunner in my career.” It may seem obvious to describe Trump as a formidable frontrunner, but there is still a lot of reluctance to do this, despite, as Reed points out, the very strong position Trump occupies.
Anecdotes about great comebacks, stumbling frontrunners and out-of-nowhere nominees are part of the lore of the primary season. They are fun stories, but they also can be misleading. The Ur candidate of this kind is Jimmy Carter who, even at the end of 1975, was almost invisible in the polls, and came back to win the Democratic nomination and then the presidency in 1976. However, Carter and the 1976 campaign are only vaguely relevant to this 2024 Republican primary. Those events occurred in a different technological and political world and in a race where there was no strong frontrunner comparable to Trump this cycle today.
Beyond Carter, we hear endlessly about how early frontrunners Hillary Clinton and Rudolph Giuliani failed to win their party’s nomination in 2008. We hear a lot less about Walter Mondale in 1984, Al Gore in 2000, Hillary Clinton in 2016, Ronald Reagan in 1980, George H. W. Bush in 1988, Bob Dole in 1996, George W. Bush in 2000, John McCain in 2008 or Mitt Romney in 2012. All those early frontrunners went on to win their party’s nomination, and in the case of Reagan and both Bushes, the presidency. Those examples aren’t as exciting, but they are part of presidential campaign history as well. In most of the remaining primaries of the last 50 years, there was either only a slight frontrunner-Dukakis in 1988, for example, a crowded field with no clear frontrunner, like the Democrats in 1992, or an incumbent president who was easily renominated by his party.
Underestimating Trump’s strength is shoddy analysis and compares campaigns that are not all that similar. As a former president who has twice been his party’s nominee, Trump has institutional strength that is very different than a governor or senator running for president for the first time. Additionally, because of his almost universal name recognition it is very hard to bring Trump’s poll numbers down by attacking him.
Essentially, there is nothing new that an opponent can say about Donald Trump that people don’t already know. For example, if an opponent pointed out that Trump is a serial sexual predator, failed business person, deeply racist and corrupt, almost all voters would either nod their heads and say “I know those things and I’m never voting for him,” or they would say “I’ve heard all that and it’s not true. Trump’s my guy.” Most Republicans would choose the latter. Therefore, it will be very difficult to bring Trump down by going after his ample vulnerabilities. Additionally, none of those earlier frontrunners who failed to win their party’s nomination consistently polled over 50% throught the early phase of the primary as Trump has been doing.
It is also later in the primary season then some pundits suggest.
With each passing cycle, the process begins earlier. During the 20th century, candidates rarely announced as far in advance as they do now, and primary debates were not held in the summer before the election year as they are now. Therefore, eighteen months before the first votes are cast is a lot later in 2024 than it was in 1976, 1992 or even 2008. Nonetheless, it is still worth noting that by mid-July of 2015, Trump led in almost all Republican primary polls and never lost that lead. Similarly, although the 2020 Democratic primary may seem like ancient history now, the leader among Democratic candidates for most of 2019, according to almost all polls, was…Joe Biden.
In other words, it is not too early to see a large lead for Trump as an enormous obstacle for every other Republican candidate.
Underestimating Trump is more than just intellectual laziness. It is a form of political cowardice that grows out of an inability, or more likely an unwillingness, to confront the reality of the last eight years.
Donald Trump has remade the Republican Party from a conservative party to a fascist-adjacent one whose core members have a tenuous relationship with reality and a cult-like loyalty to Trump. No amount of pontificating about how it is still early in the primary season or wishful thinking that somehow Chris Christie, Asa Hutchinsonm Nikki Haley or Will Hurd can be Trump-slayers, is going to change that.
A wide-open Republican primary where various non-Trump candidates seek to build on the lessons of the last few years and move their party, and the country, away from Trumpist fascism and back towards democracy would be a wonderful.-so would finding a way to reverse climate change by a million people holding hands, standing on one foot and singing Bob Dylan songs to the tune of the Gilligan’s Island theme song, but neither of those things are going to happen.
It is also true that a sine qua non of politics is that there are no guarantees. It is certainly possible that Trump could lose the nomination, although the most likely cause of that would be debilitating health issue rather than say another conviction or somebody out-performing him on the debate stage. However, a candidate with 30 or so point lead, support from over 50% of likely primary voters and almost universal name recognition is in an extremely strong position and no poorly grounded comparisons to previous primary seasons are going to change that.