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Wednesday, July 24, 2024 | Back issues
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How Trump won the nomination

In early 2023, the former president looked like a loser — and yet he made winning the Republican nod appear easy. How did he turn things around?

(CN) — A little over a year ago, Florida governor Ron DeSantis led Donald Trump in New Hampshire by double digits. Large numbers of Republicans seemed ready to move on from the former president, blaming him for a poor showing in the midterms and viewing him as too full of baggage and as radioactive to suburban women.

And that was before he was indicted.

A year later, with his last rival, former U.N. ambassador Nikki Haley, bowing out after a poor showing on Super Tuesday, Trump made clinching his third straight Republican nomination seem effortless. But it was hardly inevitable. The tale of how he dispatched five governors, a popular U.S. senator and his own vice president involves considerable political skill and a good dose of luck, and it says a lot about the Republican party and what might happen in the general election.

After their defeat in 2020, Republicans splintered into three groups: a minority of diehard Trump fans, a different minority of traditional never-Trumpers, and “a lot of people in the middle” who generally liked Trump’s America-first policies but disliked his personality and thought he’d be a poor candidate, said Andrew Smith, director of the University of New Hampshire Survey Center.

The story of Trump’s victory is the story of how he gradually expanded beyond his base and consolidated those people in the middle.

Early on, the people in the middle were directly targeted by DeSantis, who positioned himself as Trump without the drama. But while the governor attracted a lot of big-money donors, he proved to be “a terrible candidate,” said Smith. “He didn’t have the soft skills you need. He didn’t come across as likeable and sympathetic to the concerns of voters.”

He was “awkward and boring,” said David Niven, a political scientist at the University of Cincinnati.

An early DeSantis misstep was not announcing his candidacy until late May 2023, after spending months on Florida legislative matters and a book tour. Trump, who had announced the previous November, spent tens of millions of dollars attacking DeSantis before the governor got into the race and could respond.

And when he did begin his campaign, it failed to launch — literally. His big announcement on Twitter was derailed by technical issues.

DeSantis then outsourced many traditional campaign operations to his Super PAC, which resulted in “a lot of wasted money, stepping on toes, and an incoherent message,” said Linda Fowler, a professor of government at Dartmouth College.

“A lot of big-state governors think that going from Triple-A to the majors is similar, but it’s different in kind,” explained Robert Kaufman, a political scientist at Pepperdine University. DeSantis responded to questions from Iowans by talking about his record in Florida. In New Hampshire, where voters are socially liberal, he emphasized his anti-woke agenda, Smith noted.

In the end, the candidate billed as “Trump without the drama” came across as neither Trump nor without the drama. New Hampshire voter Beverly Bennardo complained that DeSantis generated his own drama with Disney and wondered how he’d manage the country when he had difficulty managing his campaign. Another New Hampshire voter, Dan Flynn, called him “arrogant, like he thinks he deserves it.”

DeSantis’ nosedive created a brief summer boomlet for Vivek Ramaswamy, another “Trump without the drama” candidate. But in the debates, Ramaswamy proved “immediately unlikeable,” Smith said.

Meanwhile, the never-Trump faction was split among multiple candidates, most of whom were reluctant to directly attack Trump because they calculated that they would need his supporters to win a general election. “They feared becoming Liz Cheney,” said Charles Bullock, who teaches political science at the University of Georgia.

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Trump’s own campaign was far more sophisticated than it was in 2016, when he was largely improvising, according to Dante Scala, a political science professor at the University of New Hampshire. Trump had a much better operation in Iowa this year, and the campaign’s key strategic decisions such as skipping the debates proved to be astute.

Avoiding the debates “put Trump in his own solo tier, and left the others to fight among themselves,” Scala said.

Also, compared to 2016, Trump had “much less interaction with the public, less press, and less opportunity to say crazy things,” Smith pointed out. “That was partly deliberate and partly due to his preoccupation with his legal issues. But if you interact, you can make mistakes. Why do it if you don’t have to? His name recognition allowed him not to interact.”

When Trump did interact, he often did so in a symbolic way, such as by visiting the southern border or East Palestine, Ohio.

Trump’s cleverest move was his response to his indictments: For a Republican electorate skeptical of his drama and baggage, he portrayed his legal problems not as his own drama but as evidence that it was his opponents, not him, who were violating social norms and conventions.

He turned his Georgia arraignment “into something like O.J. in the white Bronco,” Scala said. “He melded it into a campaign piece. It would be a death knell for any other politician, but he incorporated it seamlessly into his campaign.”

“He played it brilliantly,” agreed Kaufman. “Trump was masterful at making the most out of this theater and posing as a modern-day Ajax, a man aggrieved by being treated unfairly.”

It’s unclear how many voters were actually swayed to support Trump by the indictments, but “a lot of evangelicals thought that he was being persecuted for his support of Christianity. It fits with their theology,” said Fowler.

Trump’s framing of the indictments was “a quasi-religious message,” agreed Bullock. “I’m accepting all this for you, like Jesus died for your sins.”

Trump’s personal life “is far from holy,” Bullock observed, but he noted that a number of evangelicals compared him to the Persian king Cyrus, who wasn’t a Jew himself but enabled the Jews to return to the promised land.

Even if the indictments didn’t sway many people in and of themselves, “they stopped any defections of Trump supporters in their tracks and muted criticism by others,” Kaufman said. Trump’s opponents “had to say that he was treated unjustly, and that drained any sustained attack.”

The Republican candidates didn’t sharply disagree over many substantive political issues, which made the contest a clash of personalities in which Trump’s larger-than-life one was an asset. It also drew media attention, because Trump attracts clicks and eyeballs like no one else. “Trump sucks all the air out of the news media,” said Fowler. “Christie went after him, but for every article about Christie, there were 15 about Trump.”

Trump was also lucky, according to Bullock, in that the main issues on which large numbers of voters have given Biden low marks — inflation, the border, foreign policy — are ones on which Trump can generally claim a track record of success in Republicans’ eyes. That gave him a leg up on opponents without such a record.

Haley attempted to attack Trump on foreign policy, but undecided Republican voters often agreed with Trump’s approach. “I went to Haley rallies and listened to her connect the dots on Ukraine, Israel, Taiwan and Iran,” said Scala. “And I waited to see if there would be spontaneous applause, but people just sat on their hands.”

After inflation and the border, polls show that the most important issue to Republicans is “protecting democracy,” Smith said. In framing his indictments as an attack on democracy itself, Trump turned a major attack theme of the Biden campaign — and of his Republican opponents — back against them. It was “political jiu-jitsu,” Smith commented, “and it took a remarkable piece of political skill to pull that off.”

Niven offered another theory as to how Trump did so well: The polls a year ago were simply wrong. “You’d be hard-pressed to say that the polls have done a good job of assessing Trump’s support at any time and in any context,” he said, on top of which “people are very bad at predicting their future behavior. If I ask you how often you’ll go to the gym six months from now, you might say ‘every day,’ but in six months you’ll give a more accurate answer.”

Niven thinks many people who said they liked Trump’s policies but not his behavior were simply giving a socially acceptable response. In the voting booth, “people vote their feelings. How did Barack Obama, a freshman senator, win? He made people feel hopeful.”

Smith disagrees and thinks that the people in the middle were genuinely skeptical. But Trump’s accomplishment wasn’t in winning them over, exactly; it was in “keeping them from drifting away and keeping them from having an alternative.”

And Scala believes that the people who wanted “Trump without the drama” simply didn’t like what Trump without the drama turned out to look like.

“The theory of ‘Trumpism without Trump’ misses the joy and the bond that MAGA people have with Trump,” he said. “That joy is a real thing. No one ever got joy out of going to see Ron DeSantis.”

Like Ronald Reagan, Scala continued, “Trump is both the leader of a party and the leader of a movement. He’s both an incumbent establishment figure and the consummate outsider. How do you pull that off? But he did it.”

Categories / Elections, National, Politics

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