In the past few days, we’ve seen a number of political analysts come to a momentous conclusion. Actually, two momentous conclusions. The first is that it is unlikely anyone can catch former President Donald Trump in the race for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination. The second is that it is entirely possible Trump, having won the GOP nomination, could go on to win the general election and become President Trump again.
Yes, the analysts include all the necessary caveats — it’s early, the situation is unprecedented, anything can happen, etc. But still: Sober observers are suggesting it’s all over in the GOP primaries and game on in the general election. Their case was strengthened Monday morning with the release of a new New York Times poll showing Trump “leading his nearest challenger, Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida, by a landslide 37 percentage points nationally among the likely Republican primary electorate.” Thirty-seven points is big, big, big. Other national polls have shown Trump with similar leads in the Republican race. The most recent surveys included in the RealClearPolitics average of polls have Trump ahead of DeSantis by, going backward in time, 36, 43, 44, 40, 32, 29 and 25 points.
The first analysis comes from Politico with the headline, “A DeSantis come-from-behind win is looking vanishingly unlikely.” The report notes that, “Only once has the Republican polling leader in midsummer of the year before the election gone on to lose the party’s nomination.” That person was Rudy Giuliani, who led the 2008 GOP race all through 2007, with a lead that sometimes stretched to 14 points, only to fall apart when the actual voting began in 2008. At the same time, in 2007, the John McCain campaign imploded, ran out of money and rebooted, with McCain somehow going on to win the nomination.
That’s the model, pretty much the only model, for a DeSantis comeback. And remember, Giuliani led the GOP race, according to the RealClearPolitics average of national polls, until January 2008. In today’s terms, that would translate into Trump leading the GOP polls for five more months before fading. DeSantis, burdened by sinking polls and campaign difficulties, would then stage a McCain-style surge. It’s possible, maybe.
On the other hand, overcoming Giuliani’s 14-point lead was one thing — especially after Giuliani made the disastrous mistake of de-emphasizing the Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina contests to focus on Florida. Overcoming Trump’s 35-point lead in the RealClearPolitics average is quite another. “No candidate has ever blown a national polling lead even a third as large as Trump’s is today,” writes Politico. “A Trump collapse would be unprecedented. So, too, would a DeSantis turnaround.”
The second analysis is by CNN’s Harry Enten, who takes the Politico assessment a step further. “Trump is not only in a historically strong position for a nonincumbent to win the Republican nomination, but he is in a better position to win the general election than at any point during the 2020 cycle and almost at any point during the 2016 cycle,” Enten writes.
Enten suggests it is a little surprising that Trump is leading the Republican race, given everything that has happened. “What should arguably be more amazing,” he writes, “is that despite most Americans agreeing that Trump’s two indictments thus far were warranted, he remains competitive in a potential rematch with President Joe Biden.” Enten notes recent polls that show Trump evenly matched with Biden or even ahead of the sitting president. “To put that in perspective,” Enten continues, “Trump never led in a single national poll that met CNN’s standards for publication for the entirety of the 2020 campaign. Biden was up by high single digits in the late summer of 2019. Biden is up by maybe a point in the average of all 2024 polls today.”
It was as if the political world, after months of deep, deep skepticism that Trump could prevail in a general election, threw open a door and said: Wow, Trump could win! The New York Times’ Jonathan Swan, who has reported extensively on Trump’s policy plans should he win the presidency again, tweeted, “I can’t tell you how many otherwise smart people have chastised us for going deep on what Trump and his allies plan for 2025 because ‘he can’t win a general election.’ Pure wishcasting.”
Indeed it is. Of course, it’s time to repeat the caveats. The biggest caution is that this situation really is totally unprecedented. First, there has not been in living memory a former president who made a serious bid to win back the White House. Second, there has not been such a candidate who has run while facing multiple indictments, one of which is from the administration he seeks to defeat. By the end of next month, Trump could be facing four — not one, not two, not three, but four — indictments. So far, the charges have not only not lowered his poll ratings; they have actually raised them. But that could change when the reality of Trump’s trials arrives. Or maybe it won’t.
What is entirely predictable is that if Trump were able to win the nomination and then the presidency again, the resistance that would result would make the Resistance of 2017-2021 seem sedate by comparison. “A Trump election in 2024 quiets nothing,” the former Republican-turned-Resistance writer David Frum tweeted recently. “It’s a formula for huge, indefinite, unlimited political crisis, more impeachments. Trump cannot ‘win’ his legal battles. He will only convulse the country in his effort to save himself.”