Mar 27, 2023 - Politics & Policy

Trump cements transformation of GOP primary lanes

Illustration of an orange GOP elephant with Trump’s hair.

Illustration: Shoshana Gordon/Axios

New polling is reinforcing the Trumpworld view that traditional GOP primary "lanes" are a thing of the past, leaving just two viable campaign styles: "Always Trump" or "Sometimes Trump."

Why it matters: The remaking of the Republican base is proving to be a massive challenge for Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and other potential 2024 candidates, especially as they discover the dangers of sparring directly with former President Trump.

  • A recent Monmouth poll found that Trump currently polls higher than all other candidates and potential candidates — combined.
  • Unless Trump is forced out of the race by legal troubles or other issues — as some Republicans privately hope — the path to victory for an alternative candidate will likely remain narrow.

Zoom in: A majority of the GOP is represented by "Sometimes Trump" voters, who voted for him twice but think he's too focused on the past, Republican pollster Whit Ayres told Axios.

  • Some pollsters say the path to winning without the "Always Trump" bloc requires capturing the bulk of "Sometimes Trump" voters and a slice of the “Never Trumpers."
  • The first likely candidate to test that theory is DeSantis, who is tacking hard to the right on policy and beginning to lob soft criticisms at Trump tied to his leadership style and penchant for personal drama.

So far, this hybrid style is not proving particularly effective: DeSantis has dropped 12 points with GOP voters since Monmouth's first 2024 primary poll conducted in December.

Be smart: Trump has changed the way his Republican rivals can campaign.

  • Constituencies tied to ideology, religion, race, class and gender have all shaped presidential primaries in the past. Now, it's personality — and political proximity to Trump.
  • Trump's unique ability to dominate the airwaves makes it nearly impossible for rivals to distance themselves from his campaign, as showcased by the Republicans who felt compelled to defend him after news broke of the potential indictment in Manhattan.
  • Even on policy, Trump has developed a Teflon shield that other candidates can't replicate: For example, Senate Republicans excoriated DeSantis — but not Trump — for voicing the same skeptical positions on Ukraine.

Between the lines: While some Trump campaign strategists say there's a third "Never Trump" lane, they're quick to note that so far it's vacant — and will likely stay that way.

  • Some long-shot candidates could include New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu, former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson and former Wyoming Rep. Liz Cheney.
  • But — as former Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan pointed out — a "multicar pileup" in the non-Trump lane would put the former president on a glide path to re-nomination.

What to watch: One clear sign that DeSantis sees value in the "Sometimes Trump" strategy: The new super PAC set to serve as the Florida governor's primary outside spending vehicle is staffing up with top Trump alumni.

The bottom line: "If the race comes down to Trump vs. non-Trump, there are several billion people who fit into the latter category. There’s only one former President Donald Trump," the Washington Post's Philip Bump writes.

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