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Trump may not make it to the primaries

The conventional wisdom has Donald Trump as either the man to beat for the Republican nomination or at least headed for a drawn-out fight to the finish with Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. But could Trump flame out and not even make it to the Iowa caucuses?

It’s not as far-fetched as you might think. In fact, it’s not far-fetched at all.

Trump has severe strategic problems and polling problems, not to mention his legal difficulties. They all add up to a very rough trajectory over the next several months. Everyone knows Trump hates to lose. When faced with losing, he either claims he was cheated, or quits.

A year from now, Trump might be far enough behind DeSantis that quitting will be the only way to avoid losing.

Bad numbers getting worse

Trump’s polling has been soft for more than a year, with the percentage of Republicans who want him to run consistently falling 20 points or more below his approval ratings. He has found it difficult to score above 50 percent on ballot tests against Republicans who aren’t even running yet.

And those numbers are getting worse.

Both YouGov and Morning Consult conducted post-election benchmarks, and Trump’s fortunes are falling across the board. Morning Consult has the best polling for Trump, but Trump’s favorable rating with Republicans edged below 80 percent. While 61 percent of Republicans still want Trump to run, 73 percent of independents don’t. Trump’s ballot test against DeSantis fell from a 48 percent to 26 percent advantage pre-midterm to a 47 percent to 33 percent advantage, down 8 points.

The YouGov poll is a disaster for Trump. In one week Trump fell from 81 percent approval to 77 percent. Far worse, Republicans who want him to run collapsed from 60 percent to just 47 percent. DeSantis holds a 46 percent to 39 percent advantage on the ballot test. YouGov polled all voters on a Trump-DeSantis ballot and every demographic preferred DeSantis, except Hispanics who were split evenly. Conservatives favored DeSantis 51 percent to 33 percent, a catastrophe for Trump.

Dull and directionless Donald

But Trump’s biggest problem going forward is he has nothing new to offer.

His campaign announcement showed a man just plodding forward. After months of teasing a “big announcement” where everyone knew he was getting in the race, the actual event was an anti-climax. Instead of a big show, America saw Trump stroll into a gaudy country club ballroom and drone his way through a desultory teleprompter speech.

He offered nothing really new or interesting. Outside of pivoting from blaming the Democrats for stealing the 2020 election to blaming China (watch for that to become a theme), Trump just rehashed old promises and complained about Biden. What’s the message? Trump had four years to build a wall and didn’t, so give him a second chance? Trump didn’t drain the swamp, but he will this time? And there was no follow-up. No big Iowa or New Hampshire rally. Trump spoke, and that was it.

It all adds up to a candidate without a message, without credibility and even — finally — bereft of showmanship.

Given all that, how does Trump gain votes or even stop the bleeding?

Pivots won’t work

That lackluster Mar-a-Lago speech may have been an attempt to “pivot” in response to the beating Trump’s candidates took in the midterms.

It’s possible Trump and his advisers realized that blaming Democrats for “stealing” the 2020 election simply doesn’t have any traction, and they cast around for a new bogeyman: China is universally unpopular — maybe they figured he could avoid walking back his “stop the steal” claims by blaming Chinese President Xi Jinping and the CCP. Actual evidence has never been a requirement for these guys. But Trump and his acolytes are too deep in the original argument for this new gambit to work.

Trump always resorts to the teleprompter when he thinks a “statesman-like” approach is required. Again, he and his aides likely took a cue from the midterms, where voters rejected candidates who jockeyed to be the most obnoxious person in the room. But Trump’s whole shtick is being loud and on the attack with no boundaries. Trump is simply too deep in that character, too one-dimensional and doesn’t have the political chops to pull off a “new Nixon” transformation. There won’t be a “new Trump.”

Topping it all off, Trump has become a loser. Major GOP donors have jumped ship. Republican governors were meeting just a few hours away in Orlando — not one saw fit to make it to Palm Beach, an unthinkable snub just a year ago. No GOP Senator attended; instead, they voted Trump’s bete noire, Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), back in as their leader. Even daughter Ivanka was a no-show. Those who did attend were a collection of MAGA table scraps.

In the summer, I wrote about the political co-dependency of President Biden and Trump. That dynamic has shifted with Trump taking the heat for GOP underperformance and Biden energized by the Democrats’ relatively good year. Biden ascendant does not so much hurt Trump as it helps DeSantis. With the prospect of Biden as the Democratic nominee, at least for now, more likely than not, DeSantis looks a lot better for Republicans.

The contrast of a new, energetic candidate in DeSantis vs. the aging, gaffe-prone Biden hurts Trump. Better to have a 46-year-old (in 2024) winner against the creaky 82-year-old Biden than to have the only slightly less geriatric, tedious, losing Trump.

The YouGov poll showed that 54 percent of voters think Biden’s age impairs his ability to be president, while just 18 percent disagree. For independents, the totals are 51 percent to 8 percent. All demographics and both parties have at least a plurality who think Biden’s age is a problem.

In sum, nothing is working for Trump. He’s running on fumes.

Quitting is better than losing

If Trump is staring at defeat by next December, my guess is he will find a way to get out — perhaps to fight “unfair” prosecutions, maybe to deal with some fake health scare, or — less likely — deferring to his wife and family. Perhaps it’s a combination. There’s no way Trump will go begging for votes in Iowa and New Hampshire only to be rebuffed. He may be a bit delusional, but he can read the polls.

Too many pundits and politicos have been burned by Trump. The lazy and safe take is to be cautious about writing Trump’s political obituary. But political conditions have completely changed from the days when Trump was riding high, and the political cognoscenti engaged in more wishful thinking than real analysis.

Today Trump is in a much darker place.

He is offering nothing to reverse his decline.

Only his opponents’ self-destruction — whether DeSantis or Mike Pence — might change the game. It’s possible, but that means Trump’s future is at the mercy of others. And given his own self-destructive tendencies, it would take an epic series of meltdowns to prop Trump up.

Keith Naughton, Ph.D., is co-founder of Silent Majority Strategies, a public and regulatory affairs consulting firm. Naughton is a former Pennsylvania political campaign consultant. Follow him on Twitter @KNaughton711.

Tags campaign donor China claims of 2020 election fraud DeSantis 2024 DeSantis v. Trump Donald Trump Donald Trump presidential campaign Independent voters Iowa caucuses Ivanka Trump Joe Biden MAGA Republicans Mar-a-Lago Mike Pence Mitch McConnell New Hampshire primary opinion polling opinion polls polls Primary election Public opinion Republican Party Republican Party presidential primaries Ron DeSantis Stop the Steal Teleprompter Trump 2024 Trump approval rating Trump legal issues Trump speech trumpism Xi Jinping

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