It was just under a year ago that Donald Trump announced he was seeking the presidency for a third time. Many conservatives hoped he wouldn’t. They thought he was old news, and his poor endorsement record in the 2022 midterms seemed to show his grip on the GOP was loosening. Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida increasingly looked like the future, especially after his reelection romp.
But with the first votes of the GOP primary only weeks from being cast, Trump has consolidated remarkably strong support, both from lawmakers in Washington — who bent to his will in electing a House speaker earlier this week — and from primary voters across the rest of the country.
The four separate criminal cases now proceeding against him appear to have done little to erode support — even though a conviction could send him to prison.
Meanwhile, Trump’s challengers for the presidential nomination continue to fight each other, failing to land any decisive blows against the frontrunner in both early state and national polls.
DeSantis’s popularity has plunged in the last six months, and while some conservatives appear to be embracing former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley — who has performed well in primary debates — she has yet to decisively overtake her Florida rival in the contest for distant runner-up to Trump.
Asked by Yahoo News how Trump could be stopped, veteran Republican pollster Whit Ayres answered with a question of his own: “Who the hell knows?”
A pro-Trump House speaker
For a fleeting moment this week, it seemed like Rep. Tom Emmer, R-Minn., might emerge from the weeks-long chaos that followed Kevin McCarthy’s ouster to become the chamber’s next speaker.
Then Trump got involved. Not one to forget a slight, he has remained furious that Emmer criticized him for his role in the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection at the U.S. Capitol. Calling Emmer out on social media on Tuesday and pressuring Capitol Hill allies to vote against him, Trump managed to end his short-lived speaker bid — and remind the Republican establishment how strong his influence on the GOP remains.
“I killed him,” Trump subsequently boasted, according to Politico.
The eventual victor, Rep. Mike Johnson, R-La., has supported Trump’s conspiracy theories about the 2020 election having been stolen from him. “As it turned out, the one indispensable quality you had to have to become Speaker was to be an election denier,” wrote Democratic strategist David Axelrod in a social media post.
DeSantis was once a favorite of Republican donors who were locked in an anyone-but-Trump mindset. But donors have been fleeing his campaign, heavy on culture war issues.
Others embraced Sen. Tim Scott, the affable South Carolina religious conservative. Haley has emerged as a recent favorite, especially among some former DeSantis boosters.
But others have concluded that Trump is inevitable — and are getting back on board the MAGA express. “There is no doubt in my mind that Donald Trump will be the nominee of our party,” a top GOP donor in North Carolina told NBC News. “I have met with all the candidates. None are close to the level of support Trump has.”
No consolidation helps Trump
Trump leads by about 40% in Iowa and by either 20% or 30% (depending on the poll) in New Hampshire — with voters heading to caucuses or polls there in just a matter of weeks. And the looming holiday season further shortens the time Trump’s rivals have to make their case.
Most of them still believe they have a shot, refusing to drop out and get behind a single anti-Trump candidate. “People need to start dropping out now,” says former Trump staffer Sarah Matthews, who believes the Republican Party needs to consolidate behind Haley — quickly. “We’re getting too close” to Iowa, Matthews says.
So far, if there’s any consolidation in the Republican establishment, it is behind Trump. Earlier this week, a major Jewish backer of DeSantis, Florida state legislator Randy Fine, made national news by switching his allegiance to Trump. Several days later, radio host Larry Elder ended his own long-shot presidential bid.
He also endorsed Trump.