How Trump muscled his way to the Republican nomination

By James Oliphant

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Some of the Republican Party's most influential donors gathered 16 months ago in Las Vegas to consider potential 2024 presidential candidates. The 2022 U.S. midterm results had just embarrassed the party, and the chatter in the room laid the blame on Donald Trump.

It was time to move on, several donors told Reuters. The former president was a has-been, a drag on Republican fortunes, they said. An opinion poll a short time later showed him only six percentage points ahead of the Republican field.

Fast forward, and today Trump is effectively the nominee, his grip on the Republican Party tighter than ever. After a wavering campaign launch in November 2022, he surged ahead in opinion polls, and his Republican rivals were never able to catch up.

How he did that - after two impeachments and multiple criminal indictments - represents one of the greatest political comebacks in U.S. history.

That weekend in Las Vegas, while Trump spoke to a gathering of the Republican Jewish Coalition via video, much of the interest lay with Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, who gave a well-received keynote speech and looked poised to challenge Trump for the nomination.

Now DeSantis is an afterthought after running a poor campaign in which he failed to live up to the early hype that he was Trump's natural successor. Former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley, the lone remaining challenger to Trump, exited the race on Wednesday after a defiant but ultimately hopeless last stand.

Some national opinion polls show Trump as the favorite against the Democratic incumbent, President Joe Biden, in the November election, although many Americans remain undecided.

“It’s totally nuts. Most defeated presidents don’t come back and run,” said Lindsay Chervinsky, a presidential historian at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. “There is no reason to think he should have won the nomination, especially this fast.”

Trump buzz-sawed his way through the Republican field thanks to an unusually solid foundation for a non-incumbent: he was an ex-president with universal name recognition, a celebrity reality TV star before that, the champion of an unshakeable base of loyalists and a capable fundraiser aided by a disciplined team that stayed on message.

Another factor: Many supporters tell pollsters they view Trump as the incumbent. They embrace the falsehood promoted by the candidate himself that the only thing standing in the way of his return to the White House in 2020 was election fraud.

His legal woes have only pumped him up, both rhetorically and financially. Rather than sink him, the bevy of indictments brought against him turbo-charged his campaign by making him an object of sympathy to Republican voters.

His top opponents, DeSantis and Haley, were reluctant for months to reproach him - and even stood by him in the face of criminal and civil charges. At the same time, Republican voters’ top concerns – the economy and border security – were the issues where he was traditionally the strongest.

To be sure, Trump faces a host of challenges. Haley’s sustained candidacy signaled that a substantial segment of his own party dislikes him. Whether those voters support him in the Nov. 5 election remains an open question.

He will run a gauntlet of court cases the rest of the year and polls show a possible criminal conviction could significantly drain his support - although it looks increasingly likely those cases could drag out past the election.

While most Republicans view his indictments as politically motivated, according to Reuters/Ipsos polling, about a quarter of Republicans and half of independents say they won't support him if he is convicted of a crime before the election.

Polls aggregated by the website FiveThirtyEight show that more than half the country (52.2%) holds an unfavorable view of Trump with only 43.4% viewing him favorably, meaning that he may struggle to win over independent voters and others who are not part of his natural right-leaning base.


One chilly weekend in Davenport, Iowa, in March 2023 illustrated Trump’s strength and his strategy.

DeSantis, not yet a candidate, was in town to discuss his new book and spent much of his time sitting in a chair in the ballroom of a casino holding a sober policy discussion with about 200 people present. A couple of days later, Trump held a raucous rally in a restored Art Deco theater, where 1,000 people lined up for hours to get in and chanted “USA” until he took the stage.

Trump attacked DeSantis at the rally, suggesting the Florida governor wanted to cut federal benefit programs for seniors. It was part of a Trump campaign plan to damage DeSantis before he got in the race by fire-bombing him with negative ads and shaping voters' views of him even as he declined to fire back.

When DeSantis joined the race in May, he campaigned at small events, drawing handfuls of voters, while Trump staged periodic rallies stuffed to the rafters. The Florida governor's bid seemed to fizzle out in a matter of months.

Perhaps the most pivotal moment of the campaign came in March last year, when Manhattan’s district attorney, Alvin Bragg, a Democrat, indicted Trump.

Bragg’s case had nothing to do with Trump’s attempts to overturn the 2020 election or with his actions relating to the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol. Instead, the charges pertained to falsifying records to hide hush-money payments to a porn star, a case mounted on technicalities.

The charges allowed Trump to claim he was a victim of a politically driven prosecution. Bragg denied any bias, but Trump began rising in the polls as supporters rallied to his side and money flooded his campaign coffers.

Trump’s survival ran contrary to every known political law of gravity. It got to the point where he would jokingly compare himself to the late gangster Al Capone at rallies.

“I don’t think there’s anyway anyone could have predicted 91 indictments would make someone stronger,” said Chervinsky, the presidential historian. "This is alternative universe stuff.”

Trump adopted another unusual, norm-breaking strategy by refusing to debate his Republican rivals in any of the party-sanctioned debates, gambling that voters would not punish him for doing so. He was proven right. The result was that the other candidates spent much of the time denouncing one another while largely giving him a pass.


Global events also began to play into Trump’s hand.

The war in Ukraine appeared bogged down, with Republicans increasingly skeptical of providing more aid, a longtime Trump position. The October attack by Hamas militants on Israel allowed him to unabashedly play up his support for the country while projecting an image of strength amid worldwide turmoil.

Trump was buoyed too by the failure of the Biden administration to effectively contain a surge of migrants crossing the U.S. southern border with Mexico, a situation that has increasingly concerned voters across party lines.

Perhaps nothing demonstrated the bond between Trump and his supporters more than an event in early January in Clinton, Iowa, ahead of the first Republican nominating contest in that state.

Hundreds of voters lined up in the cold outside a school and, once inside, waited for Trump, who showed up three hours late because of a travel issue. Nobody complained, and Trump went on to win the caucuses by 30 percentage points.

It was a reminder of something Ari Fleischer, the former press secretary to President George W. Bush, noted at that 2022 Las Vegas conference.

Party elites, Fleischer told Reuters, would not determine the nomination. It would be “the people who wouldn’t be caught dead at an event like this.”

Reminded of that, Fleischer says now that Trump's main accomplishment was in convincing grassroots voters that he remains a political outsider despite having served as president.

“They’ve concluded that Washington is broken,” he said. “They’ll take a chance on someone they know will break the norms.”

(Reporting by James Oliphant, Editing by Ross Colvin and Howard Goller)