As America celebrated its independence, while divided on the true nature of its values, it also braced for a toxic presidential campaign likely to deepen its political trauma and again push the election system to its limits.
Donald Trump, for example, put on a July Fourth weekend show of force, highlighting his early dominance of the Republican race for president and the stiff task his rivals face in trying to thwart his bid to win their party’s nomination for the third time in a row.
The former commander in chief drew a massive crowd at a rally in the key early state of South Carolina on Saturday, which reverberated with his false claims about election interference and over his indictment for allegedly mishandling classified documents after he left office. But the raucous event in Pickens also showed the enduring power of his personality and feral political appeal to GOP base voters. And, coupled with his lead in primary polling, it should be a warning to Democrats that the most disruptive president in modern history has a realistic chance of a White House reprise that would likely be even more tumultuous than his first term.
“We will rescue freedom, liberty and justice and propel that spirit of July 4, 1776,” Trump said, spelling out a message that delights supporters but that grates with those reeling from his assault on democracy after his 2020 defeat.
Even a high-profile supporter of Trump’s strongest primary rival described Trump as the “runaway front-runner.” Steve Cortes, the spokesman for a pro-DeSantis super PAC, admitted the Florida governor was “way behind” in a stark assessment of a campaign that has yet to show DeSantis has national appeal.
Trump’s opponents fanned out across Independence Day parades on Tuesday, in a fabled rite of presidential campaigning as they sought a foothold in a race in which no alternative candidate has yet caught fire or managed to tap any anti-Trump momentum. Former Vice President Mike Pence, for instance, was in Iowa – the first-in-the-nation caucus state that is likely to be critical for his long-shot campaign as he tries to energize evangelical voters. And DeSantis was in New Hampshire.
But in the latest CNN polling, conducted after Trump’s federal indictment, 47% of Republicans and Republican-leaning registered voters still said the former president is their first choice for the nomination, with support for DeSantis at 26%. And an NBC News poll late last month found Trump had a near 30-point lead over DeSantis with all other contenders in single digits. The ex-president’s team published a memo over the weekend touting other surveys showing his comfortable lead, as it sought to build a sense of unstoppable momentum.
More than six months before the first Republican primary voters cast their ballots, it is far too early to predict how the race will turn out. Unexpected events and the weight of Trump’s criminal trials could begin to have an effect, and it would be unusual if at least one of his rivals fails to engineer a spurt of popularity.
But the high summer dynamics of the race suggest Trump is so far the leading GOP candidate ahead of a period between the July Fourth and Labor Day holidays that is crucial for fundraising, contains the first GOP debate and that hopefuls must use to define themselves ahead of the sprint to the winter’s first nominating contests.
Whoever ends up winning the Republican nomination, it’s already clear that the party will present Americans with potentially the most far-right conservative agenda of any major party in decades. Trump is using increasingly demagogic rhetoric and other candidates have followed his lead in vowing to flush out the FBI and Justice Department and to eviscerate the professional bureaucracy in the federal government. Some are advocating stronger anti-abortion restrictions – although Trump seems aware of the potential pitfalls of such a strategy in a general election.
Overall, however, the GOP’s is an emerging platform that may not only threaten traditional democratic checks and balances on presidential power but would also place the country on a rightward path at the same time as the conservative majority on the Supreme Court is dismantling decades of precedent on issues like reproductive rights and race.
As early as it is, some of the big questions that will decide the 2024 GOP primary are beginning to be answered.
— No candidate has yet proven the capacity either to consolidate opposition to the former president in a crowded field or to peel away enough of his “Make America Great Again” devotees to weaken his dominance. And there’s no sign so far that a critical mass of his supporters, while still adoring their champion, are ready to move onto another, younger candidate.
At the Trump rally in South Carolina, home state Sen. Lindsey Graham – who has spent years buttering up Trump despite sometimes criticizing his wild conduct – was loudly booed. The drama showed how even minor diversions from Trump’s personality cult in the GOP can be politically ruinous. There’s therefore little incentive for his rivals to lambast the ex-president, even if the point of a campaign is for them to differentiate themselves. Only former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson and former Texas Rep. Will Hurd have adopted a comprehensively anti-Trump approach – with little early success.
— Another unknown of the 2024 campaign is whether the potential crush of criminal jeopardy facing Trump will destroy his campaign. Even with his support among GOP voters appearing to soften in CNN’s post-indictment poll, there’s little sign it’s affecting his position in the race. Trump is awaiting trial in the documents case and, separately, in Manhattan in a business accounting matter stemming from a hush money payment to an adult film star. In fact, some polls suggest that the indictments are playing into the ex-president’s pre-cooked narrative that he’s the victim of persecution by the Biden administration, which has become a de-facto truth for many GOP voters. Trump has pleaded not guilty in both cases and is waiting to find out whether he will be charged in two other investigations, both involving the aftermath of the 2020 election.
— DeSantis’ troubles help shed light on Trump’s strong position. The Florida governor is highlighting his conservative record and using a searing culture war campaign to argue that he’s not only more authentically conservative than Trump but would be far better at implementing such policies in the White House. On paper, the DeSantis approach is logically sound. But his struggle to gain more traction shows how Trump’s appeal in the GOP is visceral, emotional and rooted as much in his disruptive, tear-down-the-establishment personality as in ideology. “Right now, in national polling, we are way behind. I’ll be the first to admit that,” Cortes, the pro-DeSantis super PAC spokesman, said during a Twitter Spaces event Sunday. “It’s an uphill battle.” Cortes, however, predicted DeSantis’ fortunes would improve when he begins to get his story to more people on the campaign trail.
— In an example of the Florida governor’s hard-right strategy, a campaign Twitter account for DeSantis marked the end of Pride month by sharing a video slamming the ex-president’s previous promise to protect LGBTQ rights. (Trump’s comments were notably about a month after a mass shooting at the Pulse nightclub in Florida that killed 49 people in 2016.) The video compares such pledges to DeSantis’ record of curtailing LGBTQ rights in Florida. Trump now says he would “ban” transgender athletes from women’s sports teams and would outlaw gender-affirming surgery for minors if he wins back the White House. But the attack is both a signal of how DeSantis is trying to get to the right of Trump on issues like gender and immigration and how extreme the Republican primary campaign could get as candidates try to appeal to the base.
— The latest clash between Trump and DeSantis, however, points to a potential problem the eventual Republican nominee could face in a general election. Trump already alienated critical moderate and suburban voters in swing states, both during the 2020 election and in the 2022 midterms, when he boosted extreme, election-denying candidates. A hard-core conservative campaign might again scare away more centrist voters. Trump could be especially vulnerable to this trend given that he is likely to go on trial in one or more of the criminal cases against him in the heat of election season. While this may reinforce perceptions among GOP primary voters that he’s a victim, it could remind other voters of the possibility of a convicted felon serving as president. Still, the question of electability is yet to become a serious concern in the GOP race – perhaps because of Trump’s huge popularity in the party or because Biden, whose approval ratings are in depressed territory that normally threatens first-term presidents, may be seen as vulnerable in 2024.
— Biden marked the Independence Day holiday at the White House by paying tribute to America’s troops. He has also begun to crank up fundraising events designed to fill his 2024 war chest. Last week, the president launched a bid to promote “Bidenomics,” arguing that he has broken a cycle of “trickle-down” policies that benefit the rich after seeking to improve the lot of working people with sweeping legislation on health care, American industry, and infrastructure projects. But Biden – like any incumbent – is vulnerable to any economic downturn or outside events that could weaken his reelection bid. Vaccine skeptic Robert Kennedy’s surprisingly strong performance in Democratic primary polling – of what’s largely an uncontested race – does not appear to be a problem so far for Biden, despite surveys that showed that a majority of Democrats didn’t want him to run for a second term. Still, Kennedy’s appeal shows that a distrust of Washington institutions, experts and a political system many voters fear has failed them, is no longer exclusively reserved for Republican primary voters.
Paradoxically, however, given that a rematch between Trump and Biden is the one general election race most Americans don’t want, the early fireworks in the 2024 campaign are confirming them both as their party’s most likely nominees.