Republican primary voters are showing no signs of easing their support for former President Trump as their 2024 GOP presidential candidate.
Trump’s lead in the presumptive field of GOP presidential candidates has widened in most polling, even as he finds himself embroiled in high-profile legal battles and as the party grapples with a worse-than-expected midterm election.
Though the presidential debates and primaries are still months away, pollsters and even some anti-Trump Republicans point to the former president’s recent indictment and his no-holds-barred approach to his presumptive GOP rivals as being among the reasons some in the party are still leaning toward the former president.
“Donald Trump has conditioned … a pretty serious majority of the Republican base to believe that any legal critique of him, any external charge made against him is invalid and a product of the ‘deep state’ or a conspiracy of some kind to take him away from Republican voters,” said Rick Wilson, co-founder of the anti-Trump Lincoln Project.
“So why did you see Trump’s numbers go up after Mar-a-Lago was raided by the FBI? Why did you see his numbers go up after he was indicted in New York? That’s because that base — it is an inversion of the prior known political behavior, which is to say, people don’t like criminals,” he added. “And yet, when you accuse Donald Trump of being a criminal, even with all the evidence in the world, their response is, ‘No, he’s not. You’re the one who’s doing this.’”
Trump made headlines in late March when he became the first president to face criminal charges. The indictment followed a probe by Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg (D) that centers on Trump’s possible involvement in a hush money payment made during his 2016 campaign to a porn star.
Though an indictment would ordinarily be considered politically damning for any presidential candidate, polling suggests it hasn’t harmed Trump — and it might even have helped him.
Polling released by NPR, PBS NewsHour and Marist this week found that 63 percent of Republicans said they wanted Trump to be president again, even if he was found guilty of a crime.
Even high-profile members of the party and the presumptive 2024 GOP field have largely defended Trump, dispelling hopes from his opponents that the indictment would ultimately take him down. Former Vice President Pence described the indictment as “an outrage,” while Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) said it was a “travesty.” Haley suggested the probe was “more about revenge than it is about justice.”
But some Republicans say Trump is also enjoying a lead in the polls thanks to his pugilistic approach to his primary rivals, particularly presumptive White House contender Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R).
Louisiana-based pollster John Couvillon, who typically works with Republicans, told The Hill that “the fighting back, I found, is what attracts [Trump] to Republican primary voters.”
While only a handful of Republicans have entered the 2024 race, Trump has taken steps to define the field early on. Much of the former president’s attention has been geared toward DeSantis, who is generally seen as Trump’s chief rival, though he hasn’t officially entered the race yet.
Trump has used nicknames to taunt the Florida governor, such as “Ron DeSanctimonious,” and taken shots at him using his Truth Social platform and ads. A pro-Trump super PAC notably rolled out an ad earlier this month portraying DeSantis eating pudding with his fingers — a nod to a story published by The Daily Beast that reported the Florida governor apparently once ate pudding without utensils.
Gunner Ramer, political director of the anti-Trump Republican Accountability PAC, suggested some of the attacks against DeSantis “allow him to be labeled as an establishment Republican candidate, which doesn’t differentiate him from the other Republicans that voters just have no real interest in at this moment.”
Trump hasn’t shied away from taking jabs at other Republicans, either, including former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu. Trump said Christie has “got a big mouth — that’s all he’s got” during a speech to a raucous audience in New Hampshire on Thursday before taking jabs at the Granite State’s governor.
“He could’ve really made an impact. He could’ve run for the Senate. He probably would’ve easily won because of the family name, would’ve won. And that would have been a tremendous thing. Instead, he wants to play games with running for president,” Trump said about Sununu.
Trump’s rivals have all taken shots at him to varying degrees, though most of them haven’t been nearly as aggressive as the former president. During an interview with Fox News’s Piers Morgan last month, DeSantis said of Trump’s belittling nickname, “I mean, you can call me whatever you want, just as long as you also call me a winner, because that’s what we’ve been able to do in Florida, is put a lot of points on the board and really take this state to the next level.”
And as the Florida governor criticized Bragg’s indictment in March, he also remarked he didn’t “know what goes into paying hush money to a porn star to secure silence over some type of alleged affair” — a nod to allegations that Trump had an affair with adult film actress Stormy Daniels.
But DeSantis has come under growing pressure to hit back even harder against Trump, and some within the GOP worry the former president is getting the best of the governor.
Couvillon, the pollster, said Trump’s onslaught of attacks is “what gives him the edge, because it looks like he’s this tough guy, and the other Republican candidates just don’t have what it takes.”
Though members of the party emphasize there’s still plenty of time before the first primaries, some appear less than impressed with the Florida governor.
“At the end of the day, candidates have to perform at a certain level, and DeSantis is not a guy who’s ready for the big show. You can tell he doesn’t speak well. He doesn’t deliver, he doesn’t connect with people. And for all my criticisms of Donald Trump, I will never take away from the fact that Donald Trump is a magnificent showman,” said Wilson of the Lincoln Project.
“Gov. DeSantis has not even announced if he will be a candidate for the presidency in 2024, and he is unequivocally a force to be reckoned with. Not only has Governor DeSantis never lost a fight, but he’s never lost an election,” said Erin Perrine, communications director for the pro-DeSantis super PAC Never Back Down. “It’s clear that if Trump has to defend his record of blindly following Fauci into nationwide lockdowns, being good buddies with Gavin Newsom, trashing Florida, and having his endorsed 2022 candidates lose — Trump will have a hard time.”
The developments taken together underscore how Trump has retained his iron grip on the presumptive 2024 primary field, even as polling has also shown a substantial percentage of Republican voters not keen on seeing him run for reelection.
“President Trump is dominating in poll after poll– both nationally and statewide– crushing the primary and general fields. That is why congressional members, statewide officials, local leaders, and grassroots activists have endorsed the President because they know he is the only one who can win in 2024,” said Trump campaign spokesman Steven Cheung in an email.
“There is no other candidate in the race who has even come close to putting out a bold, forward-looking policy agenda that President Trump has,” he added.
Republicans say the others running for the White House, including DeSantis, will have to put the pedal to the metal soon if they’re going to be competitive.
“There’s still a lot of time left on the clock. We’re going to have debates,” said Brian Seitchik, a Trump campaign alum.
“Certainly, team DeSantis is going to have a great deal of resources, both in the hard side — the campaign — and the soft side — the independent expenditure. So they will have the opportunity to make their case,” he said. “But sort of the initial buzz surrounding him has waned, and the rubber’s got to hit the road real soon here.”