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Why Trump Is Winning the Primary—So Far

Along the way, he is crushing the dream of many conservative professionals.

Former President Trump Speaks At His Bedminster Golf Club After Being Arraigned On Federal Charges
President Donald Trump speaks at the Trump National Golf Club in Bedminster, New Jersey, following his arraignment on 37 charges in Miami, June 13, 2023. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

In a decade and a half of punditry, I’ve had to eat my share of crow for incorrectly predicting voter behavior. I was notably wrong about Brexit and wrong about the 2016 U.S. presidential election, calling them for Remain and Hillary, respectively. The opinion writer’s weakness for wishcasting is partly to blame. But voter preferences can also change quite rapidly. What polls suggest today can be completely upended tomorrow, let alone in several weeks or months.

Having said all that—deep breath—I think Donald Trump is poised to sweep next year’s GOP primary. Or as The New York Times put it in a headline summarizing the paper’s own recent polling, the forty-fifth president is “crushing” his primary rivals. Along the way, Trump is also crushing the dream of many conservative professionals: to find a more “responsible” Trump, someone who could channel the same populist energies, but in a more “disciplined” manner.

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Ron DeSantis became the locus of such dreams, and it isn’t hard to see why. The Florida governor has boldly confronted the right’s bogeys: from mask and vaccine scolds to the professors, and from woke corporations to the 1619 Project. In the Sunshine State, he whips the media and the opposition (I repeat myself), but he can also reach across the aisle to get things done. And he does it all with bureaucratic competence and mastery over a pliant legislature.

And yet that Times poll finds DeSantis trailing Trump by a huge (37-point) margin among likely Republican voters. The RealClearPolitics poll of polls shows Trump trouncing DeSantis by similarly huge margins nationally and in early primary states. The DeSantis campaign is shedding staff and reportedly fielding nervous calls from donors. Right-wing influencers speak of “RDS” in what-might-have-been tones and past-tense sentences.

So the question is: Which part of the DeSantis formula isn’t working—the populist mojo or the competence-discipline-palatability factor? The answer, I’m afraid, is both.

On the populist front, DeSantis has rendered himself vulnerable on earned benefits and foreign interventionism. Those happen to be two major flash-points between the GOP’s donor class and the party’s increasingly downscale base. As the recent Times poll found, nearly two-thirds of likely Republican voters want their Social Security and Medicare to stay just the way they are, and a majority are done with arming and funding Ukraine.

In 2016, Trump smashed his conventional Republican rivals precisely by bucking the party’s orthodoxy on these two issues: He vowed to protect earned benefits, and he described the foreign adventurism of the post-9/11 years as a “disaster.” There is no reason to believe that the working-class Americans who increasingly rally to the Republican Party, and whose votes are crucial to winning the general in places like Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, have shifted on either issue.

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Matching Trump on both is the bare minimum for any who would take him on. DeSantis was vulnerable on earned benefits going back to his time in Congress, when he backed “entitlement reform” and even privatization. It was of the utmost urgency for him to make clear that he now stands with the party’s populist base on these issues, lest he lend credence to Trump-aligned PACs’ brutal ads framing him as a benefit-slasher and -raider. DeSantis failed to do so. Instead, as recently as June, he took to Fox News to clarify that he would only slash benefits for workers in their 30s or 40s. Imagine how genial that idea sounds to the 48-year-old American who has been active in the labor market since age 16 or 17.

On foreign policy, meanwhile, DeSantis needlessly hurt himself by equivocating. No doubt impelled in part by Trump’s dovish message on Ukraine, DeSantis submitted a refreshingly restraint-oriented response to Tucker Carlson’s foreign-policy questionnaire to the candidates. But then, a few days later, he walked it back and sounded more conventionally Republican notes. The New York Times reported that hedge-fund honcho Ken Griffin lodged complaints about DeSantis’s remarks, but I’ve also been told by Republican operatives that donor influence is a far less important factor than the candidates own unshakably Reaganite instincts.

In the event, the impression took hold that DeSantis is slippery on restraint—a situation not helped by his tendency to rechannel such questions into safer anti-woke grooves. On the day he launched the DeSantis campaign, a Fox host gently pressed him on his Day One plans for Ukraine, which set the governor on a two-minute-long digression about the scourge of wokeness and gender ideology in the military. “Populism,” for the governor, seems to involve only such cultural issues. To be clear, working Americans are also alarmed by racialized propaganda and gender ideology in the armed forces. It’s just that “woke” and “anti-woke” aren’t the sum of all issues for voters—though they too often appear to be for DeSantis.

Which brings us to the operation’s vaunted discipline. Here, the problem is quite simple. If the substance doesn’t resonate, then no amount of discipline and responsibility can elevate it among voters. At a time when ordinary Americans are worried about health and wage precarity, retirement safety, and the prospect of accidentally stumbling into nuclear war, it doesn’t bespeak discipline to endlessly discuss crypto, “reconstitutionalizing the executive branch,” and similar e-right obsessions.

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