It’s Not a Race, Yet, in the Republican Primary

Credit…Reba Saldanha/Reuters

Donald J. Trump’s lead in the Republican primary just keeps growing.

He breached 60 percent of the vote in Fox News and Quinnipiac polls last week, including 60-13 and 62-12 leads over his nearest rival, the not-so-near Ron DeSantis.

Even more notable: His gains follow what would be considered a disastrous 50-day stretch for any other campaign. Since early August, he has faced new federal and state criminal indictments for attempting to subvert the 2020 election. He skipped the first presidential debate, which was nonetheless watched by over 10 million people. Not only did it not hurt him, but he came out stronger.

With these latest gains, Mr. Trump is inching into rarefied territory. The latest surveys show him polling about as well as any candidate in the history of modern contested presidential primaries. He’s approaching the position of George W. Bush, who led John McCain by a similar margin at this stage of the 2000 race. And in the two aforementioned polls, he’s matching Mr. Bush’s position.

The 2000 election is a helpful reminder that the race might still become more competitive. Mr. Bush skipped the first two debates, but Mr. McCain ultimately won New Hampshire, cleared the field of significant opponents, and ultimately won six more contests. He didn’t win, of course. He didn’t come close. But it was at least a race. That’s more than can be said right now for Mr. Trump’s competition, which would probably go 0 for 50 if states voted today.

On paper, Mr. Trump faces greater risks than Mr. Bush did — including the risk of imprisonment. On the trail, he’s relatively weak in Iowa, where his recent comments about abortion — he called a six-week ban a “terrible thing” — might raise additional skepticism from the state’s religious conservatives. Indeed, Mr. Trump’s lead in Iowa (roughly 45-15) is quite similar to where Mr. Bush stood in New Hampshire at this time 24 years ago.

Unlike Mr. Bush, Mr. Trump hasn’t consolidated the support of Republican elites. Unlike Mr. McCain, Mr. DeSantis is not a mere factional candidate. There remains a chance, unlikely though it may seem today, that Mr. Trump’s skeptics could consolidate against him, perhaps fueled by an unprecedented criminal trial in the heart of the primary season.

But to this point, the theoretical risks to Mr. Trump haven’t materialized. More than anything, this probably reflects his unique strengths. He’s a former president, not the son of a former president. Perhaps this race is more like a president seeking re-election than a typical open, contested primary. At the very least, his resilience in the face of electoral defeat and criminal indictment is a powerful indication of his unusual standing.

And in contrast with Mr. McCain at this stage in the 2000 race, Mr. Trump’s opposition is well known. It’s probably fair to say that Mr. DeSantis has faded more than he has been outright defeated, so there’s room for a resurgence — something like Mr. McCain’s comeback in 2008. But the easiest path to surge in a primary is usually to be discovered by voters for the first time, and that path will not be available to the likes of Mr. DeSantis, Mike Pence and Chris Christie.

The winner of the first debate might have been Nikki Haley, but she represents something of a best case for Mr. Trump: moderate and strong enough to peel away anti-Trump votes from Mr. DeSantis; far too moderate to pose a serious threat to Mr. DeSantis or to win the nomination.

So while history and today’s circumstances suggest a path toward a tighter race, it’s worth being frank about what we’re watching today. This race currently has many of the features of a noncompetitive contest, like an overwhelming polling lead, a leading candidate who doesn’t need to debate and party leadership that’s unwilling to attack the front-runner, despite major reservations. It’s a lot like what we see in the Democratic race, which is not considered competitive. Indeed, Mr. Trump’s lead in the latest polls is getting about as large as President Biden’s recent leads over Robert F. Kennedy Jr.

Of course, there are several ways in which the Republican contest is different from the Democratic one. Unlike Mr. Biden, Mr. Trump has mainstream challengers. The G.O.P. race is closer in the early states, where Mr. Trump is beneath 50 percent. If Mr. DeSantis beat Mr. Trump in Iowa, perhaps Republicans could rapidly coalesce around him, much as moderates did for Mr. Biden against Bernie Sanders in 2020. And there is the extraordinary prospect of a federal trial in March. Together, it’s easy to imagine how this becomes a competitive race again.

But while the race might become hotly competitive in the future, it isn’t exactly a competitive one today.

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