If Donald Trump’s CPAC greeting were reflective of his path through the primaries, he’d be in good shape. But a weekend straw poll win won’t necessarily translate into the GOP nomination.
He lost the 2020 presidential election, and his candidates didn’t fare well in 2022. But a devoted segment of the Republican Party just can’t quit Donald Trump, and the rules of GOP primaries mean the rest of the party might be stuck with him in 2024.
Trump was the overwhelming favorite at the Conservative Political Action Conference over the weekend – and it wasn’t just the informal straw poll, which had Trump with 62% support among the group (the next closest contender, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, was far behind, with 20% support).
Trump was everywhere at the CPAC meeting, even before he arrived to deliver a nearly two-hour speech on Saturday. There were supporters in glittery red coats, each with letters to spell out Trump’s name. There were the T-shirts of the “Trump Tour,” which depicted the former president as a muscly, Bruce Springsteen-esque performer.
The “MAGA Mall” in CPAC’s exhibit hall featured Trump hats, bumper stickers and banners. DeSantis’ name was barely present in the paraphernalia, and there was nothing to promote former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley, who is the only announced GOP candidate to challenge Trump for the 2024 nomination.
“There’s no one who’s going to beat him in the primaries, no matter what you think about Ron DeSantis,” says Trump supporter Stephen Robinson of Leesburg, Virginia.
“Trump won before. He was defrauded,” Robinson adds, repeating a common and discredited belief among CPAC-goers that Trump won the 2020 election but was denied a second term because of widespread voter fraud. “He’s going to win again unless he’s defrauded again.”
If CPAC were reflective of the electorate at large – or even the Republican rank-and-file – Trump would be in solid shape as he seeks another term in the White House. But the event – notably skipped this year by DeSantis as well as former Vice President Mike Pence and GOP congressional leaders – just doesn’t have the heft and reach it once possessed.
The event itself was scaled-back, without the breakout sessions of the past. The ballroom where speakers and panelists appeared was sparsely filled (journalists this year were kept behind a curtain that blocked the ballroom scene and were forced to watch the speakers on a TV screen).
“You saw the scenes at CPAC. That room was half-full,” former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, a onetime GOP candidate for president who then worked on Trump’s 2016 and 2020 campaigns, told ABC’s “This Week” on Sunday.
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“Look, he is the front-runner. There’s no doubt, he’s essentially an incumbent president running for renomination – not reelection but renomination – and so, of course, he’s the front-runner right now and ahead in the polls. But there are lots of indicators here that he’s not what he used to be,” Christie said.
Trump himself celebrated the division within the party, saying in his Saturday speech, “We had a Republican Party that was ruled by freaks, neocons, globalists, open border zealots and fools, but we are never going back to the party of Paul Ryan, Karl Rove and Jeb Bush.
“People are tired of RINOs and globalists,” Trump added, trotting out the abbreviation for Republicans in name only.” “They want to see America First.”
Trump’s problem is that the feverishly pro-Trump CPAC crowd is smaller than it has been in the past, meaning his high polling numbers won’t necessarily translate into commanding primary wins.
A recent YouGov poll shows Trump leading DeSantis nationally – but by a smaller-than-CPAC poll margin, 47% to 39%.
In individual states, DeSantis fares better: A Susquehanna Polling and Research survey has DeSantis leading Trump in Pennsylvania, 37% to 32%. In Virginia, DeSantis leads Trump in a hypothetical primary 54% to 37% in a Differentiators poll, and in Trump’s former home state of New York, DeSantis leads Trump 45% to 44%, according to an Echelon Insights survey.
A February poll by the Marist Institute of Public Opinion, meanwhile, found that Democrats are rallying around President Joe Biden more than Republicans are coalescing around their former president. Half of Democrats think Biden offers them the best chance of winning the presidency in 2024, with 44% wanting “someone else,” the poll found.
And last week, Rep. Pramila Jayapal, leader of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, declared Biden the “most progressive president that we’ve had in a long time,” giving a critical stamp of approval to a president who has not been the favorite of the left of the party.
“I would like to see him announce sooner,” added the Washington state Democrat who backed socialist Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont in 2020.
Trump is facing more internal problems as he gears up for the 2024 campaign. More than half – 54% – of Republicans in the Marist poll said they thought “someone else” would have a better chance of winning in 2024, with 42% believing Trump would have the best chance.
But because of the unique rules of GOP primaries, Trump need not be the majority choice in individual states. Republican nominating contests are winner-take-all, meaning Trump could win the nomination with support far below 50%, as long as he bests the individual showings of the rest of the field.
Trump also faces legal troubles, with investigations in New York, Georgia and Washington, D.C., over the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection attempt and efforts to impose a false slate of electors to give Trump the presidency in 2020.
Trump told reporters at CPAC he would continue his 2024 campaign even if he is indicted.
“Oh absolutely. I wouldn’t even think about leaving,” the former president said, adding that an indictment might increase his support in polls.
To the CPAC crowd, Trump pitched himself as the candidate of the aggrieved.
“In 2016, I declared I am your voice. Today, I add: I am your warrior. I am your justice. And for those who have been wronged and betrayed, I am your retribution,” Trump told CPAC. “Either they win or we win. And if they win, we no longer have a country.”
Republicans, however, may still have Trump – even if a majority of the party wants someone else.