Former President Trump is kicking off the new year by touting his dominance over his rivals for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination.
‘I am honored to tell you that we are beginning the 2024 Election Year in our strongest possible position since the moment I rode down the Golden Escalator and announced my bid to run for president as a political outsider,’ Trump wrote in a New Year’s Day fundraising email to supporters, as he pointed back to the launch of his 2016 presidential campaign.
For Trump, a year makes a big difference.
At the dawn of 2023, the former president was the only declared candidate in the race for the Republican nomination.
However, he was far from a sure thing.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, fresh off an overwhelming gubernatorial re-election less than two months earlier, was neck and neck with Trump in some of the early 2024 polls.
The former president was still facing plenty of criticism by fellow Republicans for contributing to the GOP’s lackluster performance in the 2022 midterms.
Additionally, Trump’s 2024 presidential campaign launch at his Mar-a-Lago club in Palm Beach, Florida, a couple of weeks after the midterms was panned by many pundits.
However, as the new year begins, Trump is the commanding front-runner for the Republican nomination as he makes his third straight White House bid.
Trump enjoys a formidable double-digit lead over his rivals in the latest polls in Iowa, where the Jan. 15 caucuses lead off the GOP nominating calendar. He holds an even larger lead in the most recent national polls.
Some pundits point back to last March to locate the start of the former president’s political resurgence after a period of vulnerability.
That was when Trump was indicted by a grand jury in the New York City borough of Manhattan on charges related to an alleged illegal 2016 hush money payment. Trump made history as the first former or current president to be indicted for a crime.
Trump was also indicted later in the year in three other cases, including charges he tried to overturn his 2020 presidential election loss. However, none of the cases have deterred his support among Republican voters.
It appears to be just the opposite, as Trump’s legal controversies have had a rallying effect among many Republicans.
‘I consider it a great badge of honor because I am being indicted for you,’ Trump said to cheers from his supporters at a boisterous rally in New Hampshire last month.
Seasoned Republican strategist and communicator Ryan Williams noted that ‘every time Trump’s targeted by legal actions, it just improves his standing with the conservative base.’
DeSantis, in an interview that aired on the Christian Broadcasting Network late last month, argued that the Trump indictments ‘distorted the primary.’
‘I would say if I could have one thing change, I wish Trump hadn’t been indicted on any of this stuff,’ DeSantis said.
Trump’s legal entanglements have also sucked the oxygen out of the room for his nomination rivals.
Longtime Republican operative and strategist Matt Gorman, a veteran of numerous GOP presidential campaigns who served as a top adviser to Sen. Tim Scott’s 2024 bid, emphasized that ‘anytime you’re being forced to defend an opponent, when you could be using that time and attention to draw contrasts, that’s not helpful.’
However, what has been beneficial to Trump to date in the GOP nomination race could end up serving as a detriment in the general election, with the strong likelihood of several trials unfolding and distracting him as 2024 progresses.
Also boosting Trump over the past year has been what many pundits describe as a very disciplined Trump campaign team.
As he ran an incumbent-style campaign, Trump decided against sharing the debate stage with his GOP rivals.
‘The public knows who I am & what a successful Presidency I had,’ Trump wrote on his social media site ahead of the first GOP primary debate in August. ‘I WILL THEREFORE NOT BE DOING THE DEBATES!’
The former president ended up skipping all four candidate showdowns held in 2023 while hosting competing events on the debate nights.
Trump’s absence did not seem to hurt him. He emerged relatively unscathed by his rivals, and his lead over the rest of the field has only grown since the first debate was held.
While the debates did not appear to affect Trump, they did help winnow the field of contenders, as nearly all the candidates who failed to qualify for the showdowns dropped out of the race. A field of more than a dozen candidates in August was down to just five major contenders by December.
While Trump mostly kept out of the line of fire, his rivals launched broadsides against each other.
Meanwhile, DeSantis spent much of the year fending off bad headlines.
The candidate who was threatening the former president in the Republican primary polls at the beginning of 2023 came under attack from Trump repeatedly even before he launched his campaign.
The Florida governor was in the spotlight for all the wrong reasons during the late spring and summer, from a rocky campaign launch to a series of staff purges and resets.
There were more staff shakeups in the autumn, this time at the DeSantis-aligned super PAC Never Back Down, which had taken over many of the traditional duties of a presidential campaign, including grassroots outreach.
DeSantis for months was the clear No. 2 rival to Trump in the Republican nomination race. However, in many metrics, Nikki Haley, the former ambassador to the United Nations and former South Carolina governor, had surpassed DeSantis for second place by the end of 2023.
However, Haley stumbled over the holidays, as her answer to a question regarding the causes of the Civil War omitted slavery, which sparked a controversy.
Now, with the first votes in the Republican nomination race less than two weeks ago, Trump clearly remains in the driver’s seat.
‘Last year around this time, you saw a platonic ideal of what candidate who could take down Trump would look like,’ Gorman noted. ‘But we live in the real world, and people come with flaws and missteps, and that ideal seemed to be a standard that couldn’t be met, or at least hasn’t been met yet.’