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Why defendant Trump’s 2024 primary edge might be insurmountable

'Whack-a-mole': Possible GOP candidate with national recognition says Trump must be 'hit'

Former President Donald Trump speaks during a post-arrest event at Mar-a-Lago on April 4.
Former President Donald Trump speaks during a post-arrest event at Mar-a-Lago on April 4. (Getty Images)

Republican voters and donors, so far, don’t seem to care if Donald Trump is the party’s defendant in chief.

With small cash donations, according to his aides, approaching $10 million since March 30 alone and a massive lead in most polls, the former president is on pace — though races can change quickly — to cruise to the 2024 GOP presidential nomination.

“What has been interesting to me is the continued lock that Trump appears to have over the GOP base, especially considering the indictment and more potential legal action likely to come,” said Michael Bitzer, a political science professor at Catawba College in North Carolina.

“At the same time, the other constituency — that of the general electorate for the November 2024 campaign — seems to side against Trump, but that fact doesn’t seem to faze or matter much in the party’s primary nomination battle,” he added.

Carl Bialik, vice president of data science at research and analytics group YouGov, contends polling explains why.

“Even as many approve of the charges against Trump, a large portion of Americans believe the charges are definitely or probably politically motivated (54 percent),” he wrote in a recent report. “Republicans are especially likely to say this (84 percent), though about half of Independents (53 percent) and 31 percent of Democrats say so, as well.”

A Reuters-Ipsos survey released late last week provides further evidence: Just 14 percent of Republicans in that survey said Trump, who faces over 30 felony counts of business fraud, should have been charged. GOP voters — and especially his core supporters among that bloc — are standing by their MAGA man.

Reuters-Ipsos also found Trump is ahead of the closest challenger by a whopping 37 points.

In fact, his edge has grown since he sat in a Manhattan courtroom. A national Yahoo News poll released April 2, one day before Trump was arraigned, put his margin at 31 points, and a Fox News poll out March 30 had Trump ahead by 30 points.

“It seems like the GOP base voters want the king, and not someone who is aiming to topple the monarch,” Bitzer said. “Until polling and votes show otherwise, I think the GOP base voters want their man restored, and what he uttered back in early 2016 is probably most relevant today: He could shoot someone in broad daylight and his voters wouldn’t leave him.”

Polls are guideposts for campaigns, but cash is the fuel that makes them go.

Trump raised $7 million between the date news leaked on March 30 of his coming arrest and indictment and his court date, according to political adviser Jason Miller. On April 3, the day Trump was booked and arraigned, Miller tweeted that the former president hauled in another $1.1 million in donations.

That put his total indictment investments at $8.1 million, according to Miller, one of the senior aides who was by Trump’s side in Manhattan last week during his criminal arraignment process.

What’s more, Team Trump reportedly has been courting top donors to Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who polls suggest would be his top primary foe. DeSantis, despite a travel schedule and fundraising operation that suggests otherwise, has yet to announce a White House bid.

As he tries to siphon DeSantis’ campaign cash while raking in his own, Trump has used social media posts this week to mock the Florida chief executive, who has become the GOP’s culture war general.

“Ron DeSantis is a young man who is not doing well against me in the polls, to put it mildly. I believe that if he decides to run for President, which will only hurt and somewhat divide the Republican Party, he will lose the cherished and massive MAGA vote, and never be able to successfully run for office again,” Trump wrote in a Monday Truth Social post. “If he remains Governor, which is what Florida voters assumed, it would be a whole different story….JUST SAYIN’ — But who knows?”

Translation: He is signaling to DeSantis that he has plenty of years left in his political career to be the Republican nominee, and it would behoove the governor to sit out what Trump has darkly dubbed his “final battle.”

‘Hit him down’

Though primary battles on both sides of the aisle have seen big comebacks from underdogs before — most recently: Bill Clinton in 1992, John McCain and Barack Obama in 2008, and Joe Biden in 2020 — Trump has a point.

Trump’s polling edge and fundraising hauls explain clearly why DeSantis and other declared and potential 2024 GOP primary combatants have, so far, resisted taking on or criticizing the former president directly or harshly. There’s also this: “A former president is not going to jail, not for this,” a former federal prosecutor said to Roll Call of the New York charges. “He’d most likely pay a fine.”

Collectively, Trump’s advantages suggest voters and lawmakers who desperately want the New York City charges to mean Trump’s political and legal chickens have come home to roost are experiencing a fever dream of wishful thinking.

But one potential candidate with national name recognition is urging his GOP mates to propose policies that will resonate with voters while also taking on the MAGA bull headfirst, despite his many advantages.

“I don’t think most elections … are won on the past. They are won or lost on the future,” former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie told ABC News. “And that is going to be [Trump’s] problem when the primary comes because the smart primary candidate will be talking about the future and ignoring Donald Trump — except for when he pops up. And then like whack-a-mole, you hit him down.”

Christie has advised both of Trump’s presidential campaigns, even helping him prepare for debates. So he knows Trump better than some other Republican candidates. Unlike other GOP figures who have entered the race and others eying a bid, Christie’s personality, like Trump’s, is that of a verbal brawler. Like his potential primary foe, Christie also is not afraid to hurl a few insults and take a few shots.

“That sounded to me like a guy that you’d encounter in a bar who you’d wind up sitting next to and he’s griping to you about his bad divorce,” Christie said of Trump’s post-arraignment remarks at Mar-a-Lago, adding with a laugh: “I mean, and you are like, ‘Well, what are you doing now?’ And he’s like, ‘Let me tell you what she did next.”

Beware the wolf, Mr. President, who has spent time inside your chicken coop.

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