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Is the Republican Primary Heading Toward a Repeat of 2016?

Donald Trump is weak! That may be good for him.

Brandon Bell/Getty Images

For the first time in years—perhaps for the first time since his political career began in the summer of 2015—Donald Trump can’t be said to have an iron-lock hold on the Republican Party. Technically in operation since mid-November, his presidential campaign is wheezing along, garnering little attention. Trump himself is, at best, slightly weird now; at his worst, he cuts a full-blown Kurtz-like figure, raving to anyone in his proximity. Self-obsessed even when his political campaign was oriented around the grievances of his voters, he is now singularly fixated on the personal, political, and legal struggles of Donald John Trump. There is little talk about policy, or even the direction of the country: It’s all FBI raids, Capitol riots, and witch hunts.

A sizable chunk of the GOP base suddenly appears to be open to shopping around. In the early stages of the primary—Trump is still the only declared candidate—the former president has often found himself trailing in the polls, particularly when set against Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, whose campaign against wokeness has made him a rising star on the right. Early polling, as is its wont, is all over the place—right now it shows Trump garnering anywhere from 25 to 55 percent of the vote—but The New York Times’ Nate Cohn argued earlier this month that, despite its high variance, these numbers show a weakened Trump, not the 2016 vintage. Many Republicans have grown tired of his antics and are looking for other options. The brahmins of the Republican Party, meanwhile, are plotting against him; hoping to learn from their mistakes and kneecap him at the earliest opportunity.

Trump’s vulnerability presents an opportunity for many in the GOP’s upper echelon. For eight years, he has been the party’s focal point, its supreme leader. Challenging him was not just a fool’s errand, it was career suicide. Loyalty to Donald Trump was the only thing that mattered. Constantly on the hunt for apostates, Trump would relentlessly attack his critics on the right, his rhetoric sufficient to turn even the most ardent conservative into a RINO. That is no longer the case. Come the spring and early summer, the Republican field could be flooded with reasonably well-known candidates: Former United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley seems on the verge of entering the race; South Carolina Senator Tim Scott was just in Iowa; former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo clearly wants in, as does former Vice President Mike Pence; former adversaries Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio could jump into the race; rising star Governors Kristi Noem and Glenn Youngkin are expected to declare their candidacy at some point.

But for these same party elites, Trump’s weakness also poses a dilemma. The 2024 Republican nomination seems more gettable for a non-Trump Republican than it has in years, but a crowded primary will almost certainly benefit Donald Trump. Many aspects of Trump’s political career recall what Mr. Burns’s doctor in The Simpsons referred to as “Three Stooges Syndrome.” Mr. Burns, his doctor says, has so many diseases that they simply cancel each other out. This was certainly true of Donald Trump’s scandals. But now, the Republican field is in a similar position: There are so many candidates trying to overtake Trump that they may very well cancel each other out. And the longer a crowded field fails to yield a single credible challenger—well, you probably remember what happened in 2016.

Trump has thus far performed poorly in head-to-head polls and well in multicandidate ones; in particular, he often shows poorly against DeSantis. This may be a sign that DeSantis is in an unusually strong position, but it could also mean that he is simply the Republican flavor of the month. Voters looking for a non-Trump candidate currently favor him. That may very well change, however, when the Republican primary begins in earnest—let’s recall that lots of people thought Scott Walker was in an enviable position eight years ago.

At any rate, primaries are not head-to-head contests. When they start a year from now, Donald Trump will most likely face several rivals, possibly more than a dozen. Trump may enter the race with a diminished standing, but what he currently lacks in ceiling he more than makes up for in floor: A large portion of the GOP field is sticking with him, even as he grows more and more unhinged. As long as they continue to do so—and this is a reasonably safe bet—Trump is still in good shape heading into the primaries. At the same time, Trump’s loyal base presents a dilemma to potential challengers: The eventual Republican nominee will need to win over a sizable portion of these voters to be elected president. That could result, as it did in 2016, in extended kid glove treatment for Trump—even though it’s highly unlikely that he would ever back the party’s nominee were he to lose the GOP primary. (Indeed, Trump is probably more likely to actively campaign against them.)

Republicans have almost certainly looked at the 2020 Democratic presidential primary for lessons. During that election, Bernie Sanders had a brief swell of momentum that was swiftly undercut by the Democratic establishment. Many of Biden’s primary rivals, occupying the mainstream, centrist lane, dropped out of the race and endorsed him in a strong show of unified support. This helped pave the way for his nomination and, ultimately, his presidency. Republicans could theoretically attempt a similar maneuver, with a push to solidify support behind a single viable candidate, like DeSantis or Haley. But it’s not clear that the Republican establishment, after eight years of Donald Trump, has the political capital or authority with its own voter base to pull off a “The Party Decides” move—Biden’s win in 2020, moreover, was the result of a multitude of factors beyond simple establishment support. In 2016, the Republican Party was in much stronger shape than it is now, and it failed to consolidate its support behind Ted Cruz, John Kasich, or Marco Rubio. There’s no reason to believe it could execute this plan in 2024.

This all points to a combustible, ironic situation for Republicans. Trump is weak. The party’s presidential nomination is open, or at least more open than it has seemed in years. And yet Trump’s current weak standing may counterintuitively be one of his best assets: The more he looks ripe for the plucking, the more Republicans will be drawn into the race, increasing the likelihood that a big field will simply balkanize the anti-Trump contingent. Ah, well: Here we go again.