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Silver Linings

The Republican Presidential Primary Is a Race for Second Place

Vivek Ramaswamy might be the flavor of the month, but Donald Trump owns the ice cream shop.

Win McNamee/Getty Images
Vivek Ramaswamy displaying what place he will finish in a handful of Republican primaries if everything goes well.

This is Vivek Ramaswamy’s moment. After a performance in the first Republican debate that upstaged the rest of the teeming field of GOP afterthoughts, the businessman was deemed to have stolen the show as the MAGA-iest candidate on the debate stage. “It is not morning in America,” he said. “We’re living in a dark moment.” 

This bleak, practically apocalyptic sentiment would have been close to heresy back when the specter of Ronald Reagan hovered above any gathering of two or more Republicans. But now there was a different specter haunting the room: Donald Trump, recently arrested for the fourth time and skipping a debate that he—probably rightfully—felt was beneath him, given his sizable lead in the primary. 

Still, with Florida Governor Ron DeSantis’s fortunes flagging, there was an also-running-shaped void to be filled, and Ramaswamy threw his body into it, mostly by doing Trump-like things (interrupting, lying, effusively praising Donald Trump). By the end of the evening, it was clear that Ramaswamy had cleared the bar—and that DeSantis’s status as the 2024 primary’s Official Second Banana was in jeopardy. 

Politico, the organ of Beltway conventional wisdom, noted that the Ramaswamy annoyed virtually everyone involved (with the notable exception of Trump, who would soon go on to say that he would consider him as his vice president) but was turning heads all the same: Even if everyone on the stage hated him, viewers were curious—googling him more than a million times in the ensuing hours. The New York Times called it his “breakout” moment on its organ of conventional wisdom, the Daily podcast. Numerous outlets listed him as one of the debate’s “winners.” (For what it’s worth, Donald Trump did too.) In the week that followed, attention once reserved for DeSantis swung his way, a sure sign of palpable Vivekmentum. 

It’s far too soon to say what Ramaswamy’s political future will look like. He may very well be a force in GOP politics for years, if not decades, to come—he’s only 38 years old, after all. It’s easy to see him sharing a ticket with Trump, should the latter win the party’s nomination. At the very least, it seems safe to say that Ramaswamy embodies the next, post-Trump generation of Republican politics: dark, conspiratorial, profoundly online, and deeply annoying. 

But the near term seems less cloudy. Even with a spate of press coverage and a bounce in the polls, it’s simply not plausible to suggest that Ramaswamy is poised to knock Donald Trump off his perch—particularly given the fact that he reached this particular height of notoriety by effusively praising the former president. Indeed, FiveThirtyEight’s aggregate poll still has him with a shade under 10 percent of the popular vote, a full five points behind the plummeting DeSantis. But Ramaswamy is mounting a solid challenge for what is, and has been, the only other thing at stake in this Republican primary: finishing a distant second to Donald Trump. Trump, to be fair, has taken a hit in the wake of his fourth arrest in five months. But nearly 50 percent of GOP primary voters are backing him, per the same poll. 

The state of play in the Republican primary, as we head into the fall, is one of inertia. Theoretically, things could soon heat up. Candidates will visit early primary states more and more; there will be further debates. But for now, there is no sign that a competitive primary might break out. Trump’s lead is vast; multiple arrests have hardly hurt him with the Republican base. Skipping the first debate looks for all the world to have been the smart play. And media coverage hasn’t fomented much movement in the polls; Ramaswamy is thus far not getting a surge, much like the months-long anointment of DeSantis failed to yield a true contender. What’s going to change between now and four months from now? 

The answer, at the moment, is “not much.” But the pressure to make the race seem competitive and to anoint various challengers as threats to Trump will remain a going concern of a political media that needs something to talk about over the long haul toward the inevitable. To be charitable, there was a moment when DeSantis did seem like he might snatch Trump’s crown; when he was running more or less neck and neck with the former president, riding momentum from a resounding reelection victory in a midterm election cycle in which Trump was an albatross for the GOP. But a series of missteps, combined with increased scrutiny and the growing awareness of what Ron DeSantis was actually like (awkward, weird, off-putting, robotic) sent his nascent candidacy spiraling the same direction as Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker’s 2016 effort.

As was the case in 2016, it is tempting to suggest that another candidate could fill the shoes of Chief Trump Antagonist—welcome to your moment, Vivek Ramaswamy. And appreciate it while it lasts, because it’s hard to see the basic dynamic changing, for one simple reason: When DeSantis had a competitive edge, it came during a time when the Republican field was empty; he and Trump ran close together in the polling of that early period. In a head-to-head matchup, many Republican voters seem open to the candidate who is not Donald Trump. But the 2024 primary won’t winnow to head-to-head matchup for a very long time, if it ever does. (Trump, by the way, is smart to leave debating to the field, if only because it’s making several noncontenders seem viable for a longer period of time than they would if he simply showed up and crushed them.) By the time any serious winnowing is achieved, Trump may very well have racked up a number of victories in early (and perhaps not-so-early) primaries and caucuses. 

We’ve seen this movie before! In 2016, there was a general sense that Donald Trump just couldn’t be the Republican nominee and that eventually various laws of political gravity would kick in. The result was an election in which a number of candidates received the type of attention Ramaswamy is getting now. Ben Carson was the first, rising in the polls in the autumn months of the primary season before once again plummeting back to earth. He was followed by several others who burned brightly and then flamed out, most notably Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz. 

Trump bested them all. But despite the fact that we now know full well that the unimaginable is always possible with Donald Trump—and that Donald Trump’s grip on the Republican Party seems near absolute—the media coverage continues to breathlessly follow flash-in-the-pan candidates who rise in the polls, even by a hair.  

Presidential primaries are important stories, and they last a very long time. Having one as consistently boring as this one is a challenge for media organizations that spend years preparing for elections to cover. The transformation of minor sparks into massive conflagrations is a long-standing feature of coverage that is increasingly dependent on the horse race’s ups and downs and incentivized to highlight—and sometimes overstate—whatever drama and intrigue can be mined. 

But the big story of the Republican primary so far is that it almost refuses to ever start happening. Yes, candidates are visiting diners, shaking hands. Yes, there will be further debates to come. And our old pal Donald Trump may even drop by from time to time. But this primary is simply not competitive and shows no sign of getting interesting. And Trump’s campaign, which has been characterized by a notable lack of campaigning, may be staged from a series of courtrooms serving as a kind of de facto campaign stage—which might suit Trump just fine, allowing him to do fewer rallies and perhaps skip the debates altogether. 

If you want to imagine, then, what the 2020 Republican presidential primary will look like, think back to the early days of the 2016 primary, when so many people were vying for the nomination that they couldn’t even all fit on the debate stage. In that contest, the most misfortunate members of the field were forced to participate in the humiliating undercard debates—which the political wags quickly christened the “kids’ table” debates. Ramaswamy and DeSantis may yet prove to be the future of the Republican Party someday. But its present is still Donald Trump—everyone else is stuck at the kids’ table, left to dine on his leavings.