You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

What Have We Learned in the Republican Presidential Race? Almost Nothing.

The media’s horse-race coverage of a nomination fight dominated by Trump was ultimately pointless—and often embarrassingly wrong.

Trump at a rally in Manchester
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Trump at a rally in Manchester, New Hampshire, on Saturday

Campaign reporters have been breathlessly chronicling the 2024 Republican primaries since Donald Trump prematurely launched his third presidential bid back in November 2022. Despite the seeming lack of drama for most of the race, there have been hundreds of national polls and countless articles and TV segments on the shifting fortunes of Trump, Ron DeSantis, Nikki Haley, and the other former pretenders for the GOP nomination. 

As an aging boy on the bus who has reveled in covering presidential races since the 1980s, it pains me to write this: Voters might have been better off if they had ignored all of it.

Aside from a vigorous debate on aid to Ukraine (an issue on which Haley has shined compared to the neo-isolationism of Trump and DeSantis), it is hard to find a glimmer of substance to the GOP race unless you somehow care who uses which bathroom. As a result, the coverage has mostly revolved around polls and vaporous theories of who has momentum (what George H.W. Bush called the “Big Mo” back in 1980). And an embarrassing amount of it has been dead wrong.

With DeSantis hoisting the white flag on the eve of Tuesday’s New Hampshire primary (his “war against woke” put everyone to sleep), it is sobering to remember that a year ago the Florida governor was beguiling the media while Trump was widely depicted as yesterday’s man in his never-ending vindication tour.

Premature horse-race numbers helped frame this wrongheaded narrative. A respected national poll by the Marquette University Law School, released almost exactly a year ago, found DeSantis beating Trump 62–38 among Republicans. In the first primary state, according to a poll conducted by the University of New Hampshire, DeSantis had a 12-point edge over Trump. While other polls a year ago this week showed Trump retaking the lead, Nikki Haley never registered more than 3 percent in any of them.

But it was not just polling that boosted DeSantis last January. The mood among Republican elites and their chroniclers in the press was decidedly anti-Trump. The New York Times discovered, after interviewing more than one-third of the 168 members of the Republican National Committee, that few of them were “eager to crown Mr. Trump their nominee for a third time.” That same week, The Wall Street Journal stressed in a news story, “While Mr. Trump retains significant support, many major donors, Republican leaders and some voters say Mr. DeSantis is the party’s future.” 

Even as it began to dawn on some reporters that DeSantis was even less likeable than Ted Cruz, there remained a stubborn belief that DeSantis’s poll numbers were real rather than ephemeral. In mid-February, Nate Cohn, the chief political analyst for the Times, argued that DeSantis had staying power in the Republican race—unlike former Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, whose overhyped campaign ended before the 2016 Iowa caucuses. Based on poll data, Cohn confidently wrote, “Mr. DeSantis has a lot more in common with Barack Obama or Ronald Reagan than Mr. Walker or the other promising first-time candidates who did not live up to high hopes.”    

When Haley became the first Trump challenger to enter the fray on Valentine’s Day, you could have made a huge payoff by betting that the former U.N. ambassador would outlast DeSantis (and everyone else) as a contender for the nomination. A typical assessment in The Economist concluded that Haley’s “spinelessness” in constantly shifting her responses to Trump “makes her an unappealing choice both to the MAGA base and to more traditional conservatives.” CNN was equally skeptical: “Haley will likely face stiff competition in this lane from other potential GOP candidates such as Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, former Vice President Mike Pence and former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.”

In hindsight, the turning point in what passes as the Republican race probably came in early April when Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg announced the first criminal indictment of Trump. Bragg’s decision to go after the former president over his half-forgotten 2016 payoff to a porn star fostered the dangerous illusion among Republican voters that Trump was a martyr. A national Reuters/Ipsos poll released at the time of the indictment found that Trump had opened up a nearly 30-point lead over DeSantis. 

But a segment of the media couldn’t accept the reality that the charisma-challenged Florida governor, who tried to run to Trump’s right, was on the ropes. When DeSantis formally announced his candidacy in late May, the Journal editorial page declared that “judging by the polls and his financial backing to date, he is the biggest threat to Mr. Trump.” On MSNBC’s Morning Joe, host Joe Scarborough played the contrarian and claimed that DeSantis had an “even money” chance of defeating Trump. In mid-June, The Washington Post took seriously the overly ambitious boasting by a pro-DeSantis super PAC: “Never before has a presidential effort invested in doors in the way the DeSantis machine is doing. By Labor Day, Never Back Down aims to have about 2,600 trained canvassers in the 18 early nominating states.” 

One of the dangers inherent in political prophesy is fighting the last war. In early June, when Chris Christie and Mike Pence were poised to enter the GOP race, Reuters warned of a repeat of the 2016 primaries when the anti-Trump forces could not unite behind a single challenger: “Republicans who fear Trump is too polarizing a figure to beat Democratic President Joe Biden in 2024 worry that if too many candidates jump into the party’s contest, they will splinter the anti-Trump vote.” Well, the anti-Trump vote is no longer splintered, and Haley, alas, doesn’t appear to be any closer to toppling Trump in their head-to-head in New Hampshire on Tuesday. 

Now for my own embarrassing confession: I thought I had learned, over four decades of political reporting, the dangers of making glib predictions and getting ahead of the actual political storyline. But that did not prevent me from writing in May about Tim Scott: “In a long campaign season, some candidates have a moment when they look as if they are real contenders for the nomination.… And the bet here is that Scott, especially after he visually stands out on a monochromatic Republican debate stage, will have one of those moments in 2023.” After three weak debate performances, Scott’s chance for such a moment ended when he dropped out in November. Now he’s newly engaged as a Trump surrogate angling to be the veep pick.

At least I was never gulled by the bumptious Vivek Ramaswamy. Following the first Republican debate in August, NBC News gushed, “A charismatic public speaker, Ramaswamy, 38, has risen from relative obscurity to the top tier of the Republican presidential primary by embracing Trump wholeheartedly.” The Associated Press also succumbed to Ramaswamy’s brass-knuckles debate style: “At the center of the stage, and the center of the debate’s hottest exchanges, was … a novice candidate and technology entrepreneur named Vivek Ramaswamy.” A weak fourth-place finish in Iowa sent Ramaswamy packing. (He endorsed Trump, just as DeSantis did on Sunday.) 

The moral inherent in all this is a sad one: In his cultish capture of the Republican Party, Donald Trump has single-handedly destroyed traditional campaign journalism, at least on the GOP side. If the rituals of the early states don’t matter, if campaign announcements and stump speeches don’t matter, if endorsements (Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds for DeSantis and New Hampshire Governor Chris Sununu for Haley) don’t matter, then what is the point of chronicling the GOP nomination fight?

No doubt many other political journalists are asking that very question. Even Politico, which made its name by supercharging horse-race coverage, asked in the title of its flagship Playbook newsletter on Monday, “Is the primary over?” Barring a Haley miracle in New Hampshire, the race to derail Trump has indeed come to a screeching halt. Good riddance to the most lopsided contested presidential nomination fight since the rise of the primaries in the 1970s. Now we can turn to a truly dramatic and consequential general election battle between a stable, successful president and a deranged authoritarian Republican out for revenge and retribution. With democracy on the line, let’s hope and pray that the voters don’t tune this one out.