In 2016, when then-Republican presidential candidate Marco Rubio was asked a question about Donald Trump’s complaints of a rigged election in Iowa, the Florida senator went to great lengths to avoid attacking Trump directly. He instead focused his ire on another then-presidential contender: Texas Sen. Ted Cruz. That was a microcosm of Trump’s 2016 campaign. Despite spirited attempts by nearly all of Trump’s competitors to cast him into the outer darkness, the former president often managed to avoid fierce blowback from rivals and other Republican elites.
That reticence continued throughout much of Trump’s administration — and even now, almost one week after Trump was indicted by a Manhattan grand jury. In fact, not a single one of his declared and potential rivals for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination (save for maybe Asa Hutchinson, who is barely registering in the polls) meaningfully addressed the historic nature of the news or attacked Trump directly. Instead, they mostly directed their attacks at Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg, expressing a belief that the justice system was weaponized against the former president. Speaking before Trump was indicted, former UN Ambassador Nikki Haley, who entered the race in February, said the prosecution was “more about revenge than it is about justice.” Former Vice President Mike Pence said that Bragg’s case “reeks of … political prosecution.” South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina said that Trump is a “victim” of a district attorney who wants to “weaponize the law against his political enemies.”
The answer to that question might be a simple one: Republican presidential contenders are in a no-win situation. If they attack Trump over his indictment, it probably won’t play well with the Republican base — the very voters they need to win the nomination. But if they don’t attack him, they might just be letting him waltz to the nomination without a serious fight; after all, Trump is currently leading the primary field. And while there’s still technically time for candidates to change their strategy, 2016 should serve as a cautionary tale of what happens when you don’t attack and confront the front-runner directly — and quickly.
“The difference between 2016 and now is that Trump then was an unknown quantity in the political arena. His rivals failed to attack him early on because they assumed he’d fade, and once it was clear he wouldn’t, it was too late,” said Patrick Ruffini, a Republican pollster and co-founder of Echelon Insights. “Today, it’s abundantly clear that there is no way to get the nomination except through him. If you have a problem making the case that he shouldn’t be the nominee, then you shouldn’t be running.”
But therein lies the dilemma facing Republican presidential candidates: Trump is still popular among GOP voters, and the indictment against him isn’t. According to an ABC News/Ipsos survey conducted March 30-April 1, Republicans overwhelmingly believed that the charges against the former president were politically motivated, 79 percent to 6 percent. Just 16 percent of Republicans said Trump should have been charged.
Another Morning Consult poll, conducted March 31, yielded similar results: Among potential GOP primary voters, a whopping 70 percent said that they disapproved of the Manhattan grand jury’s decision to indict Trump. Just 19 percent approved. Seventy-eight percent of potential GOP primary voters also said that they thought the grand jury’s decision was primarily due to a “motivation to damage Trump’s political career,” compared with 13 percent who thought the indictment was “evidence that Trump committed a crime.”
And the indictment hasn’t really hurt Trump’s standing among his base. In fact, there’s evidence that his support may even be increasing following last week’s bombshell report. A Yahoo News/YouGov poll fielded March 30-31 showed Trump with his largest-ever lead in a head-to-head race with his most formidable likely challenger, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. Given the choice among Trump, DeSantis, “not sure” and “I would not vote,” Republicans and Republican-leaning independent voters favored Trump over DeSantis by almost 30 percentage points (57 percent to 31 percent). When pitted against a wider, 10-candidate field of declared and potential rivals, Trump still attracted majority support (52 percent), compared with DeSantis’s 21 percent. No one else cracked single digits. Trump’s numbers are also a marked increase from when the pollsters last asked this question just two weeks prior. In that survey, Trump led DeSantis by just 8 points head-to-head: 47 percent to 39 percent.
Given these numbers, it’s not hard to see why Republican candidates might not want to use the indictment to attack Trump — particularly if they think they can stay out of the fray in 2024 and outlast the former president’s current reign over Republican politics. Plus, the risk of attacking Trump (and losing to him) might be a miserable and perhaps even humiliating experience that candidates don’t want to go through — just ask Cruz or Jeb Bush.
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The flip side, though, is that if the candidates running today want to dethrone Trump by next year, they’re going to have to attack him eventually. If they don’t, they risk a redux of the 2016 election, when Trump skated to the nomination, in part, because Republican elites failed to stop him while he was ahead. Trump led in Real Clear Politics’ national polling average of that primary almost continuously after July 2015, though pediatric neurosurgeon Ben Carson pulled into a rough tie with him that November. When it became clear that Trump’s momentum wasn’t slowing, Republicans had a chance to coalesce around Carson and then Cruz, who leapfrogged Carson for second place after winning the Iowa caucuses. But that didn’t happen.
But Ruffini told me that if Republicans repeat the same pattern this go-around — and Trump goes on to win the GOP presidential nomination — it won’t necessarily be because his rivals didn’t criticize the former president directly over the indictment. After all, Republicans are currently largely unified in outrage at what they see as Bragg’s prosecutorial overreach. Where there may be an opening, he said, is if there’s a realization that the charges will hinder Trump from winning a general election. And to the extent that candidates should be aiming fire at Trump now it should be on issues where the electorate already has doubts, like his ability (or lack thereof) to win over suburban and other swing voters — let alone win a general election against President Biden.
“Republican voters are capable of holding two thoughts in their heads at once,” Ruffini said. “The first is: We like Trump, and we like how he fights. But is he so compromised that he risks losing even to a weakened and unpopular Joe Biden? The case that DeSantis or anyone with a successful electoral track record can make is that, ‘Look, there isn’t going to be a huge difference with Trump on policy. The difference is: I win, he loses.’” However, Ruffini added, “Republican voters aren’t thinking this way just yet.”
It’s possible that’s currently true because details of the indictment only recently became public. Or because, unlike in 2015, there’s not exactly a line of notable Republicans stepping up to challenge Trump (indeed, none of the 16 Republicans Trump vanquished in 2016 are coming for him again). Sure, DeSantis is largely seen as the strongest non-Trump alternative, but he’d been slipping in the polls even before the indictment. Plus, none of the declared candidates have made a ton of noise so far, and this might not be the issue they want to make a name for themselves on — at least not yet.
Of course, we have some time before the GOP primary really kicks into high gear, and a lot of things can happen between now and then. For one, it’s possible that the Republican Party abandons Trump completely (though I wouldn’t bet on this outcome). Voters and politicians might change their minds on Trump as we continue to learn more about the indictment and a possible sentencing. And remember, there are three other cases that could take Trump down between now and November 2024.
At least for now, though, and especially given early polling on the topic, it’s easy to understand why both critics and former backers of the former president who are challenging him for the nomination have resorted to anger and accusations of injustice against Trump rather than lambasting him for the alleged hush-money payments his campaign paid to a porn star. But this lack of criticism against a presidential front-runner can’t last forever. They are running against him, after all, which means they should, theoretically, want him to lose. Sure, Trump might win the primary regardless — but if his opponents fail to make a case against him, they almost guarantee that he will.