Republican rivals of Donald Trump and their allies have run about $75 million in advertising, hosted hundreds of events, deployed small armies of door-knockers and staged a presidential debate with ratings akin to the NBA Finals.
But they have little to show for any of it. The former president has continued to dominate the polls while racking up 91 felony indictments in four courtrooms, campaigning less than many of his competitors, skipping the debate and repeatedly slashing popular fellow Republicans.
A majority of the national GOP electorate now tell pollsters they support Trump’s renomination after the first debate, up about 10 points from the spring. His closest rival, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, has watched his support cut in half from the 30s in March to now approaching the rest of the single-digit field.
The dire situation has forced Trump’s would-be successors to refocus their post-Labor Day push on the first voting states, fueled by a near-providential conviction that about 400,000 people in Iowa and New Hampshire — the first two nominating contests — can change history once again. It has also led to frenzied conversations among some candidates and campaign consultants who don’t want to go after Trump for fear of alienating his supporters — but who don’t see a path to beating him without attacking him at some point.
They find themselves scrambling to make the case that they can stand up to the front-runner, while fighting back against the notion that Trump’s dominance has permanently transformed the party around his personality.
“Every day that goes by — no one has come up with a good idea,” said Dave Carney, a Republican consultant who worked in the presidential campaigns of Sen. Bob Dole (R-Kan.) and Texas Gov. Rick Perry, speaking about the major rivals to Trump. “This was a perfect opportunity to lay out your attack on Trump, since he wasn’t at the debate, and no one had the [guts] to talk about it. You know why? They don’t know what to do.”
Rival campaigns and outside consultants say polling and focus group data show that Trump is beatable in the first two states, and that subsequent consolidation in the field could spell his defeat next spring. Outside groups are promising millions in additional television spending and direct mail aimed at gently convincing longtime supporters of Trump that he would be a loser in a general election. His federal trial for efforts to overturn the 2020 election is scheduled to begin one day before Super Tuesday, when about 14 states are expected to pick delegates. At least two other trials are scheduled around the same time.
A recent NBC News/Des Moines Register/Mediacom poll of Iowa, which found Trump in first place with 42 percent support among likely Republican caucus-goers, also revealed that 72 percent were either supporting someone else or open to the possibility. Internal polls from one rival effort has concluded that the floor for Trump in both Iowa and New Hampshire is between 28 and 33 percent.
“The data does show some bright lights. In the early states, Trump polls at least 10 points below his national numbers,” New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu (R) said. “There is still a lot more work to do, but there is plenty of time to do it.”
Beating him in one state, these people argue, would make him look less inevitable — and open up more of a lane to make electability arguments.
But the theoretical case is easier to make than the practical one, as Trump has so far proved himself resistant to GOP criticism and his rivals have struggled to establish themselves as viable alternatives. Most of the field remains in the single digits, increasingly squabbling with one another over claims to third place. Most have based their campaign strategies on a hope that DeSantis will further falter, allowing the party to consolidate around them instead.
Newt Gingrich, a former House speaker and a candidate for president in 2012, says Trump is simply proving himself to be a new breed of politician. He said he has tried to imagine any other candidate on that debate stage who could have posed with the look of defiance Trump adopted for a mug shot taken when he surrendered himself at the Fulton County, Ga., jail last month.
“I keep trying to tell people, he is not a candidate. You can’t think of him as a candidate. He is the leader of a mass movement,” Gingrich said. “They are competing with a leader in a completely different world.”
Former U.N. ambassador Nikki Haley, former vice president Mike Pence and businessman Vivek Ramaswamy all claimed renewed momentum coming out of the first debate, but that has not immediately translated into a significant polling shift. All ranked below 7 percent in a post-debate Economist/YouGov poll, which also found that 34 percent of Republicans thought Pence had done “poorly” in the debate, despite his at-times dominant performance.
And the race itself has only seemed to strengthen for Trump: A Wall Street Journal poll released Friday showed Trump reaching 59 percent among Republican primary voters — while DeSantis had dropped to 13 percent from 24 percent in April.
“Everything that’s happened before now is the preseason. The debate was the kickoff. People are about to focus more,” said Marc Short, a senior adviser to Pence. “Their inclination is to be defensive of Trump. A lot of people think he has been treated unfairly. They want to support him. I don’t think that equates to saying he’s the best suited to be president.”
Ramaswamy — who used the debate to attack everyone else onstage as “bought and paid for” — has cast himself as an inheritor of Trump’s political movement, without trying to draw any sharp contrast with Trump on the trail. At an event in Boone, Iowa, on Thursday, he campaigned as if Trump was not in the race, speaking of him only to say he had respect for the former president and would pardon him.
One donor to the big-spending campaign of Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.), who spoke on the condition of anonymity to speak candidly about the race, said that Scott needs a debate performance similar to Haley’s or Ramaswamy’s to break through. For now, like his colleagues, Scott has also declined to attack Trump directly.
“I think the power of persuasion is incredibly important,” Scott told a voter who asked about his differences with Trump in Le Mars, Iowa, on Wednesday. “If we are going to win the next election, the ability for us to get independents to vote with us as opposed to against us is a very clear area of distinction.”
The past three winners of contested Iowa Republican caucuses — former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum and Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) — all rose in the final weeks on the strength of a consolidation of evangelical voters. Bob Vander Plaats, the head of the conservative Family Leader group, says he believes history will repeat itself.
“I see the poll numbers for Trump in Iowa and nationally where he is holding a commanding lead,” he said. “But at least in Iowa, I don’t see anything on the ground that supports those poll numbers.”
Trump’s campaign acknowledges that he will need to spend more time in Iowa to defend his lead and prevent DeSantis from regaining support he has lost.
“DeSantis is strongest in Iowa, and he has a lot of people who want him to win there. But we haven’t seen a single poll that shows him within the margin of error,” said a senior Trump adviser, who like others, spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe internal thinking.
For his own part, Trump has made clear that he does not want to let up on DeSantis.
Trump’s campaign and supportive super PAC have been polling early states to find his own weaknesses, and claim to have been generally pleased with the results. Trump’s attacks on popular Republican governors; his struggles with evangelical support in Iowa; the increase in the federal debt under his watch; his handling of the coronavirus; his inability to complete a border wall; his relationship with autocrats; and other topics all fail to shift the race’s dynamics, people familiar with the Trump effort said.
“None of their attacks undermine voters’ confidence in President Trump or his agenda,” said Taylor Budowich, who leads MAGA Inc., the pro-Trump super PAC. “It’s why after spending tens of millions of dollars attacking him, President Trump’s lead has only expanded — money that would have been better spent defeating Biden.”
Trump’s campaign also claims that internal polling has shown the indictments are not moving voters. “It’s baked in,” a senior Trump adviser said.
The adviser said that the Trump campaign understands it cannot control his legal malaise, so instead it’s trying to focus on other things, like changing delegate rules, preparing advertisements that he will approve, securing surrogates and raising money — more than $10 million since his mug shot was released, campaign advisers said.
One of Trump’s main goals is to drive up the unpopularity of prosecutors who are attacking him, making more people see the indictments as political, people close to him said. He faces state and federal charges related to his efforts to block the transfer of power after the 2020 election, false record-keeping related to hush money payments, and mishandling classified records.
DeSantis forces have responded by redoubling efforts in the first two states.
“Our goal is to build momentum and realize meaningful electoral success in Iowa — a state where all the pressure in the world lies on the former president to try to win his first Iowa caucus,” said David Polyansky, a top adviser to DeSantis. “Then to maintain this race as a two-person battle as we progress through New Hampshire, and then force the remainder of the field to start making some really tough decisions about their own viability going forward.”
After Trump allies won delegate selection rules in Nevada and California that will benefit the former president, the pro-DeSantis super PAC, Never Back Down, shuttered its field operations. Door-knocking in Texas and North Carolina, two other March voting states, have also been redirected to Iowa and New Hampshire, where the DeSantis team says it has identified plentiful winnable voters.
Internal modeling quietly posted online last month by Never Back Down so it could be read by the candidate showed DeSantis just 8 points behind Trump in Iowa in a head-to-head matchup in early August. But once other candidates were added to the mix, DeSantis had just 19 percent of caucus-goers’ support, compared with 40 percent for Trump.
Other recent Never Back Down polling from New Hampshire showed significant erosion in DeSantis’s support from the spring, as most voters reported they were getting their campaign information about Trump and DeSantis from press reports rather than paid advertising. Never Back Down officials say those internal numbers have improved since the debate.
One of the most frustrating aspects of the campaign so far has been how much media attention Trump gets, according to people close to DeSantis who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations. On an average day, the DeSantis effort’s internal data shows Trump regularly gets several times more “earned media” — or press coverage — than the Florida governor, a statistic they have tried to change, these people said. Some on his team grew angry at the Aug. 23 debate in Milwaukee when Trump advisers were circling the debate hall for interviews — even as Trump skipped the actual event.
The most fruitful line of attack against Trump has come from outside groups, according to various groups and campaigns, with ads and mailings that question Trump’s viability in a general election. DeSantis aides have praised the ads running in Iowa by Win It Back, a group run by Club for Growth president David McIntosh. A recent South Carolina mailer from Americans for Prosperity Action — a group historically funded by the network of conservative donors backed by billionaire industrialist Charles Koch — featured a photograph of Trump’s trademark red hats with the words, “Make Republicans Lose Again,” stitched in white lettering.
Chris Wilson, a pollster for Never Back Down, said the questions of Trump’s electability have a clear effect with the voters in both Iowa and New Hampshire who are open to voting for Trump or another candidate but not yet convinced. “Anyone who sits back and says we don’t have anything to worry about with those ads are not looking at the reality of the situation,” Wilson said of the Win it Back spots. “I would be very concerned.”
The same pitch has been used with donors, including by the DeSantis super PAC, which has asked his wealthy backers to give an additional $50 million by the end of the year and another $50 million by March of next year.
“We can’t lose to Trump. If Trump is the nominee, we are going to lose the White House. If we lose the White House, we are going to lose the Senate. If we lose the Senate, we are going to lose the House,” Never Back Down strategist Jeff Roe told donors in a briefing before the debate, according to leaked audio. “We’re not playing around.”
Nonetheless, many of the biggest GOP donors in past election cycles have remained on the sidelines this year — skeptical that any of the Republican contenders have what it takes to defeat Trump. Those high-dollar financiers have been courted by Haley, Pence, Scott and former New Jersey governor Chris Christie, who had all hoped their performances in the first GOP debate would lead them to commit. Post-debate polling showed Christie, who has been the most aggressive critic of Trump, turned off a sizable chunk of Republicans without getting a measurable bump.
Influential donors like hedge fund executive Ken Griffin are still surveying the field even after that first faceoff. In a statement to The Washington Post this week, he said he is still “assessing how the policies of each candidate will address the challenges facing our country.”
Disappointment in DeSantis among some donors has renewed interest in a potential late entrant into the race such as Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin, who has insisted that he will not focus on his own political plans until after he ensures that his party succeeds in the November state legislative elections. But the window for any new serious contender to jump into the race is rapidly closing.
“The paperwork in some states and the number of signatures required make it incredibly difficult to do by waiting until after the November 2023 elections,” said Ben Ginsberg, a veteran Republican election lawyer. “In other words, he won’t make the ballot in a number of states just by virtue of the deadline, irrespective of his money and charm.”
DeSantis and his team have had discussions on whether to be more aggressive in fighting Trump, according to multiple people. But there is some belief that he needs to introduce himself more positively before focusing on Trump, and that he made a mistake by not getting in soon enough and letting Trump define him.
“This is basically an incumbent president we are running against,” said Kristin Davison, the chief operating officer of Never Back Down. “It is an incumbent president with a 70-plus approval rating, and he is vulnerable in the first two states.”
“If someone doesn’t stop Trump in Iowa or New Hampshire, it’s over,” Dan Eberhart, a DeSantis donor, said.
The stakes are evident on the campaign trail. At a machine shop in Estherville, Iowa, last week, the final question for DeSantis came in the form of a statement.
“In 2016, I asked the Lord to give us the president who loves the country more than he loves himself,” said the voter, an older man with a small American flag sticking out of his shirt pocket. “That would be the man that’s been persecuted by the Justice Department, by the media. We need to stand with him — you’ll gain a lot more votes if you stand with him.”
As the crowd applauded, DeSantis repeated his common refrain. He reminded the man of his vows to overhaul the Justice Department, appoint a new FBI director and fire people in government abusing their power. He did not utter Trump’s name.
Hannah Knowles in Estherville, Iowa; Dylan Wells in Boone, Iowa; and Maeve Reston contributed to this report.