Was Trump’s Nomination Always Inevitable?

Nikki Haley’s exit from the presidential race this morning all but assures former President Donald Trump of the Republican nomination, in a contest that has been notably lacking in suspense. But that wasn’t always the case.

As recently as a year ago, less than half of Republican voters in FiveThirtyEight’s polling average named Trump their preferred candidate. Was that unsettled landscape an illusion? Or were there moments along Trump’s road to victory that could have led to another outcome?

I put this thought experiment to several political observers. They considered several moments that loom large in retrospect, starting in the final days of Trump’s presidency, and discussed how things might have gone differently.

One scenario would have unambiguously changed the course of the election: a Senate conviction of Trump after his impeachment in the House of Representatives over his role in the Jan. 6 Capitol riot, which would have paved the way for his disqualification from ever running again.

Initially, the Senate Republican leader, Mitch McConnell, entertained the idea of supporting impeachment. He told associates he was pleased that Democrats were moving to impeach Trump, believing that it would make it easier to purge him from the party. But when the decisive moment arrived, he voted to acquit Trump, who escaped conviction in the Senate by 10 votes. (McConnell endorsed Trump today.)

The Senate vote was an important early indication that the Republican elites who would have been happy for Trump to fade from the political scene were not going to take matters into their own hands, hoping instead that Republican voters would do the job.

“You need the party to coordinate at least to some extent to usher Trump off the stage and then identify a new leader,” John Sides, a political scientist at Vanderbilt University, said in an email. “I think that would have made for a much tougher primary campaign for Trump, instead of the easy ride he’s had.”

It looks increasingly unlikely that the most serious criminal case against Trump, the federal charges of election interference related to the Jan. 6 riot, will be decided by a jury before Election Day. That’s potentially important for the general election: Recent polling suggests a criminal conviction could turn a narrow but potentially pivotal slice of voters against Trump in November.

Some critics blame Merrick Garland. The attorney general reportedly decided in early 2021 to pursue a “bottom-up” investigation of the riot, which worked slowly upward from the riot’s on-the-ground participants to Trump and his associates, rather than beginning with higher-level figures. That approach possibly delayed Trump’s August indictment by many months.

“That was a very traditional choice,” said Benjamin Wittes, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and editor in chief of Lawfare. “But it was a choice.”

But as Wittes was quick to point out, even if Trump had been convicted of a serious crime by now, it might not have swayed a meaningful number of Republican primary voters, who broadly believe the charges against him are politically motivated. In a February NBC poll, 81 percent of Republican respondents said they would vote for Trump even if he was convicted of a felony.

When Ron DeSantis dropped out of the presidential race in January, many of his political obituaries argued that the Florida governor, once Trump’s biggest threat in the primary, made the fatal error of waiting too long to get into it.

The moment when DeSantis began generating excitement, in late 2022 and early 2023, was a period of genuine vulnerability for Trump. Republicans had performed poorly in the midterms, losing several high-profile races in which Trump endorsed extreme and inexperienced candidates. “Republicans have followed Donald Trump off the side of a cliff,” one of his longtime advisers said at the time.

Sarah Longwell, the founder of the Republican Accountability Project and a longtime Trump critic, was conducting focus groups with Republican voters at the time. “We were asking the question, ‘Do you want Trump to be the nominee in ’24, or run in ’24?’” she said. “That hit its floor after the 2022 elections.”

Scott Jennings, a Republican political strategist and former adviser to McConnell and George W. Bush, said, “There was a lot of soul-searching going on in the Republican Party about losing — and DeSantis was the only guy out there who was winning.”

Rather than declare his candidacy immediately, however, DeSantis waited several crucial months. By the time he entered the race, Trump had been indicted in the first of several criminal cases. As Republican voters rallied around him, Trump began a steady consolidation of his lead in the polls.

“Politics is often about timing,” Jennings said of DeSantis. “And his timing was off.”

Longwell argues that a candidacy like DeSantis’s, or for that matter Haley’s, was most likely doomed in the earliest days after Trump’s presidency, as Republican leaders and voters, who were initially divided about Trump’s role in Jan. 6, gradually came to defend him.

That ensured that any candidate hoping to run anything but a futile protest candidacy against Trump would make their case not on Trump’s behavior as president, but on his chances of succeeding in November, she said.

“When Republicans made a case against Trump being the nominee, they didn’t say it was because Trump was bad,” she said. “They just said he couldn’t win.” And as polls this fall started to consistently show Trump leading Biden in a direct contest, that argument eroded quickly.

After weeks of campaign ads, political speeches and voting in more than two dozen primary contests, Americans are coming to terms with a reality that many had tried to avoid: President Biden and former President Donald Trump fighting it out, once again, for months.

Large swaths of Democratic, independent and moderate Republican voters have moved through familiar emotional stages. They have dealt with denial, believing other candidates would emerge, and bargaining, entertaining fantasies about last-minute entrants, viable third-party candidates and speedy legal prosecutions. They have fought depression, as options failed to materialize.

And now, slowly but surely, acceptance has begun to arrive.

“You ever hear people say, ‘You’re picking, but that’s not the choice you want’?” said Shalonda Horton, 50, as she walked into a polling place in Austin, Texas, to vote for Biden on Tuesday. “When I get in there, I’ll say, ‘Lord, help me.’”

In Los Angeles, Jason Kohler, who calls himself a progressive Democrat, said he was casting his ballot for Biden only with resignation. But he has made his peace.

“Lesser of two evils at this point, you know?” said Kohler, 47. “Voting is enough of a duty for a citizen, so I feel like you got to do it.”

Complaints about politicians are as old as American politics itself. But pollsters and strategists believe something different is happening this year. Rarely have so many Americans been so unhappy with the direction of the country for so long. Rarely have so many voters said for so long that they want different leaders. The voters who dislike both Biden and Trump are talked about so often that they now have their own political moniker: double haters.

And yet, as the primary calendar marches forward, it is becoming increasingly clear that these voters can single, double, even triple hate, and still their choices will not change. The rematch is here.

Lisa Lerer

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