A month after Donald Trump launched his third presidential campaign with a declaration that “America’s comeback begins now”, his attempt to recapture the White House is floundering amid a drumbeat of criticism from Republican lawmakers and ever mounting legal woes.
Perhaps more worryingly for the former president, his once cast-iron grip on the party grassroots appears to be cracking for the first time, according to two opinion polls this week.
“There is no question that Trump is substantially weaker today than he was before the midterms among donors and elected officials. They know why we lost, or had a very weak election,” said Republican pollster Whit Ayres, referencing the party’s disappointing performance in last month’s midterm elections.
“The real question is whether the base of Republican voters knows that, or thinks about that in the same way.”
So far Trump remains the only Republican to have filed the formal paperwork to launch a presidential campaign. But that has not stopped speculation that any number of challengers will enter the arena in the new year, from his former vice-president Mike Pence to South Carolina senator Tim Scott and Glenn Youngkin, the Virginia governor and ex-Carlyle executive.
But chief among his rivals is Ron DeSantis, the Florida governor who was re-elected with a sweeping victory after campaigning on his own brand of “Make America Great Again” in one of the few bright spots for Republicans on midterms election night.
A USA Today/Suffolk University poll out this week found that by a two-to-one margin, Republican and Republican-leaning voters support Trump’s policies but want a different candidate to implement them. Two-thirds of respondents said they want DeSantis to run for president, and 56 per cent said they prefer DeSantis over Trump, compared to 33 per cent who prefer the former president.
A Wall Street Journal poll, also out this week, showed a similar pattern. Among likely Republican primary voters in that survey, DeSantis led Trump, 52-38.
The polls offer the first tangible evidence that Trump is paying the price for the Republican party’s performance in the midterms, which has been blamed on the former president and his handpicked candidates.
Despite widespread expectations of a “red wave”, Republicans took control of the House of Representatives by an exceedingly narrow margin and failed to capture the Senate.
Last week, voters in Georgia delivered another blow to Trump’s status as a kingmaker when they rejected Herschel Walker — the scandal-ridden former American football star who entered the race at the urging of Trump — and re-elected Democrat Raphael Warnock to the Senate.
After the result, Mitt Romney, the Republican senator from Utah and a prominent Trump critic, called the former president the “kiss of death for somebody who wants to win a general election”.
“At some point, we have got to move on and look for new leaders that will lead us to win,” added Romney.
Mitch McConnell, the Senate’s top Republican, has since piled on, telling reporters this week that the former president’s interventions had been “decisive” in the party’s disappointments at the ballot box.
“We ended up having a candidate quality test,” McConnell said. “Hopefully, in the next cycle we will have quality candidates everywhere and a better outcome.”
Asa Hutchinson, the outgoing Republican governor of Arkansas, who has not ruled out his own run for the White House, told the Associated Press this week that Trump securing his party’s nomination in 2024 would be “really the worst scenario”.
“That’s almost the scenario that [president Joe] Biden wishes for. And that’s probably how he got elected the first time,” Hutchinson added. “It became, you know, a binary choice for the American people between the challenges that we saw in the Trump presidency, particularly the closing days, versus Biden.”
At the same time, only one Republican senator, Alabama’s Tommy Tuberville, has endorsed Trump’s re-election bid, while several others have openly urged Scott to throw his hat in the ring.
The recent surge of support for DeSantis is not necessarily sustainable, said Ayres, the Republican pollster, who noted the Florida governor is “completely untested on the national stage”.
Ayres invoked the Republican senator Lamar Alexander, who once likened graduating from a statewide election to a presidential campaign to going from eighth-grade basketball to the NBA finals.
“Just because you can run a good statewide race doesn’t necessarily mean you can be a compelling national candidate,” Ayres added. He noted that the Republican primary starts in states such as Iowa and New Hampshire where voters tend to reward the “shaking hands and kissing babies” of retail politics.
“Ron DeSantis and most of the other alternatives haven’t really been through that meat grinder yet.”
Yet there are early signs that Trump’s support is eroding in those critical first voting states too.
Bob Vander Plaats, an influential evangelical leader in Iowa who previously supported Trump, has become increasingly vocal in his calls for the party to move in a new direction.
Vander Plaats, who endorsed the candidates who won the last three Iowa caucuses, recently told a local radio station: “Because of the 2022 election, 2024 becomes that much more important that we need to win, and I believe right now America is saying . . . President Trump might be your biggest risk to losing in 2024.”
“[Trump’s] announcement has not been met with the overwhelming embrace that I think he thought it would,” Vander Plaats added. “And part of any candidate’s decision going forward in a campaign is: are the people embracing this, or not?”