All sorts of caveats are necessary.
It’s still very early in a late-developing race. There are only two current or former officeholders in the race, Trump and Nikki Haley.
There’s no doubt that Trump has taken on water, and is at his weakest since sometime in the first part of 2016.
Ron DeSantis has tended to do better against Trump in head-to-head polling (although he trails in a new Yahoo poll), and Trump has looked vulnerable in all-important Iowa and New Hampshire.
Finally, we’ll have to see where DeSantis settles in the polling, if and when he actually gets in the race.
All that said, unless Trump’s support in surveys is a complete mirage, he continues to have a formidable grip on the GOP. There’s been a lot of buzz about DeSantis, understandably, who’s done all the right things to establish a national brand, win credibility with populists, and cultivate big donors. But there should be no mistake regarding Trump’s leadership of the party, he can set up like the Texans defending their canon at the Battle of Gonzales and defy his adversaries to “come and take it.”
That is a daunting prospect. It’s one thing to imagine supplanting Trump as he slip-slides away, defeating himself with his own obsessions and animosities; it’s another to figure out a way to topple him, to come up with lines of attack that diminish him and convince his voters to go elsewhere.
Since he first entered the race in 2015, Trump has benefited from a natural sense of command. What he’s lacked in policy depth or in dignity, he’s made up with his considerable personal force and authority. In the 2016 primary debates, he was the tall, orange-hued man standing in the middle of the stage, hushing the other candidates as necessary.
In the current developing field, he’s obviously the only former president and the only one with a track record of winning (and losing) at the national level. He’s the creator of the movement that nearly everyone else wants to take over or, at the very least, accommodate. He’s the dominant force — the one whose standing in the race affects everything, and, importantly, the one everyone fears.
The latter quality is a key part of the Trump phenomenon. Other national figures might out-charm their competition (Barack Obama in 2008) or overwhelm them with resources (George W. Bush in 2000, Hillary Clinton in 2016). Trump’s MO is to bludgeon them with highly personal, belittling attacks, in a way that has proven highly effective in the past and quite unpleasant to the targets.
Nikki Haley had a pretty good launch a couple of weeks ago but among her weakest moments were when she was clearly frightened to say anything at all about Trump, including mentioning a policy difference or two.
Mike Pence has been more forthright, although even he has leveled criticisms in oblique terms.
Ron DeSantis, the target of a flurry of initial jabs from Trump, has shrugged them off or parried with very subtle counterpunches.
None of this is irrational. Why would Haley want to become the subject of Trump’s ire at a time when she’s the only other major politician in the race? Pence can wait to prosecute his case more directly if he launches a campaign. DeSantis is trying to push his own message, most recently on his book tour, and put more points on the board in the coming Florida legislative session — a mud fight with Trump now isn’t in his interest.
Yet, the disinclination to engage with Trump at all brings back memories of 2016. If it’s a temporary dynamic, that’s one thing; if it’s another prisoner’s dilemma among the non-Trump candidates, waiting for someone else to take him on and hoping to emerge unscathed in the aftermath, it’s repeating the same mistake and expecting a different result.
If the current situation holds, there’s no way around Trump — only through — and that will require making a case against him.
To be the man (or the lady), as the immortal Ric Flair said, you’ve got to beat the man. Trump may indeed be beatable, but the latest polling shows him squarely in the way of anyone who wants to take over the party he’s dominated for seven years and counting.