Donald J. Trump’s lead in the Republican primary continues to grow.
He surpassed 60 percent of the vote in Fox News and Quinnipiac polls last week, including leads of 60-13 and 62-12 over his closest rival, the not-so-close Ron DeSantis.
Even more remarkable: His gains followed what would be considered a disastrous 50 days for any other campaign. Since the beginning of August, he has been facing new criminal charges at the federal and state level for trying to overturn the 2020 elections. He skipped the first presidential debate, which was nevertheless followed by more than 10 million people. Not only did it not hurt him, but he came out stronger.
With this latest progress, Mr. Trump is inching closer to rarefied territory. The latest surveys show him in the polls as well as any candidate in the history of modern contested presidential primaries. He is approaching the position of George W. Bush, who was ahead of John McCain by a similar margin at this point in the race in 2000. And in both polls mentioned above, he shares Mr. Bush’s position.
The 2000 election reminds us that the race could still become more competitive. Mr. Bush skipped the first two debates, but Mr. McCain ultimately won New Hampshire, cleared the field of significant opponents and ultimately won six more contests. He didn’t win, of course. He didn’t come any closer. But it was at least a race. That’s more than can currently be said about Mr. Trump’s competition, which would likely be 0 in 50 if states voted today.
On paper, Mr. Trump faces greater risks than Mr. Bush, including being imprisoned. On the ground, he is relatively weak in Iowa, where his recent comments on abortion — he called a six-week ban “a terrible thing” — could draw additional skepticism from religious conservatives in the state. Indeed, Mr. Trump’s lead in Iowa (roughly 45-15) is quite similar to Mr. Bush’s lead in New Hampshire at this time 24 years ago.
Unlike Mr. Bush, Mr. Trump has not consolidated support among Republican elites. Unlike Mr. McCain, Mr. DeSantis is not a simple factional candidate. There remains a chance, unlikely as it may seem today, that Mr. Trump’s skeptics will rally against him, perhaps fueled by an unprecedented criminal trial in the heart of the primary season.
But so far, the theoretical risks for Mr. Trump have not materialized. More than anything, it probably reflects his unique strengths. He’s a former president, not the son of a former president. Perhaps this race looks more like a president seeking re-election than a typical open and contested primary. At the very least, his resilience in the face of election defeat and criminal charges is a powerful indication of his unusual position.
And unlike Mr. McCain at this point in the 2000 race, Mr. Trump’s opposition is well known. It’s probably fair to say that Mr. DeSantis faded more than he was outright defeated, so there is room for a resurgence — something like Mr. McCain’s comeback in 2008. But the The easiest path to advancing in a primary is usually to be discovered by first-time voters, and that path won’t be available to the likes of Mr. DeSantis, Mike Pence and Chris Christie.
The winner of the first debate might have been Nikki Haley, but she represents something of a best case for Mr. Trump: moderate and strong enough to take anti-Trump votes away from Mr. DeSantis; far too moderate to pose a serious threat to Mr. DeSantis or to win the nomination.
So while history and current circumstances suggest a path toward a closer race, it’s worth being frank about what we’re seeing today. This race currently has many of the hallmarks of an uncompetitive contest, such as an overwhelming lead in the polls, a leading candidate who does not need to debate, and a party leadership that is unwilling to attack the frontrunner, despite significant reservations. This is very similar to what we are seeing in the Democratic race, which is not considered competitive. Indeed, Mr. Trump’s lead in the latest polls is about as large as President Biden’s lead over Robert F. Kennedy Jr.
Of course, the Republican competition differs from the Democratic one in several ways. Unlike Mr. Biden, Mr. Trump has traditional adversaries. The Republican Party race is tighter in early states, where Mr. Trump is below 50 percent. If Mr. DeSantis beat Mr. Trump in Iowa, perhaps Republicans could quickly rally around him, just as moderates did for Mr. Biden against Bernie Sanders in 2020. And there is the extraordinary prospect of a federal trial in March. Together, it’s easy to imagine how this will become a competitive race again.
But while the race could become very competitive in the future, it’s not really competitive today.