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Ron DeSantis speaks to the Republican Jewish Coalition annual meeting at the Venetian in Las Vegas, on Nov. 19, 2022; Donald Trump at a 2024 election campaign event in Columbia, S.C., on Jan. 28, 2023. Credit - Nathan Posner—Anadolu Agency/Getty Images; Ogan Cyrus—AFP/Getty Images
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Jennifer Dinsmore isn’t typically someone who stands in line for selfies with political candidates or maxes out her donations to campaigns. In fact, she says she had never before attended a campaign event until Saturday, when she stood outside a southern New Hampshire high school to welcome former President Donald Trump. Unable to get a ticket to be inside for Trump’s first stop on the 2024 campaign trail, the 47-year-old Dinsmore nevertheless wanted to make sure the ex-President knew he still had supporters ready to help his comeback.
“Oh, I support Trump 110%,” the mom of two told me as temperatures hovered in the low 40s and the nearby parking lot reached its capacity—and then some. “He took charge of the economy. He closed our borders. He made America safe. When President Trump was leading, there was no high inflation, no high gas prices. He has so much support out there that we are willing to give it another shot.”
But still, she can’t help but be curious about Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who is emerging as a looming threat to Trump in the primary. “But if DeSantis runs…” She trails off as nearby supporters continue to cheer Trumpist slogans and buy souvenir scarves and buttons. “DeSantis got it right down in Florida. The whole Critical Race Theory thing, the wokeness—it’s the right way to run a state,” Dinsmore says. “He’s going to be a tough one.”
And therein lies the challenge for Trump’s third presidential bid: many Republicans look back fondly on the Trump years but not necessarily on Trump himself. Trump no doubt remade the Republican Party, expanding its reach to parts of the country that didn’t exactly see themselves reflected in the political system while driving the establishment and moderate corners nutty. Trumpism guided a huge reset in this nation’s politics and remains a potent force. But Trump himself may no longer be the avatar of that ideology.
Talking with Republican activists, insiders, and donors this weekend in New Hampshire, it’s clear that the assumptions of inevitability coming out of Trump’s Florida headquarters may be flimsy. Sure, Trump remains the frontrunner for the nomination, but others have been in that spot before and failed. In the 2008 race, former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani started with a double-digit national lead over his nearest rival for the nomination and watched that support reduced to one-third by the time the actual balloting started.
Locally, Trump has seen his standing slump from a post-White House high of 47% of New Hampshire Republicans favoring him as the nominee in 2024. In each of the four University of New Hampshire-Granite State Polls taken since, his support has dropped, down to 30%. DeSantis, meanwhile, continues to rise, posting a 42% plurality of support in the UNH-Granite State Poll.
To be sure, there remains a political eternity between now and the starting gun of the first primaries, and it’s still not even clear who will eventually join the race. DeSantis isn’t even expected to make his candidacy official until his legislative session wraps up in late May. Much like then-Texas Gov. Rick Perry found in 2011, DeSantis may start the race perceived as a rockstar until he starts to be truly tested.
Other possible Republican contenders, like former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley, are closer to announcing their next steps in coming weeks. But no one can boast any great certainty about the path to enough delegates to deny Trump the nomination. After all, Republican contests this year are expected to be winner-take-all affairs, meaning Trump could still bank delegates without ever winning a majority vote.
Then there’s the money. End-of-year campaign finance reports aren’t yet filed, but it’s widely expected that Trump will have an unrivaled kitty. Over the last two years, Trump’s main political committee spent $28 million to keep the machine going, and Trump’s fundraising ability is unrivaled on a national level with small-dollar donors—especially now that he can again have access to Facebook’s platform. Folks like former Vice President Mike Pence, former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and even current Sen. Tim Scott won’t be cash poor in their bids, but it’s tough to outshine a fundraising light blindness triggered by a Trump detonation.
Still, the uneven start of Trump’s campaign—announced back in November but only beginning in earnest now—is enough to give his die-hard fans reason to look around for other options. His speech here on Saturday was, as The D.C. Brief wrote that day, hardly the most articulate argument for another Trump era. His brand of politics is starting to grind mainstay Republicans like New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu, who skipped the state GOP convention and is considering the groundwork for his own presidential bid. “I’m not pro-Trump. I’m not anti-Trump. I’m just moving on,” said Sununu. “We just want the best normal candidate.”
And, in that, he might find plenty of kindred conservatives in New Hampshire—and beyond.
“I have a tremendous amount of respect for him, for what he’s done for the country,” John O’Brien, a 72-year-old retiree from Hudson, says of Trump. But can Trump win in 2024? I ask O’Brien as we stand near a life-size cutout of DeSantis in a hallway, where a pair of tables promoting a Draft DeSantis group and a separate Ron to the Rescue committee are handing out stickers. “Anyone can win,” O’Brien adds, saying he’s not being glib. “The country is so messed up, we need new leadership. To me, Trump’s the only one who’s done it, but I’m open to seeing others.”
And in that openness, the Republican Party may be in its early stages of breaking the Trump fever that took hold in 2015 and never really went away. It’s coming up on eight years of Trump controlling the GOP’s narrative and future, and in that time the party has lost the House, the Senate, and the White House. Sure, Republicans are now back in charge of the House, but barely, and with a fractured majority. As Republicans in New Hampshire and elsewhere begin thinking about the next chapter of their party and its leadership, the absolutism of Trump’s dominance is starting to flake, giving hope to candidates who could probably still go into a local Costco without being recognized. The better question is if the GOP rank-and-file can ever go into a polling location and recognize their party in a post-Trump era. In New Hampshire, there are at least sparks of that imagination.
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