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Why Aren’t the Republican Candidates Running Against Trump?
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Why Aren’t the Republican Candidates Running Against Trump?

Refusing to challenge the frontrunner puts him on a path to the nomination.

Donald Trump arrives on stage at the Turning Point Action conference on July 15, 2023, in West Palm Beach, Florida. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Perhaps T.S. Elliot was wrong. July, not April, is the cruelest month, at least for GOP presidential contenders trying to supplant Donald Trump. 

Before July, the campaigns have excuses for why the momentum hasn’t kicked in yet. They can say they’re just in exploratory-committee mode, or they’re just getting the campaign stood up. Hey, we haven’t had a chance to meet the voters yet at an Iowa Pizza Ranch or chat with the gang at Manchester Red Arrow Diner

The ides of July is when the excuses evaporate in the summer heat as campaigns have to reveal their second quarter fundraising numbers. For Trump’s challengers, those numbers vary in ugliness, but none are pretty. Mike Pence, a former vice president with enormous name ID, raised a paltry $1.2 million and may not reach the 40,000 small donors required to make the first GOP debate. Chris Christie, who has the highest negatives of any of the declared candidates, raised $1.6 million and has enough small donors to make the debate. 

The most significant disclosures came from Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. He raised a lot of money—$20 million—but he maxed out 70 percent of his donors, meaning he can’t go back to them again. And he’s burning through an enormous amount of cash. 

But it’s the polling numbers that should depress everybody but Trump, who leads the field by over 30 points. DeSantis, whose team insisted in the spring that everyone should wait until he actually gets in the race, has actually lost a few points since he got in the race in May. The rest of the field is jockeying to stay out of single digits.

The one thing all of challengers to Trump agree on is that none of this bad news really matters yet—-and they have a point. National polls at this stage are stupid. A surprise victory in Iowa or New Hampshire by any of them would completely recalibrate the race.

This is part of the cruelty. Every campaign—except the one in the lead—thinks it’s way too early to rule out anybody. It’s a “marathon not a sprint,” as DeSantis says. But the only measures of progress are how much money they’ve raised—and from whom—and those infernal polls. 

The political press follows both as if they’re tangible points on the scoreboard—and so does the donor class, which now includes tens of thousands of small donors. It’s a vicious feedback loop: Failure to raise money or show momentum in the polls leads to negative press coverage, which in turn negatively affects your standing in the polls and how much money you can raise. 

Indeed, you have to go back to 2000 to find an open GOP primary where the clear frontrunner in midsummer went on to win the nomination. At the beginning of July, 2015 Jeb Bush and Donald Trump were neck-and-neck (though by the end of the month, Trump’s surge had begun). In 2007, Rudy Giuliani led Sen. John McCain 2-1. Heck, most recent winners of the Iowa caucus didn’t go on to win the nomination.

The problem is that this is an open-primary in name only. Donald Trump is effectively running as an incumbent. Of course, he isn’t one. He lost in 2020. But GOP primary voters are acting like they don’t know—or don’t accept—that. Perhaps it’s because Trump refuses to admit defeat. Perhaps DeSantis is right that the criminal indictments of Trump have caused voters to rally around him in an act of defiance or sympathy. (If DeSantis is right, Trump might be looking at another boost: Trump says he received a letter from special counsel Jack Smith that he is a target of the January 6 grand jury investigation.) And maybe having so many Republican challengers praising or ignoring Trump has signaled to voters that Trump is the de facto incumbent until further notice.  

Whatever the reason, pretending that this primary is normal when voters have an abnormal attachment to the frontrunner is a recipe for the frontrunner to glide to the nomination. With the exception of Christie, the other candidates are running as if Trump is not a candidate they are working to defeat, but just an idea. If you think of Trump as if he were, say, the personification of a political concept, like the Second Amendment, the way these GOP candidates talk about him makes a bit more sense. But the Second Amendment isn’t running for president. Trump is.

If he weren’t running, it would make complete sense for GOP candidates to avoid offending Trump voters—Republicans in 1976 certainly didn’t routinely denounce Richard Nixon on the hustings. But unless they decide to run directly against the guy beating them now, the next six months are going to look a lot like July.

Jonah Goldberg is editor-in-chief and co-founder of The Dispatch, based in Washington, D.C. Prior to that, enormous lizards roamed the Earth. More immediately prior to that, Jonah spent two decades at National Review, where he was a senior editor, among other things. He is also a bestselling author, longtime columnist for the Los Angeles Times, commentator for CNN, and a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. When he is not writing the G-File or hosting The Remnant podcast, he finds real joy in family time, attending to his dogs and cat, and blaming Steve Hayes for various things.