Former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, who sought the Republican presidential nomination in 2012, said “Trump’s lead in the polls over Biden has eroded the key argument that Trump can’t win the general election.”
“Trump’s GOP opponents are unfortunately left with divinity or luck as their last best hope,” he continued, adding that it will take nothing short of an “existential development” to keep Trump from winning the nomination.
It’s hard to blame Trump’s primary rivals for having made electability the focus of their campaigns after Trump lost to Biden, faced two impeachments and was caught in a whirlwind of legal woes. What’s more, Republican voters may be more concerned about electability than ever before. In a recent Des Moines Register/NBC News/Mediacom Iowa Poll, three-fourths of GOP Iowa caucusgoers said it was “extremely important” for the party’s nominee to be able to beat Biden — making that the top quality Republicans prioritized in a candidate.
But Trump continued to trounce his Republican opponents in that Iowa poll — as with every other early state and national poll — even slightly increasing his lead from the newspaper’s last survey in August. Trump, after seemingly closing off every other avenue of attack for his rivals — from his indictments, to his refusal to debate, to his controversial remarks surrounding the war in Israel — is now starting to quiet doubts about his electability, as well. And after months of campaigning, it isn’t clear what else Trump’s rivals can do about it.
A majority of Republicans in Iowa, the first-in-the-nation caucus state, don’t care that Trump isn’t stepping foot on the debate stage, where his rivals will participate in their third faceoff on Wednesday night. And they are sympathetic to, not turned off by, his mounting legal problems.
“Right now, I’d say it looks like Trump’s going to carry it,” said Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), on his prediction of the Iowa caucuses. He noted there are still roughly two months before then, but believes that any additional consolidation of the GOP field would only “minimally” affect Trump’s margins.
“The people thinking of dropping out are 2 or 1 percent,” Grassley said. “I don’t know how you calculate that.”
The primary effect of the polling showing Trump leading Biden in several battleground states was to spark a near-freakout this week among Democrats. But the immediate fallout may be even more pronounced in GOP circles, including on Capitol Hill.
Like Grassley, Republican senators who do not currently support Trump see chances fading for anyone else to beat him now, according to interviews with seven GOP senators ahead of Wednesday’s debate. And some Republicans, like Cornyn, have begun to temper their criticism of Trump’s electability as his nomination looks increasingly inevitable.
“It looks right now it’s going to be Donald Trump,” said Sen. John Barrasso of Wyoming, the No. 3 GOP leader in the Senate, who is remaining neutral in the primary but said he will “enthusiastically” support Trump if he wins the nomination.
Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-La.), who voted to convict Trump in his second impeachment trial, on Tuesday said a Trump nomination is the “most likely.” And Sen. Cynthia Lummis (R-Wyo.) said “the door is starting to close” on the primary, while Trump’s increasing support, despite legal issues, should show Democrats that “Trump is going to be extremely difficult to beat.”
If it was only that Trump is running a few dozen points ahead of his GOP challengers, it would be bad enough. But what’s becoming increasingly clear is that Trump’s advantage goes even further than that. His support is more intense than his rivals, with a greater proportion of his supporters saying their minds are firmly made up.
And to the extent that any new Republicans will be persuaded to get involved in the caucuses or primaries — well, they’re more likely to support Trump, too. The latest Iowa poll found that Trump leads with first-time caucusgoers, and has taken first place there with independents looking to caucus with Republicans in January.
All of that helps to explain why Trump’s lead nationally and in the early states has consistently grown over the course of his primary campaign. In Quinnipiac University’s surveys of GOP voters, Trump’s support increased from 42 percent in February, to 53 percent in June, and now to 64 percent this month.
The electability argument was only the latest in a long line of anti-Trump messaging to fall flat. Conservative groups trying to take on Trump this primary are coming to terms with the fact that hits focused his “baggage” and the prospect of him being convicted ahead of the 2024 election not only failed to hurt him with Republicans, but even boosted his support.
Comments Trump made last month that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu “let us down” and calling the Islamic military group Hezbollah “very smart” sparked outrage from some of his GOP opponents. But they washed right over his supporters. Despite predictions by some establishment Iowa Republican leaders this summer that Trump’s insults against the state’s popular Republican governor, Kim Reynolds, would backfire, his lead has remained substantial there.
“He can’t afford to not be controversial,” said Gregg Keller, a Missouri-based Republican consultant. “That is his brand. That is his political raison dêtre. That is the No. 1 thing that attracts Republican primary voters to him.”
At least one of Trump’s rivals still has an argument to make at the margins. While Trump, according to the latest New York Times poll, performs as well as or better than Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis against Biden in key swing states, former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley performed better than Trump against Biden in four out of the six states surveyed.
Allies of Haley consistently tout her to voters and donors as the strongest Republican candidate to take on Biden, and she has been vocal about the fact that most Americans aren’t eager to see either the president or former president on the ballot.
Cornyn said he suspects Trump’s current polling lead is in part because “President Biden’s numbers are so bad.” And not everyone is convinced by polls showing Trump’s strength in a general election.
Sen. Mike Rounds (R-S.D.), who supports Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.), said another Biden-Trump matchup “is going to be a real challenge for a whole lot of voters out there,” while Sen. Todd Young (R-Ind.) said he still has concerns about Trump’s electability, despite recent polling.
And “no,” the primary isn’t over, Young said.
“But it’s late,” Young continued. “It’s late.”