It’s hard not to see the Republican nominating process for the party’s 2024 presidential candidacy as being firmly under Donald Trump’s control. Not necessarily in the sense of polling, given how long we have until voters start voting — though not necessarily not in that sense, either, given Trump’s healthy leads in most national polls.
That control manifests in other obvious ways, like his centrality in the discussion of the nomination fight. That’s in part because Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) — consistently in second place in the polls — hasn’t yet announced a candidacy. But it’s also because Trump is advantaged by having done this before and being well-known: He’s in his element and doesn’t have to worry about things like offering complex policy ideas or being tripped up by gaffes.
Then there’s the other factor: Trump is obviously doing his best to control the field he’s running against.
When he first announced his 2024 election campaign last November, it came at a time when he was an unusual focus of criticism. The party’s underperformance in the midterms was laid at his feet, often fairly. But he moved forward anyway, almost certainly to establish a position as the nominating fight’s heavyweight, discouraging other potential candidates from running. That may have worked to some extent; by this point in the 2016 cycle there were far more major candidates in the mix for the nomination.
But it didn’t keep everyone out. Former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley threw her hat in the ring, as did businessman and enthusiastic-culture-warrior Vivek Ramaswamy. Their entries didn’t change the trajectory of the race to any noticeable extent.
On May 5, though, Trump suggested that at least one of them had.
“I am pleased to see that Vivek Ramaswamy is doing so well in the most recent Republican Primary Poll, CBS YouGov,” Trump said in a post on his social-media site. “He is tied with Mike Pence, and seems to be on his way to catching Ron DeSanctimonious” — Trump’s cumbersome nickname for the Florida governor.
“The thing I like about Vivek is that he only has good things to say about ‘President Trump,’” the message continued, “and all that the Trump Administration has so successfully done — This is the reason he is doing so well. In any event, good luck to all of them, they will need it!”
It is unusual for Trump to sincerely praise a competitor for gaining in the polls. But there are three reasons that this one makes sense — when considered in the context of Trump trying to mold the field to his liking.
First of all, Ramaswamy’s still not getting much support. The trend in YouGov’s polls, conducted for the Economist, Yahoo News and CBS News, shows Trump hovering around 50 percent and DeSantis in the mid-20s. Ramaswamy has gained ground from 1 percent in late March to 4 percent in the most recent YouGov poll, but that’s not a statistically significant difference.
Why not? Consider that the margin of error in the March poll was 3.3 points and the one in May 2.7 points. That means the March poll could have been off by 2.7 points; Ramaswamy could have been at 4 percent support back then. The May poll could have overstated his support by nearly as much, meaning his actual support is only at, say, 2 percent now. Ramaswamy might not have moved in the polls at all.
So why does Trump say he’s shooting upward? In part probably because Trump embraces false claims about polls all the time. But in part because he wants to strengthen any doubt DeSantis supporters might have about their candidate.
Trump certainly understands that the nominating field largely breaks down along Trump-vs.-not-Trump lines. Republicans who dislike Trump saw the 2016 result, in which Trump managed to secure the nomination in part because the anti-Trump vote never consolidated around someone else. That’s triggered calls to keep the Republican field small, allowing for that anti-Trump vote to aggregate around one alternative more quickly.
So it makes sense for Trump to suggest that maybe DeSantis isn’t that guy. That’s the challenge any anointed competitor to Trump has: They are replaceable. If someone else looks more viable by the time voting starts, that person will become the person Trump-hostile Republicans are encouraged to rally around. Trump is suggesting that maybe Ramaswamy could be the guy, given as how he’s breathing down DeSantis’s neck. (He is not.)
It’s not only Trump’s opponents who think a field with lots of non-Trumps helps the former president: Trump certainly does, too. He can live with 20 percent of voters backing Ramaswamy and 20 percent backing DeSantis and 20 percent backing Haley as long as he’s got the other 40 percent. He won in 2016 with less than 50 percent of the Republican primary vote, and he’d take a 2024 renomination in the same range.
The only remaining question is why he’s praising Ramaswamy’s loyalty. In part, it’s probably to highlight how (in his oft-mentioned estimation) DeSantis went sideways on him. In part, it’s probably about pointing Republicans who liked Trump’s policies but not his presentation toward someone other than DeSantis. That might be overthinking it; it may just be that he hasn’t heard Ramaswamy offer criticism, and he always appreciates that.
But there’s no question it’s calculated. Trump is not a subtle person. He does not deal in nuance. If he is telling you to do something, it is not a chess move meant to result in some unexpected action four moves down the line. He’s telling you to do it because that’s what he wants you to do.
So he’s saying to Republicans: Check out this Ramaswamy guy! Seems better than DeSantis, right? DeSantis is yesterday’s news!
Who knows? It might even work.