9 min read

Will the reality of Trump’s return sink in now?

Donald Trump is the likely GOP presidential nominee. Many Americans haven’t come to terms with that yet.
Will the reality of Trump’s return sink in now?
(Photo by Gage Skidmore)

Good morning! It’s Tuesday, January 16, 2024. Election Day is 294 days away. If this newsletter was forwarded to you, subscribe here. If you want to contribute to support my work, donate here.

Let’s get the headline news out of the way first: Donald Trump won the Iowa caucuses last night. He took 51% of the vote, far outpacing Ron DeSantis at 21.2% and Nikki Haley at 19.1%. Vivek Ramaswamy, who landed in fourth place with 7.7%, ended his campaign and endorsed Trump. After fears that he would slip behind Haley, DeSantis narrowly escaped with second place, ensuring that the race will continue to New Hampshire as a three-way contest.

Trump is the first non-incumbent Republican to win more than 50% of the Iowa caucus vote; his margin of victory was the largest of any competitive Iowa GOP caucuses in history. He won 98 out of Iowa’s 99 counties. (Haley won Johnson County, home to the University of Iowa, by a single vote.) In his first time on a ballot since the January 6th attack or his 91 criminal charges, Trump secured a sweeping victory. As the New York Times put it this morning, there is no force as durable in American politics right now as Trump’s connection to his voters.

So, will it finally sink in that he and Joe Biden are the (very) likely presidential nominees this year?

The silent majority

If you’re reading this, perhaps you’ve already long been aware of that fact. After all, it’s been apparent for months now; no caucuses in Iowa were needed to deduce Trump’s intraparty dominance. But many Americans are still coming to terms with the fact that the 2024 election is poised to be a rematch between two of the least popular presidents in modern history.

According to the Biden campaign’s internal research, as reported by CNN, nearly three-fourths of undecided voters do not currently expect Trump to win the GOP nomination. A recent YouGov poll found that 42% of Americans are either not sure if Trump is the most likely Republican standard-bearer or think that someone else is.

No similar polling has been taken on who is expected to be the Democratic nominee — it probably wouldn’t occur to most pollsters to ask — but clearly, outside of Washington circles, a popular perception exists that Biden won’t end up on the ’24 ballot either. Anecdotally, people ask me all the time in disbelief if these two men will really be their choices in November. “Trump might be in prison in a few months,” the questions usually go. “Surely he can’t really become the GOP candidate. And Biden is 81 years old! Is he really going to run for re-election?”

But there is no evidence that Trump’s possible convictions will deter Republican voters from putting him on the ballot. And Biden has been running for re-election for months now. Democratic filing deadlines have passed in many states; it is too late for new candidates to emerge against him, and despite the persistent right-wing meme that Democrats will slot in Michelle Obama as their nominee at the last minute, the party organization to do something like that doesn’t really exist.

I started the year by noting that you should go into 2024 expecting that things will change over the course of the year. When looking at polls and projections, I wrote, it’s important to remember that things in November will look a lot differently than they do in January.

Many of those changes are unknown, but one is predictable: if Trump and Biden continue on track to win their nominations, Americans — many of whom are currently in denial, or simply not paying attention — will eventually wake up to realizing it. Until then, even if the matchup is already clear to most close observers of politics, it’s hard to put much stock in polls when so many respondents clearly believe that Trump vs. Biden is a far-fetched scenario and not a probable reality.

I don’t say any of this to look down on anyone who doesn’t closely follow the ins and outs of Americans politics. In fact, I respect those who manage to keep the news at a healthy distance. Quantifiably, paying close attention to political news is not great for one’s mental health. (Perhaps I shouldn’t have told my own subscribers that.)

But I do think it’s important for political junkies to remember that those voters are the majority, not us. A recent AP/NORC poll found that only 20% of Americans have paid “a lot” of attention to the 2024 election. 46% have either paid “only a little” attention or none. All early data on the race should be considered through that prism.

Out of hiding

When more voters do come to terms with the fact that another Trump-Biden election is upon us, who stands to benefit?

In the CNN piece on the Biden team’s data showing most undecided voters don’t think Trump will be the nominee, those numbers were presented as a negative for the president’s re-election bid, a “stubborn reality” he had to fix.

But I’m not so convinced that it’s bad news for the Biden campaign. In all likelihood, it’s a problem that will fix itself as time goes on. And it suggests to me that Biden is the candidate with more room to grow his support, if poll respondents are thinking about everything they don’t like about him (the economy, his age, etc.) when they answer the phone but not necessarily the things they don’t like about Trump, because they don’t expect Trump to be re-nominated.

When I think of this category of voters, my mind wanders back to the New York Times piece from November on poll respondents who said they would support Kamala Harris against Donald Trump, but plan to back Trump over Biden:

In the poll and at the beginning of the interview, Ms. Miro said she would vote for Mr. Trump this election. She’s a Republican who said “I don’t have any feeling at all” about the job Mr. Biden has done as president. But by the end, she had switched her support to Mr. Biden, after recalling her negative views about Mr. Trump, who she said was racist and didn’t do enough to prevent police violence against Black people.
Most of all, [another voter] said, she strongly supports abortion rights — and did not realize that Mr. Biden does, too. She said that because states’ abortion bans had gone into effect during his presidency, she assumed it was because of him. Ultimately, despite her misgivings about the economy, support for abortion rights would probably be what decided her vote, she said.

Of course, most voters won’t have their memories of the Trump era jogged by New York Times pollsters. But, as the reality of Trump’s return to the political stage sinks in (and Biden’s campaign advertising kicks into gear), don’t be surprised if opinions subtly begin to shift. (Of course, this effect works both ways, as Trump’s campaign will strive to remind voters of what they miss about his presidency — again, the economy will come to mind for many.)

This memory-jogging has been delayed by design by Trump, whose relative quiet in recent months — rare for the voluble ex-TV star — has helped allow many Americans to forget that he is once again running for president and, especially after yesterday, likely to face Biden in November. There is a reason Trump has barely campaigned this cycle, skipping debates to instead sit (mostly) wordlessly at his various trials and vent into his Truth Social silo where few voters are guaranteed to hear him. (Trump has been un-banned from Twitter for months now but, uncharacteristically, has stayed away from the app that both fueled and harmed his political rise — but certainly never failed to bring him eyeballs.)

McKay Coppins, an ace political reporter for The Atlantic, wisely wrote this week that Trump has become an “abstraction” in American life: no one has forgotten him, per se, but neither are most people paying close attention.

“Consider Trump’s rise to power in 2016,” Coppins writes, “how all-consuming his campaign was that year, how one @realDonaldTrump tweet could dominate news coverage for days, how watching his televised stump speeches in a suspended state of fascination or horror or delight became a kind of perverse national pastime.”

He continues:

Now consider the fact that it’s been 14 months since Trump announced his entry into the 2024 presidential race. Can you quote a single thing he’s said on the campaign trail? How much of his policy agenda could you describe? Be honest: When was the last time you watched him speaking live, not just in a short, edited clip?

After attending a rally himself, Coppins walked away feeling like Trump’s routine had gone stale. Trump’s “signature political talent” was once occupying America’s attention; now, even his own supporters “seemed to lose interest” at severals points in the event.

There’s a good chance this is to Trump’s advantage: it means most voters might have missed the fact that he has spent the last 14 months dining with a neo-Nazi, musing about suspending the Constitution, referring to convicted January 6th rioters as “hostages,” accusing immigrants of “poisoning the blood of our country, and telling his opponents to “ROT IN HELL” over Christmas.

Four minutes a week

Over the next year, Trump’s rhetoric will likely remain the same — but voters’ attention levels will eventually creep higher. In the words of noted political analyst, um, Ron DeSantis: “You’re gonna have criminal trials, you’re gonna have a lot of focus on things like January 6th by the media, and I think that ends up focusing the election on things that are going to be advantageous for Democrats.”

Until then, as Democratic strategist Jim Messina is fond of saying, most swing voters will spend about four minutes a week thinking about politics.

Maybe an extremist Trump remark will make it into those four minutes; maybe it will be news on the economy. Maybe more people tuning into the news cycle will end up helping Trump; maybe it will be a boon for Biden. Either way, we are still about eight months away from Labor Day, the traditional point when Americans snap into focusing on the presidential contest.

For now, it’s mostly the diehard junkies paying attention: the 3.5% of Iowans who cast ballots last night, and us poor souls who watched them do it. Until more swing voters tune in — and accept that they will be faced with a choice in November they mostly do not want — anything they say now about their presidential vote should be viewed as highly malleable.

More news to know.

Congress announces major tax deal to expand child tax credit and revive breaks for businesses / NBC

Trump arrives at court for E. Jean Carroll defamation case after Iowa victory / Axios / AP

Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin released from hospital / CNN

‘Scared to Death’: Local election officials on edge ahead of 2024 vote / Politico

Houthi rebels strike a US-owned ship off the coast of Yemen in the Gulf of Aden, raising tensions / AP

The day ahead.

President Biden will receive his daily intelligence briefing. He has nothing else on his public schedule.

Vice President Harris has nothing on her public schedule.

First Lady Jill Biden will travel to Utah, where she will participate in an event with Surgeon General Vivek Murthy and Utah First Lady Abby Cox to “highlight the importance o educator wellness.” She will also deliver remarks at two Biden campaign fundraisers.

The Senate is scheduled to convene at 3 p.m. ET, even as most of official Washington shuts down due to snow. The chamber can’t afford a Snow Day, as senators are set to hold a procedural vote on a continuing resolution extending government funding through early March. With a shutdown deadline bearing down on Friday, not a day can be wasted.

The upper chamber is also expected to vote on a resolution by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) that would require the State Department to issue a report on Israel’s human rights practices. Under Section 502B(c) of the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961, any senator can force a vote on requiring such a report on any country that receives U.S. security assistance. The last time Congress mandated a report under the provision was 1976.

The House will vote on bills including the Moving Americans Privacy Protection Act, the Recruiting Families Using Data Act, the Social Security Child Protection Act, and the Protect Reporters from Exploitative State Spying Act.

The Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in Macquarie Infrastructure Corp. v. Moab Partners, L.P and Devillier v. Texas.

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