Former President Trump announced his campaign on November 14, 2022. However, the amount of controversy surrounding his announcement and the following campaign would have sunk any typical campaign candidate. The former President has dealt with sagging approval ratings directly after midterms, many of his handpicked candidates losing in general elections, encounters with Holocaust deniers, making what many political commentators believe to be verifiably false statements, and has run into plenty of legal trouble. In the first few months of the campaign, his typical large rallies did not happen, and he rarely left his Mar-A-Lago Resort base of operations, which goes against the conventional logic of the beginnings of a presidential campaign according to several political operatives, especially with his campaigns, where large rallies tend to be his decisive resource. However, he has defied the odds again and regained his double-digit polling average over his frequently-cited competitor, Florida Governor Ron Desantis, who has not officially declared a presidential campaign yet. We are going to go over the campaign’s perceived missteps, and view how the campaign is responding to criticisms, while it continues to be the main kingmaker in Republican politics.
The Announcement & Staff Shakeup
The immediate announcement was set to be earlier, even a few days before midterms during a campaign rally for Georgia Senate candidate Herschel Walker, but was pushed against that at the last minute by multiple staffers. After a number of his nominees did not beat their Democratic opponents, a number of Republican senators and governors laid the blame on Trump, blasting him and his candidates for losing elections in a midterm where traditionally the other party gains control of one or both houses of Congress. While Republicans did win the House of Representatives, they only gained a slim majority, which would hurt their unity down the line in Kevin McCarthy’s race for Speaker of the House. Instead, his advisors kept him on a low-energy announcement, keeping with the script of the teleprompter, and rarely going on his famous tangents. Behind the scenes, he reportedly bashed his possible campaign rivals, such as Desantis and Glenn Youngkin, and also his wife, Melania, for her influence in his decision to endorse Mehmet Oz for Pennsylvania Senate. Oz would end up losing to John Fetterman.
Behind the scenes, there were also major staff changes. Instead of the massive campaign operation that Trump had during the 2020 election, which he reportedly derided as over-bloated and filled with people wanting to extract as much money out of it, there were fewer staffers, which were more loyal to him. Instead of one campaign manager, which could be considered the conventional standard, there would be three “co-managers”, Susie Wiles, Chris LaCivita, and Brian Jack. He will continue to employ his longtime pollster Tony Fabrizio. He would have a smaller ground operation in many states, only just recently starting to hire staffers. The main difference between the last campaign and this one is the notable lack of support from his family. Ivanka Trump stated she will remove herself from politics altogether, while Donald Trump Junior and Tiffany Trump were absent. However, Jared Trump did attend. Such high-profile defections denote private problems that have bled into the public sphere. Conservatives like Steve Bannon and Fox News host Tucker Carlson have now switched to either decreasing their support for Trump or openly advocating for Desantis to run instead. While this critical lack of personnel infrastructure would be detrimental, it could be stated that staffers would go back to him if he wins the presidential nomination. As a staffer put it to NY Magazine, many staffers are opportunists who are waiting to see if the campaign will flounder or grow to make their moves.
This theme follows elected Republicans, where many of them are determining whether the campaign has the oxygen in the primaries. Only one elected Republican was seen by reporters to be in attendance at Trump’s announcement, Rep. Madison Cawthorne, while Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene congratulated Trump afterward in a tweet. Other Republicans, such as Rep. Elise Stefanik, Senator Lindsay Graham, and South Carolina Governor Henry McMaster, have announced their endorsements of Trump. The momentum can go a long way, but in comparison to how many candidates were openly supportive of him just a few months ago, Trump fatigue among GOP elected leaders, even MAGA ones, could be perceived to have set in.
A major test of Trump’s influence could be seen in the House Speaker vote, where approximately 20 pro-Trump conservative Republicans went against Trump’s specific endorsement of Rep. Kevin McCarthy. Trump stated he endorsed McCarthy, possibly as a way to push these Republicans, many of which are strong supporters of him, such as Matt Gaetz, Lauren Boebert, and Paul Gosar. Lauren Boebert even rebuked Trump by name for supporting McCarthy, saying Trump should tell him that “it’s time to withdraw.” Between votes, Trump was reportedly trying to personally call the Republicans and bring them into the fold, and even in one famous event, Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene was seen on national television giving a phone call with Trump on the line to other members of the House Floor, trying to wrangle their votes. Eventually, the sum of the 20 Representatives either voted for or stayed out of McCarthy’s way. All it took was 15 votes and 5 days and it now stands in the history books as the 5th longest confirmation in U.S. House history. Perhaps the most apparent ideological right-wing divide can be seen between the House and Senate. The House’s Republicans are seen as more pro-Trump compared to the Senate’s Republicans, where Republican leader Mitch McConnel stated Trump is “highly unlikely” to win the presidential election because of his dinner with Holocaust denier and white supremacist Nick Fuentes, and Ye West.
Another key test of Trump’s influence was the race for Republican National Committee Chair, which Ronna McDaniel has held since 2016. Donald Trump has continually endorsed her for chair and she won each time with his support up until the latest race. McDaniel was endorsed in 2017, 2019, and 2021, but was not endorsed by Trump in 2023. Trump said in an interview that he “likes both of them.” She was challenged by Harmeet Dhillon, a far-right attorney who advocated against COVID-19 protocols and was a legal advisor in Trump’s attempts to overturn the 2020 election. She also represented Trump aides when they were deposed by the Jan 6th Committee. She tried to portray McDaniel as inept and wasteful of RNC resources after she reportedly spent several hundred thousand dollars on private jet flights and tailored suits. She had allies among multiple Fox News and conservative personalities, such as Laura Ingraham and Charlie Kirk. Just one night before the official voting for RNC chair began, Ron Desantis fell just short of endorsing Dhillon, saying that there needs to be new leadership at the RNC, but did not officially endorse her. This could have been a chance for Desantis to test his rising influence among Republicans. However, his statement did not seem to have an effect. Dhillon lost, with over two-thirds of the votes going to McDaniel. This could show that Trump still has influence among Republican establishment figures, while Desantis could be overestimating his influence.
In early voting states, the same fatigue can be felt. New Hampshire, a key early-voting state, was found to have fewer state party leaders supportive of Trump compared to all of those who had supported him in the past. They commonly cited the polarization of Trump compared to the less scandal-filled Desantis. In South Carolina, another early-voting state, key leaders of both houses of the State Congress said they would attend his rally. However, others point to the fact that two other potential candidates, Nikki Haley, and Senator Tim Scott, both come from the state. Nikki Haley is reportedly going to announce her run on February 15, in South Carolina. Other state leaders stated they would stay out of endorsing altogether or would rather have Desantis be the nominee. These issues compound the problem in the nomination of Trump because he needs to maintain momentum in the race until voting begins, which is harder than having an upswell in momentum, as it happened after he won the New Hampshire and South Carolina primaries in 2016, immediately propelling him to front-runner status. Other, more established candidates, such as Senator Ted Cruz or former Florida Governor Jeb Bush had to keep momentum, which is harder than having it grow. Another strength of Donald Trump’s campaign going into the nomination is his knowledge of the different primary state’s rules and regulations, which very few other candidates have as much data on as his does.
Polling is a way to gauge Trump’s influence among the broader Republican voters. Directly after the Republican party’s faltering after the Midterms, 67% of registered voters had a negative view, but more importantly, one-third of GOP-aligned voters had a negative view. At the time, Desantis had led Trump by 20% in a theoretical matchup. As of writing, Trump has regained the polling lead, with a 26% lead over Desantis. There are many commentators who believe that the key reason why he retook so much of a polling advantage is that other elected officials like former Vice President Mike Pence and President Biden have both been implicated with keeping classified documents in their private residences. Another possible reason is that a split in the electorate would help Trump, where Desantis would lead Trump in a 2-person matchup, but Republicans would support Trump if the field is divided. This indicates that Republicans who do support Trump are much more hardened for him instead of switching their votes. This would help Trump if the field is fractured, with possibly other candidates, such as Mike Pence and former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo also possibly running.
Funding is another key indicator of Trump’s support. Among grassroots funding, he continues to pull in large sums of money, with roughly $95 million in a campaign war chest waiting for him. However, Trump can legally only use small amounts of the money in direct campaign funding, such as paying staffers. Trump brought in $4.1 million in the 2 weeks after his campaign launch, which while massive, is also less in funding compared to another key date for Trump: when his Mar-a-Lago estate was raided by the FBI in August. He pulled in $2 million in just 2 days. A key method that Trump used in fundraising in both the 2016 and 2020 elections was a strategy called microtargeting. Microtargeting is where large amounts of electronic data are collected in a database, which is then used to send emails or text messages to a person wanting a campaign contribution. Republican voters who follow and engage with Republican accounts are then used for their contributions. While this is highly effective, it also has its drawbacks. Some key drawbacks are that contributors will gradually become fatigued by the constant messaging and that it costs money to keep and use those voter rolls, such as Trump spending 91 cents per dollar raised, which can be viewed as unsustainable. The only person capable of getting close to those funding numbers is Ron Desantis. Desantis pulled in $31.4 million in his direct re-election campaign, which is already massive. However, this pales in comparison to the PAC directly aligned with him, pulling in an astronomical amount of $146 million since January 2019. This could be used to fund a possible presidential campaign. However, the newest fundraising reports to the FEC report that Trump only had about $25 million left on hand between his official presidential campaign and his main PAC. Trump raised less than he pulled in December 2022, spending about $5.15 million while only pulling in about $5 million.
While Trump retains his fundraising juggernaut and has been courting small-dollar donors, which the Republican Party is trying to cultivate, big-dollar donors continue to evade Trump and his baggage. Billionaire donor Miriam Adelson has told possible candidates she will stay neutral in the primaries, while other donors have launched themselves into the race. Billionaires Robert Bigelow, Ken Griffin, and Paul Tudor Jones have given millions to right-wing PACs. Trump has also shed Bernie Marcus, the Home Depot founder, who has not committed to funding his campaign. This lack of funding is hurting his early campaign, where his first rally in New Hampshire, a key state to win, is a school gym with a few hundred Republicans, instead of thousands at his large rallies. He possibly could just not want to pay for a proper space or personnel to staff and secure those rallies. However, this problem does allow Trump to have breathing space, where donors could swing back to Trump if he gains steam or becomes the nominee.
Controversies and Legal Troubles
It must be stated that Donald Trump has already had multiple controversies, such as meeting white supremacist Nick Fuentes and rapper Ye, where Ye asked Trump to be his vice presidential nominee. The event was widely vilified in the media and by other Republicans, such as Mike Pence, Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson, and Mitch McConnel. He was indirectly condemned by the Republican Jewish Coalition for meeting with Nick Fuentes, and he did not attend the meeting, which is considered a mainstay for anyone possibly running for the Republican nomination. Trump tried to deflect from his actions, claiming he did not know that Ye would bring Fuentes to the dinner, which was mocked on social media. He then tried to walk back the meeting, calling Ye a “very troubled man.” The fallout seems to have blown over, however, with no new criticism.
Another criticism is his selling of NFTs. Trump sold NFTs to his supporters, which was then lambasted on social media for how poorly made and late they were sold. Even though some Trump supporters felt that it was disingenuous and a blatant cash grab, Trump did make $4.5 million from the sales, which sold out almost immediately.
His other major financial ventures, the LIV Golf and Truth Social, have also attracted scrutiny for their alleged practices. LIV Golf was founded as a direct competitor to PGA Golf, and was funded in part by the Saudi Sovereign Wealth Fund. Due to this connection, multiple families of 9/11 survivors have protested outside of LIV Golf events because of the link between the 9/11 attackers and the government of Saudi Arabia.
Trump’s social media app Truth Social has attracted more regulatory scrutiny from the Securities and Exchange Commission compared to LIV Golf. Truth Social has had to contend with threats from the Securities and Exchange Commission of its alleged insider trading with the SPAC that took it public. Along with this fact was a top-level whistleblower at the company who supplied the government with documents relating to Truth Social’s financial practices. Another problem facing Trump related to Truth Social is that he effectively does not need it to be his trumpet anymore. Trump built Truth Social as a way to respond to multiple social media companies, including Facebook, Twitter, and Youtube, banning him from their websites in the wake of the January 6th debacle. However, since Twitter and Facebook have retracted those bans in the last few months, Trump’s advisors have reportedly been preparing a return to these social media companies, which have far higher reach than Truth Social. While this would benefit Trump politically, having a much larger megaphone, it could be financially damaging for him. Truth Social’s main lure is Trump, and his exclusive posts on the platform. The worth of what Trump invested in the company has already fallen significantly because the share price of Truth Social has fallen. It has mainly fallen in response to the same retractions of bans for Trump, devaluing his exclusivity with the company. The company has also had general funding problems, with Truth reportedly not being able to pay some of its most basic bills, such as paying for servers to host its social media.
The biggest threat to Trump, and the one type of problem that he has had to deal with since the start of his political rise, has been governmental investigations into all parts of his life. While Trump has effectively beaten any congressional repercussions to the Jan 6th event, state-level investigations into his attempts to overturn their elections have been ongoing. He is being sued in civil court by police officers who were injured protecting the Capitol on Jan 6th. In Georgia, where Trump told Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger to find “11,780 votes”, which is one vote more than needed to change the results from a Biden win to a Trump win, the Atlanta District Attorney has been heavily investigating Trump for these efforts. Trump has also sued Bob Woodward, of “Woodward and Bernstein” fame for using Trump’s interview recordings in Woodward’s audio without his consent.
The biggest federal investigation so far is the DOJ Special Counsel’s investigation into Trump’s attempts to overturn the 2020 election and his alleged mishandling of classified documents. The Special Counsel, Jack Smith, is known as being formerly part of the DOJs public integrity division. Multiple key election officials in states that Trump tried to overturn were issued by the DOJ to investigate communications between them and Trump’s team. The investigation remains ongoing.
In New York, the Democratic New York Attorney General Letitia James has also been thoroughly investigating Trump and the Trump Organization, the umbrella company for Trump’s financial interests. James has accused the Trump organization of being a massive fraud, over-inflating their profits and revenues for prospective investors. She also accused Trump’s business of deflating expenditures while finding different methods to pay wages, as a way to achieve tax benefits. The Trump Organization was found guilty of tax fraud and ordered to pay $1.6 million, for giving executives potential avenues for not paying all of their required taxes. James wants the Trump Organization to pay $250 million and be completely banned from doing business in the state of New York.
There are also reported efforts to restart the investigation into Trump’s alleged payments to Stormy Daniels. A grand jury was convened on January 20, 2023, which indicates a possible indictment of Trump. Daniels told reporters that she had an affair with Trump before he ran for president in 2016 and was paid $130,000 to keep silent. Michael Cohen, Trump’s “fixer” was convicted for the payments in 2018 and sentenced to 3 years in prison.
Trump is both at the strongest and weakest he has ever been in his political life. On one end, he is the frontrunner for the GOP nomination, having massive fundraising and a very popular presidency in the party. On the other hand, Trump has been dealing with diminishing returns in his political career, from pulling in less money than other fiscal quarters to higher amounts of disapproval and voters simply moving on from him. Billionaire donors who could refill the gaps are more likely to give money based on electability, which Trump, among the general populace, is less likely to win compared to just the Republican party. Staff are both realizing that he is at his lowest and are either trying to ingratiate themselves with other Republicans or are doubling down on Trump. His old businesses are under investigation while his major new businesses are mainly receiving revenue from a small group of die-hard Republicans, which does not have a large growth trajectory. However, as many of Trump’s supporters say, he has beaten these odds before, and might still do the same to secure the nomination. If Trump ends up winning the nomination, then all other candidates and their voters would support him. However, the independents who may support Desantis or Haley for president just see Trump as too exhausting of a candidate. Trump has also said he will not commit to supporting the party’s nominee if it is not him, showing that he may want to break with the GOP in the general election. This defection would be a nightmare scenario for Republicans, virtually ensuring that a democratic victory will carry the coming election.