Briefing

Donald Trump is running for president again — so what's changed?

Here we go again!

After months — if not years — of speculation, former President Donald Trump made it official on Tuesday night, announcing his intention to run for office a third time and return to the White House for a second term after being ousted in 2020 by President Joe Biden.

The announcement, while expected, still represents a seismic moment in the run-up to the 2024 presidential election. By tossing his hat into the race at this early stage, Trump has effectively planted his flag and dared ascendent Republicans such as Gov. Ron DeSantis (R-Fla.) and Glenn Youngkin (R-Va.) to tempt the wrath of his MAGA base should they decide to challenge his path back to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. 

With Republicans still stinging from their underwhelming performance in the 2022 midterm elections, and some already looking to use the experience as an inflection point for the party to move on from Trump himself, the former president's announcement lands in a decidedly different atmosphere than his 2015 ride down the golden escalator in his eponymous Manhattan skyscraper. Despite Trump's reported intent to replicate the insurgent vibe of that campaign, his 2024 bid is instead a capitalization on the very political movement he's built up within the GOP over the past six years — one which he has stoked to see his return to the White House as an inevitability, rather than a possibility. 

So now that Trump is officially in the running, here's where things stand:

Is Trump the frontrunner for the 2024 Republican nomination?

Yes — for now, at least. Trump still polls ahead of other potential GOP candidates nationally, although some state-level polls show DeSantis leading Trump in a hypothetical head-to-head match-up following the midterm elections. Trump's frontrunner status has been bolstered by the campaign infrastructure he's built up over the years. This includes both extensive fundraising apparatus, as well as an active email list that pumps out the former president's preferred narrative to his supporters. 

Crucially, as the first — and to date, only — Republican to officially announce their candidacy, Trump has already begun locking in frontrunner status by securing on-the-record endorsements before anyone else; Elise Stefanik, the No. 3 House Republican, has already backed Trump as the "very clear" leader of the party, while MAGA loyalist Rep. Jim Banks (R-Ind.) is reportedly preparing to do so as well. For his part, Trump has publically backed Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) to become the Republican House speaker in the incoming Congress, in what is widely seen as a bid to shore up support for the 2024 race. 

While it remains to be seen whether Trump's mere presence is enough to scare off any potential GOP challengers, his presence as the sole declared candidate so far automatically vaults him into frontrunner status.

So what does that mean for other Republicans?

While most presidential elections are largely predicated on competing visions for the country moving forward, Trump's mere presence in the political arena has historically served as a black hole, forcing everyone in his periphery to reflexively orient themselves around him — and robbing them of the bandwidth for their own attempts at agenda setting. "Each and every time" Republicans have challenged Trump in the past, "the people who did so either eventually backed down and explicitly or tacitly recanted — or they faced Trump's wrath and saw their political careers (if not their cable news bookings) crumble to dust," argued Damon Linker for The Week last winter. "Say what you will about DeSantis, [Mike] Pence, [Ted] Cruz, [Nikki] Haley, and [Tom] Cotton, but I don't get the sense any one of them longs for political martyrdom or ending their careers with a gig on MSNBC."

By all indications, 2024 won't be any different; already Trump has worked to assert his dominance over prospective rivals, framing them as hapless beneficiaries of his kingmaking acumen while belittling them with derogatory nicknames.

That the GOP has already begun grappling with whether or not Trumpian politics (or at least the appearance thereof) are electorally viable only serves to heighten the sense that 2024 will be an intra-party referendum on Trump in a way his automatic nomination as incumbent president in 2020 never allowed. For candidates hoping to lead a post-Trump GOP, this presents a tricky balancing act between landing substantive criticisms of the former president without angering his diehard supporters who have come to increasingly dominate the Republican electoral base. 

For his part, Trump has already signaled an unsurprising willingness to meet any in-party dissent head-on, directing his supporters to attack more established GOP lawmakers, while pitching himself as the antidote to — rather than impetus behind — the GOP's anemic midterm results. Expect this to be the defining dynamic of the coming primary season. 

Then who's holding the bag?  

Donald Trump liked to brag that his 2016 primary run was entirely self-funded, before he pivoted to embrace a "world-class finance organization" for that general election, and welcomed enormous PAC support in his first re-election bid. This time, however, major GOP donors and bundlers have begun publically distancing themselves from the former president, with one top-level funder of Republican causes telling The Wall Street Journal that "I think it's time for a change for our party and country," during a recent meeting of the Republican Governors Association, where other donors' anti-Trump stances reportedly earned applause from the various attendees.

Hedge fund billionaire Griffin, the second-highest conservative spender in this past election, voiced a similar criticism: "[Trump] did a lot of things really well and missed the mark on some important areas," Griffin, who'd previously donated $100,000 to Trump's inaugural committee, told Politico. "For a litany of reasons, I think it's time to move on to the next generation." 

With Republican funders increasingly willing to split from Trump, other candidates now have new pathways to campaign cash that could place them on an elevated footing to compete with Trump's personal fortune and grassroots fundraising. It's a reality Trump himself seems keenly aware of, having reportedly ordered several mutual donors shared between himself and DeSantis to stop backing the Florida governor during the midterms. 

And what about all his baggage?

While no stranger to legal risk and alligations of criminality, Trump's third campaign for the White House is taking place under a unique — and uniquely threatening — cloud of concurrent investigations; he's been subpoenaed by the Select Committee on the Jan 6. attacks; he faces potential charges stemming from the possession of classified documents at his Mar-a-Lago estate; and there is a "substantial risk" that he will be indicted for his efforts to overturn the 2020 election results in Georgia. 

Legally, there doesn't seem to be any precedent for Trump to be excluded from running, should he be indicted — or even convicted — although several advocacy groups have unsuccessfully sued to block participants in the Jan. 6 insurrection from seeking office on constitutional grounds. More likely, any pending indictment would have political, but not necessarily immediate legal, ramifications for Trump's campaign.

During an interview with conservative broadcaster Hugh Hewett this summer, Trump warned of "big problems" if he was indicted, claiming voters "would not stand" for any charges against him. While any criminal action against Trump would be used as a cudgel against his candidacy by both Republican challengers and, eventually, the Democratic presidential nominee, Trump has spent years inculcating his supporters to disregard allegations against him as part of a broader "witch hunt" designed to hurt his selfless political goals. 

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