How Trump reignited his base and took control of the Republican primary

From a moment of vulnerability after the midterms, the former president turned his criminal indictments into a rallying cry and benefited from a disciplined campaign, stalled opposition and President Biden’s weakness.

As Donald Trump prepared to announce his presidential campaign in November 2022, some of his advisers tried to talk him out of jumping into the race so early. They struggled to fill Mar-a-Lago’s gilded ballroom for a rambling kickoff speech that his own allies said was lackluster. Trump looked tired, almost grudging, as he spoke right after a disappointing midterm election that some Republicans blamed him for. The FBI had searched his home, and he was under multiple criminal investigations.

Thirteen months later, on the cusp of 2024, Trump stepped through the mist of a fog machine into a roaring arena in New Hampshire, where, as in every early state, he holds a wide lead over GOP rivals. Before thousands of cheering fans, he marveled at how he had built his advantage in the face of 91 criminal charges ranging from paying hush money to an adult-film star, to mishandling classified material, to trying to overturn the 2020 election.

“I consider it a great badge of honor because I am being indicted for you,” Trump said, repeating a refrain that has put his criminal jeopardy at the center of his appeal. Over the roar of the crowd, one man chanted, “We love you!” Trump pointed and thanked him.

As the first nominating contests commence this month in what is shaping up as not only a critical presidential election but a test of American democracy, Trump is the runaway favorite in his party, on the verge of completing a striking political comeback that has drawn on several key factors, according to a review of polling data as well as interviews with dozens of Republican voters, strategists and officials, some of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity to relate confidential and previously unreported episodes.

He has turned his criminal indictments into a rallying cry; his GOP opposition has so far failed to coalesce around a single effective message or challenger; and his political operation has been more professional and disciplined than in the past, with savvy moves such as changing contest rules, lining up supportive delegates, and pressuring Republicans to come to his defense.

Party strategists cautioned that the key early states of Iowa and New Hampshire are known for late breaks and surprises. His main rivals, Ron DeSantis and Nikki Haley, and their allies are ramping up attacks targeting Trump’s effectiveness in government and his general election prospects. Still, many Republicans view Trump as the inevitable nominee - a triumphant prospect for much of the GOP, yet a source of trepidation for others.

As Trump’s criminal charges have earned him sympathy with Republicans, they have also set him on a collision course with the possibility of multiple trials unfolding during the height of the campaign. And they have driven him to escalate his use of incendiary language and sketch out a second term centered on revenge, following a course that historians are comparing to that of authoritarian leaders.

“I don’t think the base wanted to move on,” said Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah), a vocal Trump critic who was the 2012 Republican presidential nominee and voted twice to convict Trump in his impeachment trials. “I think his base has been committed to him all along. And I think the talking heads had assumed he was disappearing when he was every bit as much in the limelight of his base as he had been.”


President Biden’s reelection campaign is already signaling that it will make Trump’s extreme proposals and rhetoric a focus of the general election, and many Democrats see Trump as a motivator for their base as well. And the effect of Trump’s trials on the fall campaign remains impossible to predict.

But so far, in the Republican primary, the prosecutions have had the effect of solidifying Trump’s support with base voters, right-wing media figures and elected officials. Last summer, a Republican mulling a late entry into the race commissioned a focus group to test messages against Trump. When the moderator asked the eight participants about the criminal charges, they reflexively excused Trump as the victim of a banana republic-style political persecution.

That dynamic was also apparent on the campaign trail.

“The more they seem not to want him tells me there’s a good reason for me to want him,” Judy Stumme, 77, of Cedar Falls, Iowa, said outside a Dec. 19 Trump event in Waterloo. “I think they’re just trying to discourage people like myself: ‘Oh, you can’t win.’”

In a sign of Trump’s growing dominance in the primary, the Club for Growth, an anti-tax group once bent on preventing Trump from becoming the nominee, has contacted Trump advisers looking for a détente, according to people familiar with the overtures. The organization shelved its efforts to try to stop him in the fall.

The only message that Trump’s detractors ever became comfortable trying against him - raising doubts about his electability - has failed to resonate due in part to Biden’s unpopularity, with some polls showing Trump ahead nationally and in early states.

In the GOP primary, Trump averaged 61 percent support nationally among Republican primary voters in December polls tracked by The Washington Post, up from 42 percent in February. DeSantis, the Florida governor, trailed with 12 percent, vs. 32 percent 10 months ago. Former U.N. ambassador Haley ranked third with 11 percent support, up from 5 percent. In New Hampshire, the early state where Trump’s advantage is narrowest, he still leads Haley by double-digits.

“This cycle has been unique in that support for candidates that drop out has mostly all gone to Trump. He appears to be consolidating en route to a romp in the early contests,” said Scott Reed, a former strategist for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce who advised the super PAC that backed former vice president Mike Pence’s now-shuttered White House bid. “The other candidates have failed to make their case well, while Trump continues to entertain and push hot-button items that motivate the base. And the voters appear to be giving him the benefit of the doubt about his policy changes and departures from conservatism to transactional populism.”

‘The right amount of Trump’

Trump started this campaign in a moment of unusual weakness after a midterm election many Republicans blamed in part on his influence. His top advisers were going in front of a grand jury investigating the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol. His political operation faced mounting legal bills. And he felt as if a range of advisers had betrayed him, often asking people around him if he could trust anyone.

Many lawmakers were uninterested in attending his kickoff event or endorsing him, Trump advisers said. Major donors were considering spending millions against him. Some of his longtime allies were flirting with supporting other potential candidates.

To make matters worse, not long after his kickoff, Trump dined with white nationalist Nick Fuentes and the rapper Ye, who has promoted antisemitic conspiracy theories. Trump also suggested terminating the Constitution to reverse the 2020 election results.

The campaign, led by senior adviser Susie Wiles, stepped in to try to add more senior staff around Trump - assigning a top aide to be on property at almost all times. Aides worked to screen access to Trump, though they tolerated certain fringe figures he was drawn to, such as far-right blogger Laura Loomer.


“You have to define the level of crazy you are willing to accept,” said one adviser who speaks to Trump regularly.

His advisers believed he was overexposed - the public had gotten tired of seeing him - and had made mistakes by endorsing in so many midterm races where the candidate lost. He vowed privately to make fewer endorsements.

The campaign also worked to channel Trump’s energy into ways of reminding Republican voters what they liked about him. He began recording video policy statements under the heading of “Agenda 47″ (he’d be the 47th president if elected in November), featuring harsh denunciations of Biden’s presidency. He also made several drastic new proposals, such as a naval blockade of Mexico to curb the drug trade, deploying the military to fight street crime and deport immigrants, and building futuristic new cities from scratch. Advisers were surprised to find that Trump enjoyed filming them.

Aides felt a turning point in February, when Trump visited the site of a train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio. The trip, including an unscheduled stop at a McDonald’s, showcased Trump projecting leadership (drawing a contrast to Biden) and glad-handing adoring fans. The campaign started departing from the well-worn format of mega-rallies and organizing smaller-scale events, putting Trump in closer proximity to his supporters and creating scarcity with lines out the door.

“We wanted to get the balance just right,” the adviser said. “Not overexposed or absent - the right amount of Trump.”

Neutralizing threats

The campaign’s efforts to rally support received a boost from an unlikely source. The first indictment, from Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg over 2016 hush money payments, prompted an outpouring of sympathy from Republicans who saw the case as thin and political. Trump had told advisers he would never be indicted, and he was livid.


“The party came back to him over the indictments. I guess there’s also a question how much they left,” said Marc Short, a top Pence adviser. “I really think it was a political mistake for the New York D.A. to go first. It’s the weakest case. It allows him to paint with a broad brush.”

The campaign rounded up and circulated supportive statements from six governors, 26 senators, 63 House Republicans and 10 state attorneys general. Aides were stunned by wall-to-wall media coverage of the indictment, even footage tracking Trump’s plane like a 21st-century version of O.J. Simpson’s white Ford Bronco. The campaign worked with media organizations to make sure they could follow Trump’s movements.

On the right, influential media figures uniformly rallied to Trump’s defense, including broadcasters who were not firmly in the Trump fold, such as Mark Levin and Charlie Kirk. Even Trump’s opponents in the Republican primary largely echoed his claims of an unjust weaponization of the legal system against him.

Aides took advantage by bringing polling data to lobby lawmakers to get in line behind Trump sooner rather than later, and Republicans, citing the Bragg indictment, had by April started talking about him as the inevitable nominee. Polling trends show a clear turning point after the first indictment, when Trump’s support began to rise and DeSantis’s started to fall.

“It’s all political, it’s all trying to put Trump down,” said LeRoy Gray, 84, from Waterloo, Iowa, who raises show horses named Trump, Melania, Ivanka, DJ (for Donald Trump Jr.), Lara and Barron. “They know we have a winner, and they’re trying everything they can possibly think of. But every time they open their mouth, Trump goes up in the polls.”

Trump himself often grew angry about being indicted but convinced himself that it would be helpful politically, four people close to the former president said. Rival camps saw a similar trend.


Reed, the Pence super PAC adviser, recalled observing five blue-collar men discussing how the indictments persuaded them to support Trump because they felt a prosecution could happen to them. After Pence dropped out, Reed joked with him that they should have tried frog-marching him out of a few courthouses.

DeSantis initially took a swipe at the tawdry underlying allegations in the New York case, and quickly backpedaled under pressure. He eventually acknowledged how the pileup of criminal charges seemed to accrue to Trump’s advantage.

“If I could have one thing changed, I wish Trump hadn’t been indicted on any of this stuff,” DeSantis told the Christian Broadcasting Network in an interview that aired on Dec. 21. “It also just crowded out, I think, so much other stuff, and it sucked out a lot of oxygen.”

Pummeling DeSantis

Some Trump aides advised against immediately slashing DeSantis, fresh off his landslide reelection victory in Florida. They argued that DeSantis wasn’t a candidate for president yet and that it could backfire. But Trump saw him as a “potentially existential threat,” according to one adviser who repeatedly spoke to Trump about DeSantis.

Some Republicans did not like the intraparty attacks, but Trump didn’t care. He kept them up - sometimes accusing DeSantis of false and salacious things that he did not respond to. And DeSantis, for his part, did not get into the race until May, saying he needed to focus on Florida. (He also needed time to pass a law letting him remain in office while running for president.) That time gave Trump a chance to start knocking down the Florida governor’s poll numbers.

In the interim, DeSantis made some key missteps that would hobble his campaign, including alienating some donors when he called the Ukraine war a “territorial dispute” and signing a six-week abortion ban. And he often seemed wooden on the campaign trail.

Once DeSantis got into the race, he declined to criticize Trump directly for many months. Trump’s advisers privately said at the time that they were amazed at what an inept campaign they believed DeSantis was running.

“He waited entirely too long to get in the race and define what it’s about,” Justin Clark, a former Trump campaign adviser, said of DeSantis.


The Trump campaign pounced on DeSantis relentlessly, using disparaging nicknames and onslaughts at campaign events and media interviews to go after him. In racking up endorsements, aides took a special interest in persuading Florida lawmakers, as a targeted way of weakening DeSantis. They found the hunt surprisingly fruitful: Republicans such as Rep. Byron Donalds, whom they expected to be aligned with DeSantis, said yes immediately to signing on with Trump.

“They wanted to complain about Ron. It was easier than we thought,” one adviser said.

DeSantis has criticized Trump as unable to execute his campaign promises and for being fundamentally self-centered. “Donald Trump is running on his issues,” DeSantis said Sunday night at a New Year’s party at the Sheraton West Des Moines. “I’m the only one running on your issues.”

Many Republicans held off on endorsing Trump right away - slights that angered him and that he kept track of. He personally called to ask for endorsements and resented what he considered a lack of loyalty. He repeatedly cajoled Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.) and sent word to Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders, his former White House press secretary, that he was unhappy she hadn’t backed him.

Both eventually endorsed Trump, who takes note of when others endorse him - and how positive their language is, advisers said.

‘Nothing could move them’

There was no shortage of well-funded efforts within the Republican Party throughout 2023 to distill effective attacks on Trump. Researchers tried several approaches, people familiar with the efforts said.

When they tried showing violent criminals freed under Trump’s criminal justice overhaul, known as the First Step Act, voters were unmoved. They just said they didn’t believe it.

When they tried comparing rival candidates’ policy positions side-by-side with Trump’s, it damaged the other candidates’ favorability, because voters viewed the contrasts as an implicit attack on the former president.

When they confronted a focus group with the facts about Trump’s failure to build a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border, one woman explained that Trump intentionally didn’t finish the barrier so that migrants would bottleneck in the gaps and be easy to detain there.

“How do you engage with that level of creativity in finding a way to excuse Trump?” said a Republican consultant observing that focus group. “Nothing could move them.”

Trump’s team was testing attacks too - about his criminal indictments, his affinity for dictators, his unfulfilled campaign promises (such as building a wall with Mexico) offensive comments he’s made in the past, and repealing Obamacare. None of the tests seemed to move the needle.

Ad-makers working with the Club for Growth, one of the top outside spenders in Republican politics, tested a range of tactics that had little to no effect, on issues as diverse as the pandemic to guns. Attacking Trump for contributing to the rising national debt didn’t move focus group subjects, even those who reported being concerned about the rising national debt.

By March, the Club’s campaigns lead, Tom Schultz, acknowledged that they hadn’t found anything that worked, and they weren’t going to, according to a person familiar with the matter. A Club spokesman denied Schultz said that and pointed to a September research memo identifying effective messages.

The first ad of the Club’s anti-Trump campaign featured a gray-haired man named John talking on his front steps, reciting his love of Trump but frustration with his “distractions.” Other Republicans snickered at the imagery - showing “John” with a lawn mower or walking down the sidewalk in slow motion - saying it resembled a commercial for erectile dysfunction medications.

By September, researchers reported back to the Club that the $4 million spent on the campaign in Iowa had damaged Trump’s favorability. But their memo acknowledged that none of the other candidates had consolidated the non-Trump support, and polls still showed him far ahead. The Club initiated outreach to broker a truce with Trump, according to multiple people familiar with the situation. They would no longer be attacking him and suggested they might even help, two of those people said. The Club spokesman declined to comment on the outreach.

The other major outside group that went ahead with opposing Trump was Americans for Prosperity Action, the political arm of the network of conservative groups backed by billionaire Charles Koch. It endorsed Haley in November. The group’s research found that policy critiques of Trump’s presidency weren’t nearly as effective with “soft Trump voters” - those who support him but are open to an alternative - as focusing on electability.

“The most effective argument for the key Trump supporters we’re focusing on is the risk of four more years of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris,” Michael Palmer, a senior adviser to AFP Action, said.

Even the electability message had to be carefully calibrated. An AFP mailer showing a MAGA hat reading “Make Republicans Lose Again” so enraged some recipients that they brought it to local meetings to object.

“Trump was the right president at the right time,” Haley said in New Hampshire recently, in an oft-repeated line. “But rightly or wrongly, chaos follows him. And we can’t be a country in disarray with a world on fire and go through four more years of chaos.”

Polls show that Haley climbed to a distant second in New Hampshire, while DeSantis occupies that spot in Iowa, leaving the Trump opposition divided in the first two contests.

“President Trump has outworked and outclassed every single person on the campaign trail, which is why he continues to dominate every single poll and is best positioned to beat Joe Biden and take back the White House,” Trump spokesman Steven Cheung said.

‘They were quiet and they were focused’

A full year before any ballots were to be cast in the 2024 primary, Trump operatives fanned out to key states to secure advantages in the obscure mechanics of how the Republican Party would pick its nominee. The lobbying campaign began with the party officials gathered for the Republican National Committee’s winter meeting in Southern California in January 2023.

In some states, they encountered no resistance. Louisiana Republicans gave candidates a greater role in picking delegates - a step toward installing Trump loyalists to thwart any attempt at a brokered convention. Massachusetts will award all of its delegates to a candidate who wins more than 50 percent of the vote there. In Nevada, the state GOP banned super PACs from deploying speakers and literature to caucus sites, a blow to DeSantis’s operation, which outsourced much of its field work to an outside group called Never Back Down.

The biggest prize of all was California, home to 14 percent of the total delegates needed to win the nomination. The state will award delegates on a winner-take-all basis if a candidate wins a majority, with Trump best positioned to do so.

“They were very smart and they were quiet and they were focused,” said Charles Moran, a member of the California Republican Party’s rules committee who supports Trump. “The other campaigns can sit there and cry over spilled milk, but the Trump campaign understood the rules and were able to do it.”

DeSantis allies also lobbied members of the California GOP’s rules committee for a different proposal that would have awarded him more delegates for a second-place finish.

“Changes in the middle of a contest are never fair,” Never Back Down founder Ken Cuccinelli said. “It doesn’t mean they necessarily violate the rules. But I see a lot of talk about unity these days. You want to avoid unity? Change the rules in the middle.”

The winner-take-all rule passed easily at the rules committee, and the state party’s executive committee ratified it by July. As the members voted, they could hear commotion from protests outside, though many weren’t clear who was protesting or why. Loomer, the pro-Trump blogger, had gathered demonstrators there, accusing party officials of having tried and failed to pull a fast one on Trump. Trump later promoted a social media post by Loomer taking credit for stopping the proposal that would have helped DeSantis.

“I’ll admit the Trump folks felt pretty strongly that they were going to clear the 50 percent threshold, so they were pretty happy with it and the DeSantis folks were not. That’s the bottom line,” said Jeff Burns, the California GOP official who proposed the winner-take-all rule and was himself a bundler for Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.). “Unless something happens in Iowa and New Hampshire, by the time Super Tuesday comes around, there may not be a competition at all, and it may not have mattered, frankly, what system we had in place.”

Looming legal issues

The possibility that Trump could be the first major party nominee running as a felon hangs over the race. The D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals is hearing arguments next week over whether Trump is immune from prosecution for actions taken as president, deciding whether his trial scheduled for March can move forward.

The U.S. Supreme Court is also poised to consider whether Trump can appear on the ballot after Colorado’s highest court disqualified him for his role in inspiring the Jan. 6 insurrection. Maine’s secretary of state also removed Trump from that state’s primary ballot, but put the decision on hold so he could appeal.

At the first primary debate, in August, the moderators asked for a show of hands for which of his rivals would support Trump as the nominee even if convicted. Entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy shot up his arm. Haley followed. DeSantis looked around, then joined.

Trump himself was nowhere to be seen. He was sometimes tempted to attend, but stuck with his plan to boycott the debates.

DeSantis tried taunting Trump to show up, but that only underscored the effect his absence had: leaving the rest of the pack behind to squabble for second. Other candidates struggled to gain traction as online donations and news audiences indicated fading interest in politics.

DeSantis’s campaign chafed at the chasm between his coverage and Trump’s - 50 to 1 in Trump’s favor, by one internal campaign estimate. During a shake-up in August, DeSantis set out to compete with Trump directly for airtime, in a strategy dubbed “DeSantis everywhere.” The Florida governor began sharpening his attacks on Trump, picking up the electability theme that the outside groups had tried. But the challenge was that Trump started looking increasingly electable in public polls.

As for AFP, the Koch-backed group supporting Haley, Palmer acknowledged that Biden’s weakness doesn’t help its case, but said it remains a top concern among Republican voters who were expecting red waves in recent elections that never came, an outcome he attributed to Trump’s drag on the party.

Activists are emphasizing polls showing Haley outperforming Trump against Biden, arguing that Republicans shouldn’t take the risk and reminding voters of how much Democrats are motivated by opposing Trump.

“Today I’d be voting for Trump because of what’s going against him. I don’t agree with anything he’s going through, I’d like to support him for that,” one Iowa voter told an AFP representative going door to door in the Des Moines suburbs on a recent Sunday. “The thing is, is can he win in the general? I don’t know.”

Hannah Knowles in Iowa and Meryl Kornfield in New Hampshire contributed to this report.