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No, Donald Trump doesn’t have the 2024 GOP nomination locked up

His early lead in the polls hardly means he’s the GOP’s nearly inevitable nominee.

A poor showing for Donald Trump in New Hampshire could well prove contagious — and in the Granite State, he has nowhere to go but down.Sean Rayford/Getty

It’s a reminder I repeat to myself at the start of each presidential campaign: Don’t mistake the moment for eternity.

Politics is not a steady-state equation. What looks to be a locked-in electoral landscape in the early fall of the year preceding the primaries is prone to sudden change around the turn of the year.

One reason why is that . . .

The pundits’ present prognosis isn’t voters’ current focus

The average person doesn’t make up their mind on a presidential candidate this early. Indeed, many voters aren’t paying attention at this point. Until they do, people tend to park their loyalties in temporary places, usually with the front-runner — Donald Trump in the case of the GOP race. Another reason, however, is that Trump’s intraparty rivals are . . .


Waiting till the moment’s ripe to swing the pipe

Cagey lesser-known rivals to a better-known front-runner don’t squander their most powerful weapons early. They first concentrate on stating their own cases, while husbanding their best arguments and ammunition for later. And when crunch time comes, they and their super PACS launch those attacks in the most powerful way possible. That means . . .

Taking la guerre to the air

Voters say they loathe negative ads, but well-crafted attack spots work, which is why the real campaign doesn’t begin until bombs are bursting on TV screens. One particularly effective line of attack against Trump will be his attempt to subvert our democracy and trample on our Constitution.

Sadly, that may not matter much to hard-core MAGA members, who have a hard time acknowledging even to themselves that that’s what Trump tried to do.

But among clear-eyed Republicans, the Big Lie-inspired storming of the US Capitol, his call for suspending the Constitution in order to reinstate him, his suggestion that outgoing Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman Gen. Mark Milley deserves execution for reaching out to reassure his Chinese counterpart that the United States wasn’t planning an attack, and his declaration that he would investigate certain mainstream media outlets for treason should trigger loud anti-authoritarian alarm bells. It may even have some effect on the MAGA margins. Which brings us to . . .


Gradual erosion that promotes eventual implosion

Some MAGA members are essentially political cultists who accept anything Trump says as gospel. Others, however, realize on some level that he duped them with his lie that the 2020 presidential election had been stolen. We know that because of the elaborate rationalizations in which they now seek refuge. An example of that is their protestation that if only the news media had obsessed over Hunter Biden’s laptop in the fall of 2020, Trump might have won; so even though his many voting-fraud claims went nowhere, they insist the election was still stolen.

That cohort is unlikely to cite Trump’s duped-them dishonesty as a reason for deserting him. But there’s another avenue for abandoning the candidate-cum-con man: The conclusion that a man facing four separate criminal trials probably can’t win nationally. That conclusion lets one abandon Trump without admitting they got taken in.

Meanwhile, another episode that will reorder the GOP primary race is: . . .

The Wreck of the Ronald DeSantis

Like the Edmund Fitzgerald, DeSantis’s once-heralded candidacy is not just failing but foundering, to the point where, as in the song, an old campaign cook will soon come on deck and tell the imperiled crew, “fellas, it’s too rough to feed ya.” But though dead in the water, the ruined hulk is still blocking the entrance to the Straits of Success, keeping other Trump rivals from advancing.


Once DeSantis has sunk into irrelevance, however, things will change as others salvage the spoils.

Next, there’s Trump’s non-legal campaign problem of being . . .

A mugwump on the stump

The candidate who in 2016 promised to support Supreme Court justices who would overturn Roe v. Wade is now trying to shift to a more moderate general-election stance on abortion. But in so doing, he’s opened his right flank to attack, particularly in Iowa. In New Hampshire, meanwhile, his protectionist, pro-higher-tariff — read: higher consumer prices — populism also presents an easy target.

Finally, bear in mind that primaries are like . . .

A slow-mo row of falling dominoes

The results in one nominating contest influence the dynamic in the next. New Hampshire presents a particular problem for Trump. There, he faces not just a poised political prosecutor in former New Jersey governor Chris Christie, but also a popular Granite State governor, Chris Sununu, who believes renominating the criminally indicted, scandal-scarred candidate would be a disaster for the GOP.

A poor showing in New Hampshire could well prove contagious — and in the Granite State, he has nowhere to go but down.


All that is why it’s silly to declare that Trump has the GOP nomination sewn up before the first votes have even been cast.

Scot Lehigh is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at Follow him @GlobeScotLehigh.