Last November, The New York Times published an article by opinion columnist Bret Stephens claiming that “Donald Trump Is Finally Finished.” The article argues that Trump was done “as a serious contender for high office” because Republicans were tired of him dragging them down in elections. Stephens wasn’t alone in this analysis, either. With a few notable exceptions, at the end of 2022 pundits everywhere were confidently declaring the Trump era over.
Half a year later, with Ron DeSantis poised to announce his presidential campaign later today, the received wisdom has flipped. Now, pundits will tell you with equal conviction that Trump has the nomination in the bag. They point to polling that shows Trump leading the Republican field with around 50% or more of GOP voters and say that no other candidate has any real chance to catch him.
It’s a stark reversal to go from “Trump is doomed” to “Trump is inevitable” in the span of six months. And while the polling does show that Trump is in a stronger position than he was after the midterms, those numbers are by no means definitive. The first Republican primary voters won’t cast their votes for at least another seven months, giving the political landscape plenty of time to shift and cause Trump to stumble.
One look at recent political history shows that Trump wouldn’t be the first primary frontrunner to blow his lead. In fact, in nearly every presidential primary without an incumbent going back to 2008 (the earliest cycle for which comprehensive polling averages are available), candidates who were considered the frontrunner at this point or even later in the primary season failed to win the nomination.
- In the 2020 Democratic Primary, Bernie Sanders was considered the frontrunner for almost the entire month of February—from his strong showing in the Iowa caucuses to Biden’s victory in South Carolina. Things only turned decisively in Joe Biden’s favor after Super Tuesday.
- In the 2016 Republican Primary, Jeb Bush, Scott Walker, Ben Carson and Marco Rubio were leading the polls until July 2015. Even as late as November, Ben Carson had a moment where he was polling ahead of Trump.
- In the 2012 Republican Primary, several candidates, including Rick Santorum, Newt Gingrich, Herman Cain and Rick Perry, outpolled Mitt Romney at various points between August 2011 and February 2012. Romney only nailed down Republican support in March and April, well after states began holding primaries.
- In the 2008 Democratic Primary, Hillary Clinton was considered the overwhelming favorite well into January of election year. Only after the Iowa caucuses did the insurgent candidate Barack Obama overtake her.
- In the 2008 Republican Primary, Rudy Giuliani led the polls throughout all of 2007, followed not by John McCain but by Fred Thompson. McCain only began to lead the polls in mid-January.
The only example in which one single candidate remained the clear frontrunner throughout the entire primary season was the 2016 Democratic primary. But even that year wasn’t necessarily smooth for the frontrunner, Hillary Clinton. While she never officially fell behind Sanders in the polling averages, he did gain enough support to pose a serious challenge to her nomination.
The specifics of each of these instances and how well they mirror the 2024 GOP primary are less important than the broad takeaway that primary competitions are volatile and unpredictable. More often than not, they turn out differently from how the pundits expect. Typically, being the frontrunner doesn’t confer inevitability status until January or February of election year at the very earliest.
Unfortunately, the journalistic class stubbornly refuses to learn this lesson. Rather than recognize that primary predictions are inherently uncertain, pundits fall into the same trap each election cycle, believing that this time things will be different. This time there aren’t going to be any big surprises or upsets. This time they can forecast the future with precision. But as we’ve already seen this cycle, with the flip from “Trump is finished” to “Trump is inevitable” in the span of six months, our ability to predict the future hasn’t improved as much as pundits might think.
Why do journalists continue to make these kinds of arrogant and erroneous predictions? For one thing, they are overconfident in the accuracy and staying power of polling data. For another, they have an overinflated sense of their ability to analyze the electorate. Perhaps most important, though, is the need for a clear story arc and dramatic headlines. Few people will read an article with the title “Polls Shift Slightly, Putting Trump In Marginally Stronger Position,” so journalists and headline writers crank things up to read more like “Donald Trump Annihilates Ron DeSantis in Biggest Poll Lead Yet.”
That headline is a particularly audacious form of clickbait, but it captures the more generic journalistic tendency to avoid ambiguity when it comes to analyzing primary campaigns. The problem with this is not only that it makes the analysts themselves look foolish in retrospect when things turn out differently from how they forecast, but that it gives the public a false impression of the campaign in the moment. And while journalists frequently overinflate their own importance, there’s no denying that media coverage does influence political outcomes. Publishing simplistic coverage about the primary campaign could have real-life consequences on election results.
Given the weight of their responsibility, the media should stop treating the 2024 primary campaign as a way to drive traffic with sensational headlines. It may be naive to expect such restraint from the media ecosystem as a whole, but it’s not outlandish to suggest that individual journalists could turn up the nuance and turn down the sensationalism. If there ever were a time to make such an adjustment, now would be it. With DeSantis entering the race, the primary campaign is entering a new phase. He’s Trump’s most viable competitor, and we’ve yet to see what the campaign will look like with him directly challenging Trump.
As the campaign shifts into full gear, my hope is that journalists and pundits start to talk about the race with appropriate levels of uncertainty rather than performatively declaring that they know how things will turn out. With several viable candidates in the race, so much time until voters actually start to cast ballots, and a history that suggests upsets are the norm in primary campaigns, there’s really no way to know which Republican will come out on top.