At the annual Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) at the Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center in a Maryland suburban of Washington D.C., former President Donald Trump demonstrated his continued hold on Republican conservatives by winning 62 percent of the votes in CPAC’s 2024 presidential straw poll, more than triple the votes of his nearest competitor for the GOP nomination, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, who won just 20 percent. All of the rest of Trump’s announced and unannounced competitors for the GOP presidential nomination each drew less than 5% of the vote.
In his nearly two-hour-long speech to the overwhelmingly pro-Trump CPAC audience, the former president re-affirmed his commitment to the neglected working-class voters and the other so-called “deplorables” who turned out to be the key to his victory over Hillary Clinton seven years ago. “In 2016, I declared I am your voice,” Trump said. “Today, I add: I am your warrior. I am your justice. And for those who have been wronged and betrayed: I am your retribution.
“We have no choice. If we don’t do this, our country will be lost forever,” he said, echoing a similar claim that he delivered less than three years ago. People are tired of RINOs (“Republicans in name only”) and globalists. They want to see America First.” Trump continued, “This is the final battle. They know it, I know it. You know it, everybody knows it. This is it. Either they win or we win, and if they win, we no longer have a country.”
Trump also expressed full confidence that he would be the GOP’s 2024 presidential candidate. “We’re leading every Republican by massive numbers.”
TRUMP PROMISES TO STAY IN THE RACE EVEN IF INDICTED
Prior to his speech, in an interview with Newsmax reporter James Rosen, Trump scoffed at the idea that he would drop out of the 2024 presidential race if he were to be indicted by one of the ongoing criminal investigations into his handling of government documents, his role in the January 6, 2021 riot at the U.S. Capitol, and Trump’s efforts to pressure Georgia state election officials into conducting a recount of the 2020 presidential vote.
“Oh absolutely. I wouldn’t even think about leaving,” and then speculated, “Probably, it’ll enhance my numbers.”
Trump also suggested that “Every time [my status in] the polls go up higher and higher, the prosecutors get crazier and crazier.”
Trump again proclaimed his innocence, and that the various investigations are politically motivated employing a double standard. “They want to lynch [me] for doing nothing wrong, [but] Joe Biden is a criminal and nothing ever seems to happen to him.”
Trump claimed that the Democrats are still afraid of his popularity with American voters. “Our getting back in the White House is their worst nightmare — but is our country’s only hope…if we don’t get back, this country can’t take it,” he warned.
He dismissed the idea that Democrats want a rematch between him and Joe Biden in 2024, because, he asked, why else would his opponents launch all those investigations to get him disqualified from running?
TRUMP PROMISES A QUICK PEACE IN UKRAINE
Trump also said that if he is elected president again, he would be able to put an end to the war in Ukraine “very quickly,” perhaps within “24 hours.” He added that if he had been president over the past two years, the war in Ukraine could have been prevented “very easily.” But he declined to give any further details, he explained, “because if I told you that, I probably wouldn’t be able to do it.”
He added that Russian tanks would have never rolled across Ukraine if he had remained in the White House. “I was also the only president where Russia didn’t take over a country during my time. Russia didn’t take over because I got along with Vladimir Putin very well. I’d say ‘Vladimir, don’t do it. You know, you and I are friends, don’t take over any countries because you know, Moscow will be hit very hard.’”
Trump updated his complaint that America’s European allies do not bear their fair share of the economic burden of their common defense by noting that the Europeans are also lagging in their support for Ukraine’s effort to beat back the Russian invasion. “If you look at Ukraine, and we all feel so badly about it,” Trump said, “why isn’t NATO putting up dollar for dollar with us?” Instead, he noted that Europe was contributing “just a tiny fraction” of the critical war materiel needed to keep Ukraine in the war. Trump also said that while he wanted to see Ukraine succeed in defending itself, “It’s far more important to them than it is to us because of the location.”
Trump recalled that while he was president, he told America’s European NATO allies “if they wanted our protection, they had to pay up, and they had to pay up now.” He also said that he was outspoken, while he was president, in opposing the construction of Russian’s Nordstream 2 natural gas pipeline to Germany, which has not been allowed to open due to the war in Ukraine.
TRUMP’S NEW CAMPAIGN PROMISES
On the day prior to the start of the CPAC conference, Trump’s campaign released new policy initiatives in a video and on social media that he said would make possible a “quantum leap in the American standard of living,” and “create a new American future” in a country that has “lost its boldness.”
One initiative called for the building of vacant federal land of 10 futuristic “freedom cities.” “We’ll actually build new cities in our country again,” Trump said in a video. “These freedom cities will reopen the frontier, reignite American imagination, and give hundreds of thousands of young people and other people, all hardworking families, a new shot at home ownership and in fact, the American dream.” In addition, he would launch a nationwide beautification effort aimed at removing “ugly” buildings and revitalizing parks and public spaces, and the erection of “towering monuments to our true American heroes.”
He also pushed for the development of flying cars, or “vertical-takeoff-and-landing vehicles for families and individuals. . . Just as the United States led the automotive revolution in the last century, I want to ensure that America, not China, leads this revolution in air mobility,” Trump said. “These breakthroughs can transform commerce, bring a giant infusion of wealth into rural America, and connect families and our country in new ways.”
Trump promised that he would fix public education through the institution of “universal school choice and the direct election of school principals by the parents.” He also called for the payment of “baby bonuses” in an effort to “help launch a new baby boom.”
To boost the manufacturing segment of the American economy, Trump proposed to escalate the trade battle he started with China when he was president by imposing higher taxes on imported goods.
Because of the disappointing showing by several Trump-endorsed candidates in the 2022 midterm election, some Republican strategists said that it was time for the party to move on and find a new standard-bearer to replace the former president. But since that time, it has become clear that Trump’s 2024 presidential candidacy retains the strong support of almost half of Republicans nationwide.
CPAC’S TRUMP-FRIENDLY AUDIENCE
Trump’s speech to the CPAC conference, was his fourth public event since he launched his 2024 presidential campaign four months ago. However, he will be ramping up his public schedule in the coming weeks, with two major speeches and a large campaign rally scheduled before the end of March, including an address on education in Davenport, Iowa, which will host the first 2024 GOP presidential caucus next year.
This year’s CPAC meeting was so dominated by Trump supporters that several of Trump’s leading competitors for the GOP’s 2024 presidential nomination, including Governor DeSantis, and former Vice President Mike Pence, decided not to participate in the event. Instead, the conference program was almost entirely dominated by Trump advocates including Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia, Congressman Matt Gaetz of Florida, former Arizona gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake, Trump political strategist Steve Bannon, and Donald Trump Jr. Announced GOP presidential candidate Nikki Haley was present, but when she addressed the CPAC audience, she received a hostile reception from Trump supporters who consider her a renegade because she criticized Trump for his role in the January 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol. However, Trump’s former Secretary of State and still unannounced GOP presidential candidate, Mike Pompeo, did receive a respectful hearing from the CPAC audience.
THE REST OF THE POTENTIAL GOP PRESIDENTIAL FIELD
While DeSantis was at the top of every list of potential Trump replacements, his name was generally followed by Trump’s former U.N. ambassador, Nikki Haley, who was the first, after Trump, to announce her candidacy, and unannounced candidates former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and former Vice President Pence. Other potential challengers for the 2024 GOP nominations include two of the failed candidates from 2016, Senator Marco Rubio of Florida and Senator Ted Cruz of Texas. Further down the list of possible GOP presidential nominees were Senator Tim Scott of South Carolina, Texas Governor Greg Abbott, Virginia Governor Glenn Youngkin, and New Hampshire Governor Chris Sununu. Then there is the possibility of a previously unknown dark horse candidate emerging, such as biotech entrepreneur and investor Vivek Ramaswamy, who declared his candidacy last month.
Trump has mostly ignored his other potential rivals for the GOP nomination and focused on DeSantis. But surprisingly, the popularity of the Florida governor has not suffered as much as might be expected from the intense and highly partisan criticism of his policies by the liberal national news media, and Trump’s attempts to minimize his accomplishments.
While some polls show that DeSantis is more popular than Trump in certain states, such as in Pennsylvania, by 37% to 32%, in Virginia, by 54% to 37%, and in New York State, by 45% to 44%, a recent YouGov poll confirms that, nationwide, Trump is preferred over DeSantis among Republicans by a 47% to 39% margin. Nevertheless, many of the Republicans who support him recognize that the past seven years of ceaseless media lies and attacks on Trump’s character have damaged his popularity among the independent and swing voters whose support Trump will need to win in order to defeat his Democrat opponent, most likely Joe Biden, in the 2024 presidential election. According to a Marist Institute poll taken in February, 54% of Republicans said they thought that “someone else” would have a better chance of winning in 2024, while only 42% believed Trump is the Republican who would have the best chance of winning the White House.
ALMOST EVERYONE HAS AN OPINION ON TRUMP
Because of the controversy which has surrounded Trump ever since he became a national political figure in the 2016 presidential election cycle, polls show that almost 95% of Americans already have formed a clear opinion about him. But surprisingly, despite the determined efforts by the mainstream media to discredit Trump, there is an even split, at 46% each, between voters who have a somewhat or very favorable view of Trump and those who have a somewhat or very unfavorable view of him.
The stubborn persistence of Trump’s supporters despite the efforts by his opponents to demonize him is the reason why Trump remains the main target of Democrats and their allies in the mainstream media in the run-up to the 2024 presidential election. They see Trump as the strongest of the potential GOP presidential candidates, because of his charismatic personality, his identification with the economic issues that are most important to working-class voters, and his outspoken endorsement of traditional American patriotic, democratic, and moral values.
The mainstream media has continued its conspiracy to deny Trump the live news coverage he deserves. Trump and his supporters have also been critical of Fox News which did carry Trump’s CPAC address live, but which has cut back sharply on its level of coverage of the former president since he left office.
At CPAC, Trump once again made the argument that The Washington Post and The New York Times did not deserve to win the prestigious 2018 Pulitzer Prize, for their reporting on the Trump-Russia 2016 election collusion hoax because, “They were exactly wrong. And now they’ve even admitted that it was a total hoax, and [yet] they got the prize.”
However, Trump did have words of praise for those commentators on Fox News who have continued to be most supportive of his campaign, including Sean Hannity, Jesse Watters, and Tucker Carlson. Trump suggested that the Fox reporters should be awarded the Pulitzer Prize which the two liberal newspapers did not deserve because they had deliberately violated the principles of unbiased journalism in their reporting on Trump.
TRUMP ATTACKS THE GOP’S OLD GUARD
During his CPAC address, Trump did not mention any of his declared or undeclared rivals for the GOP presidential nomination by name, including those who had served as members of his own administration and cabinet. Instead, he chose to attack the old guard of GOP national leadership. “We had a Republican Party that was ruled by freaks, neocons, globalists, open border zealots, and fools, but we are never going back to the party of Paul Ryan, Karl Rove, and Jeb Bush.”
Trump also sought to separate himself from previous Republican presidents by stating, “I was the only president in modern history who did not have any new wars. No new wars,” and then added that he had “finished some old ones,” referring to the war that President Barack Obama launched against ISIS.
Trump recalled that, “In fact, with the ISIS caliphate, a certain general said it could only be done in three years, ‘and probably it can’t be done at all, sir.’ And I did it in three weeks.”
The YouGov poll also shows that most Americans see Trump very differently than DeSantis. Even though their positions on the most important national issues are almost identical, voters say that by a greater than two-to-one margin, they trust Trump more than DeSantis to handle the economy, taxes, and government spending, foreign policy, and immigration. On the other hand, more Americans trust DeSantis than Trump when it comes to setting government policy for education and Covid-19 because of the Florida governor’s high-profile clashes with the Biden administration over these issues.
IS THERE A POLICY DIFFERENCE ON SOCIAL SECURITY AND MEDICARE?
In recent weeks, Trump has been trying to suggest that there is a significant policy difference between him and DeSantis on the future of the Social Security and Medicare programs. While Trump has promised to oppose any proposed future cuts in their current benefits, he notes that while DeSantis was a member of Congress, before becoming Florida’s governor, he did vote for a nonbinding resolution to make the necessary changes to the retirement programs to keep them from going broke over the next few years.
“I guess people are finding out that he [DeSantis] wanted to CUT SOCIAL SECURITY & RAISE THE MINIMUM AGE TO AT LEAST 70, at least 4 times,” Trump wrote last week on his social media platform. “LIKEWISE WITH MEDICARE, WANTED BIG CUTS. HE IS A WHEELCHAIR-OVER-THE-CLIFF KIND OF GUY.”
Trump made a reference to that claim in his CPAC speech, declaring, “We’re not going back to people that want to destroy our great Social Security system, even some in our own party, I wonder who that may be.”
But DeSantis pushed back against that allegation, declaring last week to Fox News, “We’re not going to mess with Social Security as Republicans.”
RESTORING LAW AND ORDER
During his CPAC speech, Trump also touched on the conservative theme of law and order and liberal Democrat prosecutors who allow arrested criminals to walk free. In a dig at Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg, Trump claimed that “killings are taking place at a number like nobody’s ever seen, right in Manhattan.”
Talking about rioting amid racial justice protests after the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis in 2020, Trump claimed he had been ready to send in the National Guard to restore order in Seattle. Trump then added, “We saved Minneapolis. The thing is, we’re not supposed to do that. Because it’s up to the Democrat governor. They never want any help. It’s almost like they don’t mind having their cities and states destroyed. There’s something wrong with these people.”
Trump boasted that he had taken effective action as president to stop the destruction of statues and memorials during the riots which followed the death of George Floyd. “I passed and signed an executive order. Anybody that does [destroy those things] gets 10 years in jail, with no negotiation. . . It was a very old law, and one of my very good legal people along with [adviser] Stephen Miller, found it. They said, ‘Sir, I don’t know if you want to try and bring this back.’ I said. ‘I do.’”
Trump also referred to the violent demonstrations that summer which devastated downtown Portland, Oregon and was tolerated by liberal state and local government officials there. “How’s Portland doing?” Trump asked during his CPAC speech. “They don’t even have storefronts anymore. Everything’s two-by-fours because they get burned down every week.”
CHINA TARIFFS, THE BORDER WALL, AND THE OPEN BORDER
Trump boasted to the CPAC audience that he took the initiative to charge tariffs on imports from China because of its violations of fair trade agreements, “bringing in hundreds of billions of dollars pouring into our Treasury. . . [even though] no other president had gotten anything from them.”
Trump blasted President Biden for the badly botched withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan in 2021, which left behind $85 billion worth of U.S. military equipment for the Taliban, as well as the death of 13 American soldiers due to a bombing at the entrance to the Kabul airport.
Trump pointed out that, in contrast to Biden’s failed immigration policies, when he was president he kept his promise to build hundreds of miles of wall to help seal the border with Mexico against illegal immigration, and that, as president he also succeeded in deporting MS-13 gang members “especially” to countries such as Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras which previously “didn’t want them.”
TRUMP’S DURABLE VOTER APPEAL
Even though both Trump and DeSantis thrive on partisan political controversy, Trump is a much more combative and polarizing figure. Yet despite the fact that Trump has been the most controversial public figure in the country since 2015, he is still viewed by many Americans as a political outsider who is dedicated to fighting the bureaucratic “Deep State,” also known as the “Washington swamp,” which has seized effective control of the federal government.
It is also clear from Trump’s endorsements during the 2022 midterm election cycle that his primary allegiance is to those candidates who support him personally and his Make America Great Again (MAGA) policy agenda, despite the fact that they had no prior electoral experience. As a result, the Republicans lost several races for seats in the House and Senate last November that they probably would have won if they had nominated a more conventional and politically experienced candidate.
Trump also delights in publicly baiting his political opponents into attacking him, giving him the opportunity to launch the kind of devastating and highly personal counterattacks at which he excels. This tactic enabled him to easily dispose of his main opponents in the 2016 GOP presidential primary campaign, including Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, and Ted Cruz.
Ever since announcing his 2024 presidential candidacy, Trump has been trying to use the same tactics to provoke a response from DeSantis, who has wisely refused to take the bait by responding in kind. Instead, DeSantis has avoided a direct head-to-head conflict with Trump by delaying the announcement of his own presidential candidacy.
However, in a recent Fox News interview, DeSantis did speak wistfully about his past political partnership with Trump. “He used to say how great of a governor I was. Then I win a big victory [in the 2022 midterm election] and all of a sudden, he had different opinions. So you can take that for what it’s worth.”
DESANTIS WISELY AVOIDING A DIRECT CONFRONTATION WITH TRUMP
Meanwhile, DeSantis has been successful in attracting national attention for his conservative positions on education in support of parental rights and opposition to “woke” curriculums, his opposition to Covid-19 shutdowns and mandates, and his pro-business, low-tax policies.
Instead of directly attacking Trump, DeSantis has gained nationwide political attention by publicly taking on the supporters of “woke” liberal educational, racial, gender and Covid-19 policies to which he is opposed, including the Biden administration and the Walt Disney Corporation.
DeSantis presents Florida as a model of the successful conservative economic and social policies that the rest of the country would do well to emulate. “Florida is where ‘woke’ goes to die,” DeSantis delights in telling his out-of-state audiences. He also loves to take shots at the Biden administration as well as a GOP establishment that he says is out of touch with the concerns and beliefs of most middle-class and working-class American families.
The proof of the positive appeal of DeSantis’ policies can be found in the outcome of the midterm election in Florida, which used to be a battleground state, but which turned out to be the only state in the country where the widely expected GOP “red wave” became a reality. But this past November, Republican candidates won a clean sweep of all of Florida’s statewide offices, and DeSantis easily cruised to a second term as governor by almost 20 points. Under DeSantis’ rule, Florida has become a magnet attracting businesses and families fleeing in droves from the over-taxed and over-regulated Democrat-governed blue states of New York, Illinois, and California.
DESANTIS HAS CHOSEN POPULAR POLICIES
While DeSantis is widely seen as the most likely substitute for Trump as the GOP’s 2024 presidential candidate, it has been much more difficult for the pro-Democrat mainstream news media to attack the Florida governor than Trump. That is because DeSantis has been careful to pick his political fights against “woke” policy issues which tend to be highly unpopular with independents as well as conservative voters.
For example, DeSantis has won much praise for supporting the right of parents to have a voice in the selection of topics to be taught to their young school-age children and challenging the authority of liberal school boards and teachers’ union leaders over school curriculums. More recently, DeSantis has sought to block courses teaching radical liberal ideas based upon critical race theory (CRT) in Florida’s publicly owned universities.
The Florida governor also pushed back against the Biden administration’s Covid vaccine and mask mandates. Despite Biden White House warnings that he was endangering public health, DeSantis made Florida one of the first states in the nation to lift its mandatory school and business closures when the Covid pandemic began to subside.
In the end, DeSantis’ Covid policies were proven to be correct. Florida’s pandemic crisis turned out to be no worse than in other states where the vaccine and mask mandates were enforced, and business and school closures were extended. Once it became clear that Florida’s economy was thriving while other states remained mired in recession, DeSantis began to receive a substantial amount of national political attention and credit.
MANY VOTERS STILL UNDECIDED ON DESANTIS
So far, there is no clear national trend on DeSantis’ popularity. The latest polls show slightly more Americans holding a favorable view of DeSantis than an unfavorable view (40%-36%). More important, 23% of Americans say they don’t know how they feel about DeSantis yet. That means that, unlike Trump, in the months ahead, DeSantis still has an opportunity to define himself and to win the support of this large cohort of undecided voters.
While both Trump and DeSantis advocate for the same conservative political principles, when asked to compare Trump to DeSantis on a number of personal characteristics, voters recognized a number of key differences between them. They considered Trump to be more authentic (by 18% to 16%), charismatic (24% to 16%), decisive (20% to 16%), and patriotic (19% to 12%) than DeSantis. At the same time, surveyed voters believed DeSantis to be more conservative (21% to 14%), “loyal to the Republican party” (20% to 16%), and “willing to compromise” (18% to 12%) than Trump.
The day after Trump delivered his speech to the friendly audience at the CPAC conference, DeSantis made a pilgrimage to the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, where he accused elected Democrat leaders in states such as California of being “lockdown politicians,” and that they failed “a great test in governing philosophies,” during the Covid-19 pandemic.
DESANTIS TELLS HIS FLORIDA SUCCESS STORY
Noting that Florida’s traditionally low taxes and its penchant for small government have always served as a draw to the Sunshine State, DeSantis argued that the pandemic “caused people to reevaluate who is in charge of their state government more than any other event in my lifetime.”
“When common sense suddenly became an uncommon virtue, Florida stood as a refuge of sanity, a citadel of freedom throughout the United States and indeed throughout the world,” he said. Speaking in a state where some school districts were closed longer than almost anywhere else in the nation during the pandemic, DeSantis drew applause when he said he made sure every school in his state was open in 2020 for in-person instruction.
He also boasted that Florida “empowered people to make their own choices” about vaccinations: “Nobody in the state of Florida was going to be pushed to have to choose between the job they needed and the shots they didn’t want to take,” he said to applause.
Speaking to a sold-out audience of more than 1,300 people, DeSantis boasted that his state of Florida has led the nation in attracting Americans who have “voted with their feet” by leaving Democrat-ruled blue states in large numbers, causing Florida’s population to boom.
“We’ve witnessed a great American exodus from states governed by leftist politicians imposing leftist ideologies and delivering poor results. And you can see massive gains in states like Florida, who are governing according to the tried and true principles that President Reagan held dear,” DeSantis said.
DeSantis’s speech at the Reagan Library was billed as an event to promote his newly published book, The Courage to Be Free: Florida’s Blueprint for America’s Revival. But in fact, it served as an opportunity for him to reach out to GOP voters in the state with the most Electoral College votes, which will be one of the first to hold its presidential primary on March 5 of next year.
TRUMP’S POLICIES WITHOUT THE DRAMA AND CHAOS
Most crucially, DeSantis continues to resist the temptation to try to build himself up in the eyes of GOP voters by trying to tear Trump down. Instead, DeSantis is urging voters nationwide to judge him by his own record as the governor of Florida, and his success in implementing the broad range of conservative policies on which he is in agreement with Trump without creating an atmosphere of confrontation, drama, and chaos on which Trump has always thrived.