CONCORD, N.H. — During his appearance at a recent New Hampshire GOP women’s fundraiser, Donald Trump told the crowd his lead in the 2024 GOP presidential primary is so big, “I’d really have to work hard to blow it.”
And the one thing Trump was not interested in doing that day was hard work.
The former president had a room full of adoring fans and a fistful of new polls showing him well ahead in the New Hampshire primary. So he took the opportunity to indulge himself with a performance that was heavy on personality, light on policy, and full of snark.
Trump rolled through his personal favorites: The election he “won” in 2020 (“They rigged the election of 2020, but we’re not going to let them rig the election of 2024”), the “fake news” that treats him unfairly, and of course his legal woes. “As you know, two weeks ago, Crooked Joe Biden ordered his top political opponent arrested,” Trump said. “Who’s that opponent? Wait — it’s me!”
He even managed to work in an extended riff on his old TV show, “The Apprentice,” bragging about his ratings and asking the audience if they thought his star turn helped make him president. (The show has been off the air since 2017.)
No appeal to fence-sitters who aren’t already on board, no new messaging to engage new voters. Trump doesn’t need them. He’s got fans.
Just hours earlier and 30 miles away in Hollis, N.H., the vibe was very different at the Ron DeSantis town hall. The Florida governor was working the room hard. After criticism that he wasn’t willing to engage, DeSantis took 10 questions, unfiltered, from the crowd of 200 or so people for more than an hour.
It wasn’t showbiz. It was campaigning.
DeSantis was loose and relaxed, but he also looked like a man on a mission. On answer after answer, DeSantis made the pitch, “I get it done.” On the border, on “draining the swamp,” on dealing with the legacy of COVID, DeSantis was working his angle: You had Trump. He didn’t do it. But in Florida, I did. So let me do it for you in 2024.
There were fewer laughs at the DeSantis event and more efforts at traditional political persuasion. And even some of his supporters acknowledge that may not be enough in the era of Trump.
“You listen to these people talk about Trump, and it’s not even politics,” one DeSantis backer said after the two competing events. “They love the show, and they aren’t ready for it to end.”
Team DeSantis says it will keep grinding out the campaign at the grassroots level. They say New Hampshire voters are asking for yard signs and signing up to volunteer, and they will do the work they need to do this summer to be ready to consolidate the vote when other candidates start dropping out.
It’s not fun. It’s not exciting. It’s work.
The bad news for DeSantis is there’s no amount of work his campaign can do that will change how the GOP base feels about Trump. They like him — a lot.
That’s one reason comparisons with the poll numbers of previous frontrunners like Mitt Romney or Jeb Bush don’t add up. Yes, Romney had an early lead over John McCain in the 2008 New Hampshire primary, and the Arizona senator surged past him with a scrappy, grassroots campaign. But Romney, a first-time presidential candidate, was polling in the 30s. Trump, a former president, has four years of approval ratings among GOP primary voters in the 80s.
Even if Donald Trump weren’t, well … Donald Trump, the playing field still would be tilted strongly in his favor.
Meanwhile, DeSantis has been campaigning less as a choice and more as an alternative. His fundamental message is, “Vote for me when you decide you can’t vote for Trump.” But there were signs in New Hampshire that may be changing. DeSantis looked hungry. He looked more like a driven, “I’m here to earn your vote” candidate and less like the aloof executive who has made his presentation and is just waiting for everyone to agree that he’s right.
So if showbiz beats politics, can “hungry” beat “phoning it in”?
Political journalist Mark Halperin often uses the phrase “King Kong vs. Godzilla” to describe the Trump vs. DeSantis race. That’s no longer the case. Trump’s polling and passionate support towers over the rest of the field.
But there’s another legendary competition that might be more apt, and offer DeSantis fans some hope:
The tortoise and the hare.