There hasn’t been a single vote cast yet in the Republican primary, but for Donald Trump and President Joe Biden, the general election is starting early.
Consider just the last week: Trump jetted over to Michigan on Wednesday to continue his efforts to siphon off autoworkers from the coalition that helped elect Joe Biden in 2020; Biden visited striking UAW members there the same week while his campaign took out an ad targeting the former president’s record on labor. Then on Thursday, Biden gave an impassioned warning at the McCain Institute that Trump poses an ongoing threat to democracy.
All of it fits a pattern in which the two sides are directly engaging each other more and more. Pro-Trump Super PAC MAGA Inc. has already been running ads sizing up the two presidents in a possible rematch, while the president delivered speeches attacking “the last guy’s” economic record. And after Trump started criticizing 6-week abortion bans — a general election move, if ever there was one — Democrats rushed to counter with messaging tying him to his prior anti-abortion record and rhetoric.
“It’s important to realize that Republican primary voters have made a decision overwhelmingly that they feel that Donald Trump is the best positioned and the best candidate to take and beat Joe Biden,” senior Trump advisor Chris LaCivita told Semafor after the second GOP debate, which the former president once again skipped.
For the two frontrunners, it’s looking more inevitable that they’ll meet again in a bid to win the White House. LaCivita noted that team Trump is still focused on the primary — “nothing is ever a done deal” — but suggested those efforts will continue less because they’re nervous about losing a heavy lead and more because of what lies again.
“Quite frankly, it’s great practice for the general election,” he declared.
Biden’s team is in a similar situation: They’re keeping an eye on the various Republicans fighting for a far-off second place, but seem to view Trump as the real threat and are increasingly treating him like a presumptive nominee.
“The campaign is obviously ready for anyone, but they’re clearly prepared to take on Trump and remind America of his deep failures and make the case to voters between now and November,” one person close to Biden’s campaign told Semafor. “It’s going to be a long 13 months.”
Trump has been running an “inevitability” campaign since the beginning and it’s obviously in his interest to portray the primary as a settled matter, whether it’s true or not. Last week, he argued future GOP debates should be canceled so the party can unite behind him.
But while the first votes are still months away and things could always change, it’s getting harder to view Trump’s opponents as credible threats to win the nomination with national polls showing him up 30, 40, and even 50 points ahead and the debates failing to produce any obvious threats to his position.
It’s also notable that Biden and his Democratic allies, who might benefit from a long and ugly Republican primary, seem to be giving up on that possibility. They’re launching high-profile attacks on Trump knowing that it helps him in the GOP race and diminishes his opponents.
“I think it will be clear that Trump comes out the dominant force after this debate,” California Gov. Gavin Newsom, who attended the event as a Biden surrogate, told reporters. “Honestly, I mean, this is maybe — maybe — a vice-presidential debate.”
To some Trump critics, this focus is unsurprising: They’ve long predicted Democrats would try to elevate the former president because they view him as the weakest nominee. That’s a harder case to make right now, however, as allies fret over poll after poll showing Trump tied or ahead in a general election.
Room for Disagreement
Talk to any of Trump’s opponents, and they’ll argue that there’s still plenty of time to go in the primary — and that there’s a serious opportunity to become the last man (or woman) standing, and therefore, the viable Trump alternative. At the second debate, candidates began taking aim at the former president at least a little more. And while their attacks have so far proved ineffective, several campaigns are betting that Iowa is a winnable state that could change the trajectory of the race. If Trump loses his footing, he won’t be the first “inevitable” candidate to go down.