What We Haven’t Learned From the First Chapter of the Republican Primary

The first chapter of the Republican race seems to be heading toward a dramatic end.

The plot of the last several months — Donald J. Trump’s onslaught against Ron DeSantis — has culminated with a meaningful shift in the polls. Now, the political conversation is starting to move to the next story line: a possible indictment of Mr. Trump.

Before we turn the page, it’s worth pausing to reflect on where the race stands. Yes, there’s been a big shift in “momentum” in favor of Mr. Trump over the last few weeks, raising legitimate questions about whether Mr. DeSantis is up to facing him. The big shift, however, can make it seem that this question has already been answered. It makes it harder to stay grounded in the fundamentals of the race.

Like any first-time presidential candidate, Mr. DeSantis will need to answer whether he “has what it takes.” He will need to clear an even higher bar: showing he has what it takes to go up against Mr. Trump, who is an unusually formidable combatant.

But with nearly a year to go until the heart of the primary season, it would be premature to reach any meaningful conclusions. Mr. DeSantis, Florida’s governor, isn’t even a declared candidate. The debates are still months away. We may not know yet whether he can go toe-to-toe with Mr. Trump, but we also don’t know that he can’t. That same sentence could have been written in January, when Mr. DeSantis was still riding high after his big midterm bump.

Yes, Mr. Trump is in a stronger position than he was several months ago. But it remains surprisingly unclear whether he has the kind of advantage that would make him an overwhelming favorite at this stage.

That’s partly because there’s still huge disagreement between pollsters over the size of Mr. Trump’s lead. In just the last few days, for instance, one reputable pollster had Mr. DeSantis leading in a one-on-one matchup by eight percentage points, while another had Mr. Trump well over 50 percent in a multicandidate race, with a 30-point lead against Mr. DeSantis. If either were “right” at the other’s expense, it would make the difference between a race where Mr. DeSantis could plausibly be considered a favorite and one where Mr. Trump would be very challenging to beat.

The lack of clarity is also partly a function of the race’s volatility and instability. Just a few months ago, Mr. Trump was probably stuck in the 30s. A year ago, he was in the mid-to-upper 50s. Now, he’s probably in the mid-40s on average. This volatility contains an important lesson: Many Republican voters are open to both Mr. Trump and Mr. DeSantis — they almost certainly have not made up their minds.

For years, analysts and pundits marveled at Mr. Trump’s unshakable base — a loyal constituency that rode with him through impeachment, investigation and countless missteps that might have doomed other politicians. The fact that he was in the mid-30s three months ago and trailing in just about every one-on-one matchup with Mr. DeSantis suggests his truly indestructible base of support, alone, is not enough to win the Republican nomination.

This next chapter of the Republican race might just be more volatile than the last. The consequences if Mr. Trump is indicted are impossible to predict. In the coming weeks or months, Mr. DeSantis will most likely announce his presidential bid and slowly sketch and test the outlines of his campaign — and his campaign against Mr. Trump. Even at that point, the debates will still loom sometime in the future. The outcome of the race will still be many chapters away.

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