In 2015, I invited Ivanka Trump to join the FT table at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner. At that time, her father had yet to announce his intention to run for president, and she was not a figure of global controversy. But even then, I was struck by her dedication to image management and clever messaging. She arrived looking impeccable and, during dinner, she was achingly polite, speaking to everyone at the table rather than running off to hang with grander guests or shoulder surfing for more powerful people, as is Washington custom.
The next morning, a long handwritten thank-you letter arrived. “Wow,” I thought, wondering how she had found the time. I realised that she was someone for whom no symbol was too small when it came to projecting the right image.
A decade on, it’s a point that anyone studying current American politics should note. Last month, Donald Trump finally did what he had been promising to do and declared his intention to run for president in 2024 as a Republican. The news left many anti-Trump observers reeling at the thought of a possible second term. Opinion polls during most of the past year indicated that the former president was the favoured nominee of most GOP voters. A survey last month by Politico and the business intelligence company Morning Consult suggested 47 per cent of Republican and Republican-leaning voters would back Trump if the Republican primary was held today — a far higher level than for any other candidate.
These are serious numbers. Yet among many senior Republicans there are doubts about whether the former president could actually prevail in a general election. I suspect Ivanka also has her doubts. When Trump announced his candidacy in Mar-a-Lago, surrounded by supporters and family, his daughter was nowhere to be seen. (The FT Weekend Magazine reported that her husband, Jared Kushner, was present.) This is a sharp contrast to 2016, when Ivanka was constantly at his side.
Ivanka says she is focusing on raising her children. But knowing how acutely she understands the meaning of small signals, I doubt it is the only explanation. Judging from the vibe among her friends, I suspect she also wants to keep her distance from a campaign that looks, at best, messy and, at worst, likely to fail.
It is easy to see why she might feel this way. Quite apart from the ongoing tax and legal probes facing Trump and the revelations surrounding his role in the January 6 uprising, there are also signs of a political shift taking place.
Take Utah. Strongly pro-Trump in the past, a poll of voters last week by Deseret News and the Hinckley Institute put Trump in third place as the preferred presidential candidate. Similarly, a new survey by the Republican Party of Texas suggests that Trump now trails Ron DeSantis, Florida’s recently re-elected governor, as their preferred candidate by 11 percentage points, whereas a month ago he was the clear favourite. On the Election Betting Odds platform, DeSantis is currently deemed to have a 29 per cent chance of victory; Trump just 14 per cent.
Some of this may reflect the fact that Trump crossed a line when he tried to block the peaceful transfer of power. But I also blame a more prosaic factor: boredom. When he sat tweeting in the White House, Trump mesmerised the world because his tactics broke the mould in a shocking and unpredictable way. It was akin to watching reality TV.
But as any television producer knows, formats can become tired when they are overused. Trump’s political brand looks like that: even when he makes outrageous gestures — say, by calling for the Constitution to be rolled back last week — it sparks a smaller storm than before. (Admittedly, he no longer uses Twitter.) Political pundits don’t feel compelled to discuss him all the time. Neither do voters.
This may be a temporary phenomenon. Steve Bannon, the former Trump strategist, tells me that Trump’s appeal remains very potent given widespread economic pain and frustration with leftwing “woke” culture. His team knows that if the other Republican presidential candidates split the anti-Trump vote, this could enable them to triumph. Meanwhile, some senior Republicans tell me that they fear that if Trump loses the Republican nomination, he might run as a third-party candidate,
possibly helping the Democrats.
It would be wrong to count Trump out. But it is also wrong to assume that he can triumph, even if the Democrats keep talking up a “Trump threat” in order to mobilise their base. Trump no longer looks like the obvious, all-conquering winner he loves to boast of being. Ever the dedicated fashionista, Ivanka has already spied the new trend.
Follow Gillian on Twitter @gilliantett and email her at [email protected]
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