This past weekend, Donald Trump’s absolute dominance of the Republican Party was solidified. Within the span of a couple of days, Mr Trump earned the endorsement of fellow presidential candidates Senator Tim Scott of South Carolina and Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, whom he perpetually demeaned.
Mr DeSantis’s decision to exit the race will likely hurt former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley ahead of the New Hampshire primary. Many of his supporters will likely flock to Mr Trump, therefore widening Mr Trump’s expected margin of victory on Tuesday 23 January. Mr Scott’s endorsement adds another body blow to Ms Haley, given that back in 2012, she was the one who nominated him to fill South Carolina’s open Senate seat, catapulting him to national fame.
On Monday, Congresswoman Nancy Mace of South Carolina also announced that she would endorse Mr Trump. That’s the same Ms Mace who said, after 6 January 2021, that Mr Trump’s “entire legacy was wiped out yesterday”. Not only that, but Mr Trump endorsed her primary opponent in 2022. And she and Ms Haley are both Republican women from South Carolina. The significance of Ms Mace’s endorsement, therefore, can’t be overstated.
The avalanche of endorsements Mr Trump received after his devastating victory in the Iowa caucuses shows that Republican elites have acknowledged what everyone else already knew but would not dare to say: the Republican presidential primary is essentially over. It’s the Trump party now.
Primary contests often end before candidates secure the sufficient amount of delegates. Joe Biden all but won the Democratic nomination after winning the South Carolina primary in 2020. That led to a similar cascade of endorsements, because Democratic lawmakers knew he would win in the multiple Southern states where the majority of Democratic voters were Black, on Super Tuesday. John McCain’s victory in New Hampshire put him on a glide path to winning the Republican nomination, given that he beat Mitt Romney from neighboring Massachusetts.
Essentially, party elites need permission to get behind the person they see as the frontunner.
Many Republican lawmakers said they would “support” but not “endorse” Mr Trump in 2016 because he won a more split field that allowed him to clinch the nomination without a majority. That meant they did not know the depth of his support within the GOP electorate. Many assumed he would lose the general election. As a result, they did not want to tie themselves to someone who might damage their own prospects.
Those fears no longer exist. Mr Trump cleared a majority in Iowa and could potentially do so in New Hampshire. Most Republican voters have an almost fanatical devotion to Mr Trump and the fact he won the presidency once, narrowly lost it in 2020 and now largely leads Mr Biden in many polls in multiple swing states means he feels like a much safer bet.
Even Republican elected officials who do not particularly like Mr Trump will likely get behind him in the coming weeks to maintain some future political viability.
Of course, Ms Haley could easily argue that posting a better-than-expected performance in New Hampshire allows her to survive and advance to her home state’s primary. But that only sets her up for a humiliating defeat in South Carolina and damages her future prospects, to say nothing about her serving in a hypothetical future Trump administration.
No bigger evidence exists of the general election’s commencement than the Biden campaign’s words. Over the weekend – to commemorate the anniversary of Roe v Wade – Mr Biden’s campaign released an ad featuring a female doctor in Texas talking about how she could not terminate a pregnancy of a fetus with a fatal condition. The ad firmly places the blame for the woman’s plight on Mr Trump, who has bragged repeatedly about nominating the Supreme Court justices who killed Roe v Wade.
Conversely, the Biden campaign only mentions Nikki Haley in the context of Mr Trump mixing her up with former House speaker Nancy Pelosi. Obviously, that is meant to draw attention to Mr Trump’s frequently nonsensical ramblings.
On Monday, Ms Haley went on conservative talk host Hugh Hewitt’s show to say “a vote for Joe Biden is a vote for Kamala Harris”. Yet the vice-president, who has sought to rehabilitate her image and who regularly criticised Mr DeSantis last year, has felt little need to respond to Ms Haley.
Both Mr Biden’s focus on and the Republican establishment’s coalescing around Mr Trump shows that the primary contest is all but unofficially over. Now is the time for Washington to brace itself for the long slog of an 11-month general election.