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So different in 2015…. Trump descends the escalator to tell the world he’s running
By Anthony Zurcher-North America correspondent
Donald Trump has announced his third-straight presidential bid, in an extremely rare attempt by a former US leader to recapture the White House after losing an election.
The former president’s aides are saying this announcement – and this campaign – will look more like 2016 than 2020, according to reports. Stripped of the powers of office, Mr Trump will frame himself as an outsider, seeking to disrupt a political establishment on the left and right that views him with hostility.
In 2016, despite seemingly long odds, Mr Trump first beat his Republican rivals and then narrowly defeated Democrat Hillary Clinton, who was seeking to win a third consecutive White House term for her party.
It was an improbable achievement but one that showcased Mr Trump’s undeniable strengths as a candidate.
He has an unmatched sense of which issues are important to grass-roots conservatives. His unpredictable and inflammatory style can drive news coverage and deny the spotlight to his competitors. He has a base of loyal supporters and can motivate typically unengaged Americans to vote. And after four years in office, many of those supporters hold positions of authority within the Republican Party.
Even so, there’s reason to believe the task ahead of him will be a daunting one. Here’s why.
- Running with a record
Eight years ago, Mr Trump was a political blank slate. With no record as an officeholder, voters could project their hopes and desires onto him. He could make expansive promises – so much winning! – without critics pointing to past shortcomings and failures.
That’s not the case anymore. While Mr Trump had some notable policy achievements during his four years in office, including tax cuts and criminal justice reform, he also had some prominent failures.
Republicans will remember his inability to repeal Democratic healthcare reforms and his repeated promises of infrastructure investment that never came to fruition. And then there’s Mr Trump’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic, which could open him up to attacks on multiple fronts.
Democrats have long criticised his response as insufficiently aggressive, but there are some on the right who believe he went too far in supporting government-mandated mitigation efforts.
- The shadow of January 6
Mr Trump won’t just have to run on his policy record as president, either. He will have to defend the way he handled the end of his presidency, and his role in the 6 January attack on the US Capitol.
The images of that day, with supporters waving Trump banners amid the teargas as they ransacked the Capitol and temporarily halted the peaceful transition of power, will not be easily forgotten.
The midterm elections demonstrated that what happened that day – and Mr Trump’s words and actions in the weeks leading up to it – may still be influencing voter behaviour.
Many Republican candidates who offered full-throated support for Mr Trump’s refusal to accept the results of the 2020 election lost. Lots of them underperformed other Republican candidates in their states who were not outspoken in their election-denial.
- Legal headaches
One of the reasons floated for why Mr Trump appears so eager to launch another presidential bid is because it will allow him to more effectively frame his multiple criminal and civil investigations as part of a larger political vendetta.
While that might work for public-relations purposes, Mr Trump’s legal exposure in these cases is very real.
The former president currently is defending against a criminal election-tampering inquiry in Georgia, a civil fraud case targeting his business empire in New York, a defamation lawsuit involving a sexual assault allegation, and federal probes into his role in the Capitol attack and his post-presidential handling of classified material.
Any of these investigations could lead to full-blown trials that would dominate the headlines and at least temporarily derail Mr Trump’s campaign plans.
At best for him, it would be a costly distraction. A worst-case scenario would include massive financial penalties or prison.
- A tougher opponent
As the Republican presidential contest began eight years ago, Mr Trump faced off against a Florida governor considered to be the party’s prohibitive favourite. Jeb Bush, however, proved a paper tiger.
A massive campaign war chest and a famous last name was not enough. He was out of step with the Republican base on immigration and education policy. And the Bush name didn’t carry the power within the party that it once did.
If Mr Trump wants the nomination in 2024, he may once again have to go through a Florida governor.
Unlike Mr Bush, however, Ron DeSantis just won an overwhelming re-election victory that suggests he is in tune with his party’s core supporters. While he has yet to be tested on the national stage, his political star is ascending.
It’s unclear if Mr DeSantis will run, or who else will enter the Republican presidential contest at this point.
The Florida governor could emerge as the consensus pick among the party faithful not interested in giving Mr Trump another shot. If so, Republican voters may have the kind of binary choice that will improve their odds of stopping Mr Trump before his nomination is secured.
- Popularity woes
On the eve of Mr Trump’s presidential announcement, a conservative group released a series of polls that showed Mr Trump trailing Ron DeSantis in a head-to-head matchup by double-digits among Republican voters in Iowa and New Hampshire.
Those states hold votes early in the Republican nomination process.
Mr DeSantis also led by 26 points in Florida and by 20 in Georgia, which has a Senate run-off election in December. In all these states, Mr Trump’s numbers were well down on previous surveys.
According to exit polls from the recently concluded midterm elections, Mr Trump is simply not very popular – including in the key states he would need to win to secure the presidency in a general election.
In New Hampshire, only 30% of voters said they wanted Mr Trump to run for president again. Even in Florida, that number only rose to 33%.
Of course, Mr Trump overcame net-negative views of his candidacy in 2015 as well. But after eight years as a political figure on the national stage, those views may be much less likely to change this time around.
- Father time
If he wins the presidency, Mr Trump would be 78 years old when he’s sworn in. And while that’s the same age Joe Biden was when he moved in to the White House, it would make him the second-oldest president in US history.
Time takes its toll in different ways on different people, but the increasing burdens of age are inevitable.
There’s no guarantee that Mr Trump can withstand the kind of rigorous campaigning required to win the Republican nomination – particularly one where he will probably be pitted against much younger candidates.
Mr Trump has shown remarkable endurance in the past, but every man has his limits.