Former President Donald Trump listens during a deposition in New York,...

Former President Donald Trump listens during a deposition in New York, as part of state Attorney General Letitia James' civil investigation. Trump faces serious ongoing legal troubles in New York and Georgia. Credit: AP

At first glance the Republican presidential campaign is shaping up to be bizarrely normal. In a deeper sense, however, it is profoundly bizarre. Of course the reason is former President Donald Trump.

Start with how normal it is. There’s the frontrunner who has already declared, and held his first public events of the year last weekend. Then there are several unofficial candidates. Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida, who has the most traction in the polls so far and support in Republican-aligned media, is gearing up. So are former Gov. Nikki Haley of South Carolina, former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, former Governor Asa Hutchinson of Arkansas and former Vice President Mike Pence. Several others, including Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, Senator Tim Scott of South Carolina, Governor Brian Kemp of Georgia, Governor Chris Sununu of New Hampshire, have been visited by the Great Mentioner.

In the 2016 campaign, Cruz announced on March 23, 2015, followed in April by two more of the eventual 17 candidates. Democrats were a bit quicker in 2020 — former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Julián Castro, Senator Kamala Harris of California, and three minor candidates had officially announced by February 2019 — but most of the 29 (!) candidates waited until later.

So in terms of both the number of possible candidates and the timing of their announcements, it all seems … unnervingly normal. Don’t be fooled. There’s a lot about this campaign that is extremely unusual — on its own and as compared to 2016.

For starters, there’s a former president running for the first time in more than 100 years. And it’s not just that: He’s a twice-impeached former president, one whom seven members of his own party voted to convict. (1)

That’s not all! He’s also facing serious ongoing legal troubles in New York and Georgia, and is being investigated by a special counsel appointed by the Justice Department. And while there’s plenty of Republican grumbling about Trump, including blaming him for the party’s poorer-than-expected 2022 election results, there’s been hardly a peep from Republicans about the fact that their frontrunner could be indicted — multiple times — even before the Iowa caucuses.

Then there’s Trump’s image. Eight years ago, he had no governing experience at all. Now he’s a former president. Back then, he was popularly known as a business-savvy billionaire from reality television. Now only his supporters view him that way; many if not most Americans see him as a liar about the election and a fomenter of the attack on the Capitol. Back then, many voters saw him as more blunt and more moderate than typical Republicans. Now? It’s hard even to understand half of what he says, unless you spend a lot of time immersed in the world of the Republican-aligned media.

His circumstances within the party have also changed. (2) In 2016 almost every party actor opposed him until he started winning primaries, and even then he had relatively few endorsements until wrapping up the nomination. In 2020, he had the full backing of the party with the exception of a small group of Never Trumpers, many of whom were no longer even Republicans. This time around, he is more like Mitt Romney in 2012, or John McCain or Hillary Clinton in 2008 — which is to say, more endorsements and other party support than any other candidate, but not enough to necessarily guarantee the nomination. At least so far.

There were also fluky circumstances that helped Trump win in 2016. Whether it was Marco Rubio collapsing (twice) in crucial debates just as he had picked up support, or Jeb Bush and others refusing to drop out when they no longer had a reasonable chance, or the irrational campaign of John Kasich — Trump benefited from a series of events and decisions that are unlikely to be repeated.

Nothing is impossible. Trump or someone else could win in Iowa and New Hampshire with only a small plurality. But to get the nomination, whoever wins will probably need majority support in most states — as Joe Biden had among Democrats in 2020. There’s too much speculation that Trump will benefit from a crowded field, as he did in 2016.

The 2024 campaign is already very different from 2016, and it’s likely to become even more so. It’s not that it’s too early to say whether Trump will win the nomination — it’s that there’s never been a presidential campaign like this one.


(1) Nor is it normal to have a former vice president, whom the president’s supporters despise, running against his former boss. Usually I’d point out that current and former vice presidents are often underrated candidates, but — again, this year's circumstances are not normal.

(2) That is, among those in the party network who typically take an active role in nomination contests, as opposed to ordinary Republican voters. There is some polling indicating what voters are thinking, but such early polls tend not to be very predictive.

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering politics and policy. A former professor of political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University, he wrote A Plain Blog About Politics. This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

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