Why Trump’s GOP Rivals Aren’t Completely Wasting Their Time

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As he closed out the gun lobby’s biggest annual gathering on Friday with an hour-long keynote, Donald Trump had tough words for Communists, foreign wars, critics of Christianity, and supporters of transgender rights—oh, and his former Vice President.

“I hope you gave Pence a good warm approval,” Trump said, clearly knowing his potential rival for the 2024 nomination had been welcomed earlier with a smattering of boos. “No, because he is a nice man. If you want to really know the truth, he is, he’s a good man. And I heard it was very rough.” To be clear: Trump is polling right around 50% among Republican voters, while Pence is stuck at 6%.

Trump also couldn’t help but take a swipe at Ron DeSantis, mocking the potential rival who appeared by video as “DeSanctus,” despite enjoying a robust roughly 24-point advantage over the Florida Governor.

If all of this seems typically petty for the former President, it is. But Trump’s punching down is not without reason. Despite retaining a clear frontrunner status for his party’s nomination next year, it’s not as strong a footing as it may seem at first glance. While the prospects of multiple indictments loom, Trump’s biggest latent flaw is hiding in plain sight.

Both the order and the rules surrounding next year’s Republican primaries remain in flux. How they shake out could set Trump up to do good, but not great, in the first few contests, with one or more competitors drawing enough support that it punctures the air of invincibility around the former President heading into the free-for-all elections that follow. After all, Lyndon Johnson came within six points of losing the New Hampshire primary in 1968; two weeks later, he bowed out of the campaign altogether.

The so-called Early States have to award their delegates proportionally, although each can implement a bare minimum of as high as 20% of the vote to qualify for even a single delegate. After that early window, most of the states will shift to a winner-take-all model, though some may choose to split the spoils based on congressional districts rather than statewide totals.

But of course, all of this requires an important hedge: virtually everything about next year’s primaries remains subject to change. There is no hardened calendar yet. The outline of a schedule exists, although ultimately it is up to every individual state to decide when and how to execute their nominating events, down to whether the format is a one-person-one-vote election, a caucus held in various church basements and bingo halls, or even a party convention where—if history has shown us time and again—extremists have their best chance of grabbing hold and derailing campaigns, if not careers.

There are plenty of opportunities for state legislators, party leaders, election chiefs, and some Governors to get hinky with the nominating calendar here. No one can reliably win a contest without a basic understanding of the rules. Those rules, for what it’s worth, aren’t even due to the Republican National Committee until Oct. 1.

Further complicating matters: Republicans in some states might not actually have the final say on when their nominating contest takes place. In Maryland, for instance, the Democratic legislature has hinted it has plans to move the state’s current winner-take-all tentatively scheduled for April 23, 2024, to avoid a conflict with Passover. Similar conflicts are playing out in Delaware, Pennsylvania, and Rhode Island; moving too far ahead, though, could strip the power to run winner-take-all contests and give an edge to candidates who can pass the minimum viability test. Go too far afield, and parties could trigger penalties for delegates, as is shaping up under a plan backed by Michigan’s Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer that could cost her state’s Republican comrades seats at the GOP convention for going too early.

Or take New Hampshire, a state that by law has to have the first-in-the-nation primary. (Folks in Concord, N.H., dismiss Iowa’s caucuses as a curiosity and not anything to be taken as a true peer.) National Democrats have taken steps to downgrade New Hampshire’s importance in favor of South Carolina, arguing it is a more representative snapshot of the party’s electorate. The Democratic National Committee has told New Hampshire that it has until June to find an offramp and a later date. But New Hampshire leaders—led by Republican Gov. Chris Sununu, who may on his own end up becoming a 2024 contender still—have rejected that and are planning to plow forward with its lead-off contest. “I dare you: come and take it,” Sununu said last month.

So New Hampshire—or other jailbreak states—could find itself with a meaningless contest for delegates, a raft of party activists sidelined at the conventions, and plenty of uncertainty if the parties would make good on threats to punish candidates who play in scofflaw states. (The most obvious precedent is Democrats’ punishment of Michigan and Florida in 2008 for hopscotching ahead; the delegates were seated, but got only one-half of a vote apiece.)

To be clear, Trump clearly has advantages at the moment that simply cannot be matched: the power of being a former President, a two-time national nominee, a fundraising machine that looks formidable if untested for one last huzzah. And he’s not exactly clueless to the complexities of winning a presidential nomination. In 2016, facing a floor revolt at his nominating convention in Cleveland, he deputized some of the smartest rules-masters in the GOP and dodged a disastrous insurrection. In 2020, his campaign team shrewdly started working the refs early to either cancel primaries or to make them more difficult for his challengers. This time around, Trump’s team is hardly being coy about the steps they’re considering to make Trump’s ascent less difficult, and his rivals are taking notice of his efforts to woo party insiders in case he needs them.

Still, the nominating matrix is a tough one, and the Republican one changes with every state border that is crossed. For candidates not named Trump, a fluid path to the nomination favors those who are nimble and can flex person-to-person retail stops. For all the trappings of the former Presidency, the agility to wing a schedule does not work in any meaningful way. Popping into states is easy when expectations are low; things get tougher for candidates who demand enormous crowds. The most compelling speech of Robert F. Kennedy’s 1968 campaign was an on-the-fly set of remarks delivered from the back of a pick-up truck in Indianapolis, hours after Dr. Martin Luther King had been assassinated.

This all help explains why none of the cohort of Republicans looking to challenge Trump are entirely irrational individuals. Still, knowing Trump’s instincts, there are better than even odds he thinks suckerpunches downward may have more impact than anything his quants might tally for slide decks. Just ask Pence and DeSantis how their latest run-ins with their former patron have gone.

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Write to Philip Elliott at philip.elliott@time.com