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How Trump Took Control of the GOP Primary

This was the scene Donald Trump wanted. After a landslide win in the Iowa caucuses, the former President took a stage festooned with American flags. He had just dealt a blow to his main challengers, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley. Before speaking, he paused for a moment to bask in the crowd’s cheers. “I want to congratulate Ron and Nikki for having a good time together,” Trump said. “We’re all having a good time.”

By the time the voting began on Monday night, the triumph was almost a foregone conclusion. Trump has been such a dominant figure in the 2024 GOP field that it’s easy to forget how shaky his prospects seemed at the outset of his campaign. He launched his third bid for the White House in Nov. 2022, days after Republicans took a beating in the midterms—the third straight national election in which the former President was a drag on his party. Trump’s hand-picked candidates, who embraced his lie that the 2020 election was stolen, lost critical races across the country. Many Republicans took it as a sign the American electorate was done with Trump. The skepticism was only heightened by a desultory, grievance-riddled kickoff speech at Mar-a-Lago. For a moment, Trump looked like a spent force.

Read More: A Defiant Trump Enters the Arena For Another Fight

Fifteen months later, the former President is in a commanding position to secure his third Republican nomination in eight years. Nothing has slowed him down—not 91 felony charges in four separate criminal cases; not a jury finding him liable for sexual abuse in a civil case, or his ongoing civil fraud trial; not the stain of unleashing a mob of supporters who violently attacked the U.S. Capitol; not recent campaign rhetoric that has grown ever more vengeful and draconian.

Any of these things might end the career of another politician. Not Trump. The FiveThirtyEight polling average has 63% of Republicans nationwide supporting him. While general election surveys at this stage of the election have little predictive value, he’s polling far better in both national and battleground state polls against President Joe Biden than he ever did in 2020.

Despite the contempt of his critics, Trump’s 2024 campaign has been marked by a series of savvy bets that have helped him defy the laws of political gravity. Pundits scoffed about his decision to launch his campaign so early, only to keep an extremely light schedule, but it served as a warning sign to would-be rivals. Before the election season got fully underway, he exploited his control of the Republican National Committee—his chosen chairwoman, Ronna McDaniel, has been at the helm since 2017—and state GOP parties to craft a favorable primary schedule. For instance, Nevada’s Republican Party, packed with Trump allies, decided to hold a caucus instead of a traditional primary, which plays into Trump’s hands. It also restricted the activities of super PACs, a move designed to hurt DeSantis, who leans heavily on his.

It was part of a relentless effort to clip the momentum of a candidate most observers saw as Trump’s most formidable challenger before the Florida governor had entered the race. By then, Trump had reduced him to caricature—nicknaming him “Ron DeSanctimonious,” mocking his campaign missteps, unleashing an army of disciples to troll DeSantis, and gobbling up endorsements from his state’s congressional delegation. The attacks undercut DeSantis’s attempt to market himself as a competent conservative who could implement the MAGA agenda without the chaos and dysfunction that follows Trump.

The former President also found a way to turn an avalanche of legal trouble into a political advantage. A politician with a unique ability to make everything about himself managed to frame the array of criminal charges against him—for everything from hoarding national security secrets and obstructing the government’s efforts to retrieve them to conspiring to prevent a peaceful transfer of power—as an attack on his supporters instead. Trump used his legal woes as a calling card for those who feel their way of life is under attack. “I am your retribution,” he told a gathering of conservative activists in March. The government was coming after him, he said, because he was a warrior for them. Each subsequent indictment prompted the party to close ranks around him more tightly.

Read More: The Trump 'Revenge Show.'

His success at this was partly a stroke of luck. Trump benefited from Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg’s office filing the first criminal charges against him, which alleged Trump falsified financial records to conceal hush money payments to Stormy Daniels in the run-up to the 2016 election. It was the weakest of the cases against Trump, and to many it was old news. Trump cast the charges as politically motivated. The claim—endorsed by his primary rivals—framed the public’s perception of more serious indictments to come. Trump made his criminal prosecutions central to his case for the nation’s highest office. With each indictment, he raised millions of dollars and rose in the polls. His campaign sold t-shirts and other memorabilia featuring his mug shot.

Read More: How Criminal Charges Against Trump Could Boost His 2024 Campaign.

Trump’s opponents helped him too. He was buoyed by a field that has been too fearful or too cautious to target his vulnerabilities. Even his top two challengers, DeSantis and Haley, have remained deferential as they’ve sought to wrest the nomination from his grip. “He was the right president for the right time,” Haley says. Only Chris Christie, who dropped out last week, called Trump a threat to American democracy.

To this point, the race has been a reflection of how Trump has remade the GOP to his liking. Ambitious Republicans with an eye on the future were wary of attacking Trump directly, lest they run afoul of his base. Through sheer force of will and the muscle of his influence among movement conservatives, he transformed America’s oldest surviving political party into a cult of personality.

Read More: Nikki Haley’s Slow Burn Was No Accident.

None of this means Trump will win the presidency, or even that his full-throttle political style will help him over the next 10 months. U.S. presidential elections are notoriously unpredictable and Trump has profound political liabilities. In recent years, surveys have found that nearly half of Americans rank him among the worst presidents ever. He faces massive legal peril in four separate jurisdictions and will likely have to spend more time in a courtroom than on the campaign trail over the coming year. Millions of Americans recoil at the memory of his first term, the images of a mob in MAGA hats storming the Capitol. In November, he would need to win over skeptical voters—unlike the crowd of diehards who braved frigid sub-zero temperatures to help him claim a dominant victory Monday night.

“He's gonna do everything he says he’s gonna do,” says Tammy Hechart, a 52-year-old realtor from Ankeny, Iowa. “He's gonna fix the wall. He's gonna fix the economy. It's gonna be awesome.” Others called his victory a vindication for Trump and the MAGA movement. “It feels even sweeter that people think they can use the courts as a way to win elections,” says Natalie Blasingame, a retired teacher from Texas who traveled all the way to Iowa to see Trump, echoing his unsubstantiated claims that his indictments are designed to damage his political aspirations.

The margin of victory made it hard to see how and where his rivals were capable of unseating him. “How are they going to put a dent in him?” asked Kari Lake, the GOP Arizona Senate candidate. “Who?”

Contact us at letters@time.com.