When Ron DeSantis recently issued one of his most direct critiques of Donald Trump to date—saying the former president “denigrates military service by claiming it is ‘braver’ that he debated Hillary Clinton than what soldiers endure on the battlefield”—Trump’s team had a simple response: pointing to the scoreboard.
Fueled by persistently strong poll numbers in every primary state, the Trump campaign is increasingly shutting down criticism by reminding everyone that the former president is way ahead of his GOP rivals.
It’s a retort that no campaign seems to have an answer for—in a Republican Party increasingly run like a playground game of ‘King of the Hill.’
In the latest skirmish, Trump’s chief spokesman, Steven Cheung, didn’t engage with DeSantis’ actual point; he simply attacked DeSantis’ campaign performance.
“It’s over for Ron and he knows it,” Cheung wrote on X, quote-tweeting DeSantis’ attack on Trump. “Thats why he’s lashing out like an insane person, kind of like Hillary Clinton.”
Jeremy Redfern, DeSantis’ press secretary in the Florida governor’s office, saw Cheung’s tweet and replied with a screenshot of another damning Trump headline from the past.
Again, Cheung didn’t respond by addressing the headline. He just posted a photo of a recent poll showing how badly Trump is winning and DeSantis is losing—by 32 points in Iowa, precisely, according to the latest NBC News poll.
“Good morning, you idiot,” Cheung wrote on X to accompany his screenshot.
In November, when DeSantis picked a fight with California Gov. Gavin Newsom in a “Red State vs. Blue State Debate,” the Trump campaign once again mocked the Florida governor, turning not to anything DeSantis said but to poll numbers.
Debating Newsom made DeSantis little more than “a thirsty, third-rate Only Fans model,” Cheung wrote in another statement, citing polls that showed Trump “extending his lead to 59 points over DeSanctimonious.”
Poll after poll in this mostly stagnant slog of a Republican presidential primary has shown Trump with a commanding lead over his competition. From the early voting states of Iowa and New Hampshire, to the delegate-rich states later in the primary calendar, the former president’s hold on the GOP electorate has only seemed to deepen the more his challengers have campaigned.
The Trump team has already shown its disdain for the primary process by refusing to participate in any of the televised debates. At this point, they clearly feel the only appropriate response to any debate—televised or not—is to remind the competition that there isn’t really any competition.
And the attitude starts, of course, with a petty candidate obsessed with polls and eager to brandish them around with blunt force.
This dynamic of Trump floating above all attacks and grounding his defense in poll numbers hasn’t been lost on close observers of the primary.
“If one of these jokers made the race exciting and tight, I think President Trump and his team would be looking at it differently,” a source close to the Trump campaign told The Daily Beast. “But these guys just can’t move the needle.”
The Trump campaign shutting down any substantive criticism from the rest of the primary field suits them on two fronts. For one, the strategy insulates the former president from some of his biggest weaknesses—like his immense legal challenges, his messy record, and often contradictory public statements. But for another, it also reinforces his perceived strength as the one true leader of the Republican Party.
The rest of the field has done little to call Trump out on the scoreboard strategy.
When asked by The Daily Beast to respond to the Trump team mocking DeSantis aides online or pointing to his lead in the polls, the governor’s team went after a different rival—Nikki Haley—without mentioning Trump at all.
In reference to the fourth debate last week, DeSantis campaign press secretary Bryan Griffin said DeSantis “caused Nikki Haley to shrink into the backdrop as he reminded voters that she has caved on every significant fight as a leader: from taxes to protecting women and children to China. After that loss, it is no wonder why Haley has failed to confirm she will join Ron DeSantis on the debate stage in Iowa and New Hampshire next month.”
Reached for comment, Redfern declined to comment on his social media spat with Cheung, except to say he was acting in his personal capacity.
With Iowa and New Hampshire voters set to make their decisions in a matter of weeks, a vindication of Trump’s scoreboard strategy could come swiftly. While some recent polls show Trump leading his likely general election opponent, President Joe Biden, it’s clear Democrats are ready to point to a different scoreboard.
“I’m not sure the guy who got his ass kicked by seven million votes should be pointing to any scoreboard—anywhere—ever,” Biden campaign spokesperson Daniel Wessel told The Daily Beast.
“Donald Trump can be sure that if he’s who emerges from the field of MAGA Republicans, he will have to answer for paving the way for abortion bans across the country and supporting a national ban on abortion, trying to terminate the health care of 40 million Americans and promising to end American democracy and rule as a dictator on day one,” Wessel said.
While Trump hasn’t had to really address any of his GOP rivals, those in Trump’s camp suggest his team will engage more directly if and when he reaches the general election campaign.
Comparing Trump’s treatment of the primary field to a UFC fighter sparring with more friendly and weaker opponents in the build-up to a big fight, the Trumpworld operative said “he’s used this primary to get back in the swing of campaigning and political sparring.”
“And then he’ll be a little bit more prepared for the general,” this Trumpworld operative said.
The exceedingly macho comparison is the closest those in and around the Trump campaign will come to admitting that the former president has taken his foot off the gas in the home stretch of the primary. Instead, he’s been focused on his soon-to-be even more crowded court docket and finding ways to fundraise off of it, such as selling pieces of fabric from his mugshot suit in a set of 47 NFTs.
Former New Hampshire state lawmaker Al Baldasaro, an early Trump surrogate in 2016 who infamously called for the execution of Hillary Clinton, said Trump still has plenty of fire in him, even if the campaign just keeps pointing to the scoreboard.
“Of course Trump is running like he’s losing,” said Baldasaro, who currently advises the Trump campaign on veteran outreach. “He’s still holding plenty of rallies and getting out there. Even though he’s tied up in court, you would never know he has court stuff going on. Rather than sitting around like Biden or just going to union places, Trump is going around working it.”
Despite Baldasaro’s assurances, Trump hasn’t exactly kept an energetic primary schedule. Aside from skipping debates, he’s done fewer rallies than before and is hardly living on the campaign trail like his primary rivals are.
Doug Brinkley, one of the nation’s top presidential historians, told The Daily Beast that Trump is running like he is an incumbent president, “and basically insisting the election was rigged and he should be in the White House.”
There’s also Trump’s own disposition of dismissing and denigrating all challengers to his throne atop the GOP.
“It’s an old New York style, that you act imperious and treat people that are throwing fiery darts at you and you just brush ’em away, treat them like dandruff,” Brinkley said. “And so it’s kind of a boss man style; these are just minnows trying to go after me.”
Still, Trump is not in the clear yet. How he spends the final weeks before the primaries get going could prove more consequential if the race is tighter than polls suggest.
But aside from Chris Christie’s persistent effort to make the former president’s character a core issue of the primary, the remaining rival campaigns have found it difficult to work through Trump’s media chokehold, even as his campaign continues to punch down.
Although the Trump campaign drastically ratcheted down their attacks on DeSantis as he slid further into irrelevance, they’re still more than happy to use the governor to hammer home the incumbent strategy.
While Haley has yet to commit to CNN’s scheduled January debate in Iowa—and it’s unclear if anyone else left can even qualify—Trump took unreturned swings at DeSantis for months before the Florida governor launched his campaign. From the Trumpworld perspective, that’s when the policy battle was already won.
“I think Trump did hit them on policy,” the source close to the Trump campaign said, citing the former president’s barrage of attacks on DeSantis over Medicare and Social Security in April as the best example. Yet as those in Trumpworld keep emphasizing, in their view, the war was already lost by the summer.
“DeSantis is in complete and total denial,” the Trumpworld operative said, “and Nikki is just Nikki.”
Haley, however, is the only candidate who could make Trump pay for taking his foot off the gas in the home stretch, especially if she can win New Hampshire, Brinkley said.
“New Hampshire loves a town hall style and public debate, so it could hurt Trump in New Hampshire, meaning it’s an opportunity for Nikki Haley to outperform,” Brinkley said. “So she might be able to put up some great numbers in New Hampshire that would cause the media to give her a second look. That’s the greatest danger.”
For longtime Trump allies like Baldasaro, who remember Trump never once leading Clinton in a major poll in 2016, the scoreboard approach has its limits.
“His numbers are still looking good,” Baldasaro said, “but I don’t believe the polls. You never know what can happen.”