Political pundits may be done with Trump, but GOP voters are not
If you are one of the millions of Americans who desperately want the country to move on from Donald Trump and his poisonous brand of politics, I have some bad news – he is the odds-on favorite to be Republican presidential candidate in 2024.
I don’t make the rules here (nor am I happy to), but the numbers don’t lie. In it latest poll from polling firm Morning ConsultTrump wins 49 percent of the GOP field, giving him a 19 percentage point lead over his closest rival, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. Those results are reflected in nearly every recent poll of GOP voters as Trump continues to rally support of 40 to 50 per cent by Republicans.
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Those numbers could certainly change by next year when GOP voters go to the polls. But what would Trump have to do to lose their support? He has already incited an insurgency, continues to deny that he lost the 2020 election, and mishandled a pandemic that has killed more than a million Americans to date. Short of hailing Barack Obama as the greatest president in American history, calling for critical race theory curricula to be adopted nationwide, or endorsing drive-thru abortion clinics, it’s hard to see what would make these true believers give up Trump.
Now as Nathaniel Rakich points out in FiveThirtyEight, there is an unusual dynamic in the GOP poll that suggests Trump is vulnerable. When pollsters ask GOP voters about multiple presidential candidates, Trump is well ahead. But in a mock head-to-head matchup with DeSantis, the Florida governor emerges as the winner. It suggests that supporters of single-digit Republicans such as former Vice President Mike Pence, Senator Ted Cruz or former UN Ambassador Nikki Haley do not want to see Trump get the nod again. If none of those candidates throw their hats in the ring — and DeSantis had the “Anyone But Trump” vote to himself — he could prevail.
But probably the opposite will happen. Take Haley for example. In April 2021 said that she would not enter the presidential election if Trump ran. Now she is hire staff, reach out to donors, and is preparing to hit the hustings in 2024. Part of the reason for Haley’s pivot is undoubtedly the popular notion that Trump is vulnerable to an internal challenge. Paradoxically, the weaker Trump looks, the more it encourages GOP hopefuls to run in 2024…but more candidates actually increases the likelihood that Trump will end up as the nominee.
In fact, one of the peculiarities of the Republican primary process is that it is largely one winner-take-all system. Delegates are not distributed proportionally (as is the case with Democrats). So a Republican candidate who wins a primary in a crowded field, with, say, 30-40 percent of the vote, still wins all the delegates. Incidentally, this is exactly how Trump emerged victorious from a crowded GOP field in 2016.
Yet there is another dynamic from seven years ago that also benefited Trump: Republican candidates joined forces, leaving him largely untouched. Famous, in a crucial debate before the New Hampshire primary, then-New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie flayed Florida Sen. Marco Rubio — believing that weakening Rubio would push him up in the polls and make him the most likely alternative to Trump. How did it work out?
The same process may be repeated in 2024.
Right now, DeSantis has emerged as the most likely non-Trump GOP alternative. But instead of attacking Trump — who Republicans have largely avoided for fear he’d post something vicious about them on Truth Social — 2024 wannabes are far more likely to go after DeSantis. This is not a unique dynamic. In presidential nominating contests with crowded fields with multiple candidates. The also-runners often try to tear down the candidate who is in second place and ignore the one in first.
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But for Republicans, there’s a different dynamic at play — attacking DeSantis is a surefire way to curry favor with Trump that could pay long-term dividends. Case in point: earlier this month, the press secretary for South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem, another 2024 GOP aspirant, filed for DeSantis to settle for Florida’s 15-week abortion ban and not push for a more restrictive law. “Does he believe that 14-week-old babies have no right to live?” Noem’s chief spokesman said in an interview with the conservatively oriented National Review.
According to The Daily Beast, Noem’s gambit was a message to Trump. She will be his running mate in 2024, and what better way to increase her odds than to go after his chief rival, DeSantis?
Noem makes an astute, arguably inspired political calculation. Pretty much everything would need to fall his way to emerge as the 2024 GOP nominee. Her better path to the White House is to run with Trump. Even if they lose (which is probably the most likely outcome in a head-to-head race with Joe Biden), Noem would be well positioned to run in 2028. Not only would she have gained invaluable name recognition, but she can probably count with Trump’s support. If they somehow win, she’ll be vice president!
Other Republicans staring at single-digit poll results and anemic fundraising numbers may be able to make the same calculation as Noem.
That creates the second paradox of the 2024 campaign: The political incentive for nearly all Republicans running is to attack DeSantis, not Trump. Given that DeSantis’ national numbers are likely inflated (few Republicans outside of Florida know that much about him), it could make for a brutal campaign. And that’s not even mentioning that his refusal to bend the knee to Trump ensures that the former president will take every opportunity he can to cut him. As we saw in 2016, Trump will not fight fair — and will likely spend his time mocking DeSantis’ height, weight and voice, all the while claiming he would never have been governor without Trump’s support (which is kind of true). .
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Again, if all of this sounds like a repeat of the nightmare that was the 2016 campaign…that’s because it is.
Republicans unwilling to attack Trump are targeting his biggest rival as they jockey for the non-Trump mantle. If he does, he leaves him unscathed and fails to weaken his unwavering support in the party, which is less than a majority but, in a winner-take-all primary system, good enough to run the table and win the partisanship .
Of course, much could happen in the next year to change this potential outcome. Trump could be impeached. Republican voters may finally decide they’ve had enough of him. The party could unite around DeSantis in a desperate attempt to stop Trump.
Anything is possible, and only a fool would predict how a Republican nomination battle will play out. But the new dynamic in the race is becoming more and more clear: It is Trump’s to lose.
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