If you’re one of the millions of Americans who want desperately for the country to move on from Donald Trump and his toxic brand of politics, I’ve got some bad news—he’s the odds-on favorite to be the 2024 Republican nominee for president.
I don’t make the rules here (and I’m not happy about it either), but the numbers don’t lie. In the latest poll from the polling firm Morning Consult, Trump is winning 49 percent of the GOP field, which gives him a 19 percentage point lead over his nearest rival, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. These results are mirrored in nearly every recent poll of GOP voters as Trump continues to garner the support of 40 to 50 percent of Republicans.
Those numbers could certainly change before next year when GOP voters head to the polls. But what would Trump have to do to lose their support? He’s already incited an insurrection, continues to deny that he lost the 2020 election, and mishandled a pandemic that has, to date, killed more than one million Americans. Other than praising Barack Obama as the greatest president in U.S. history, calling for critical race theory curricula to be adopted nationwide, or endorsing drive-thru abortion clinics, it’s hard to see what would cause these true believers to abandon Trump.
Now, as Nathaniel Rakich points out in FiveThirtyEight, there is an unusual dynamic in the GOP polling 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, it’s the Florida governor who emerges as the winner. That suggests supporters of single-digit Republicans like former Vice President Mike Pence, Sen. Ted Cruz, or former UN Ambassador Nikki Haley don’t want to see Trump get the nod again. If none of these candidates throw their hats in the ring—and DeSantis had the “Anyone But Trump” vote to himself—he could prevail.
But likely the opposite will happen. Take Haley, for example. In April 2021 she said that she wouldn’t get in the presidential race if Trump ran. Now she is hiring staff, reaching out to donors, and preparing to hit the hustings in 2024. Part of the reason for Haley’s about-face, undoubtedly, is the popular notion that Trump is vulnerable to an intra-party challenge. Paradoxically, that means the weaker Trump looks, the more it encourages GOP aspirants to run in 2024…but more candidates actually increases the likelihood that Trump ends up as the nominee.
Indeed, one of the quirks of the Republican primary process is that it’s largely a winner-take-all system. Delegates are not distributed proportionally (as is the case with Democrats). So a Republican candidate who wins a state primary in a crowded field, with, say 30-40 percent of the vote, still wins all the delegates. This is, by the way, precisely how Trump emerged victorious out of a crowded GOP field in 2016.
Yet, there’s another dynamic from seven years ago that also benefited Trump: Republican candidates ganged up on each other and left him largely untouched. Famously, in a crucial debate before the New Hampshire primary, then-New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie ripped the bark off Florida Sen. Marco Rubio—believing that if he weakened Rubio, it would push him up the polls and make him the most likely alternative to Trump. How did that work out?
That same process could get a reprise in 2024.
Right now, DeSantis has emerged as the most likely non-Trump GOP alternative. But rather than attack Trump—which Republicans have largely avoided for fear that he would post something mean about them on Truth Social—the 2024 wannabes are far more likely to go after DeSantis. This is not a unique dynamic. In presidential nominating contests, with crowded multi-candidate fields. The also-rans frequently try to tear down the candidate who is in second and ignore the one in first.
But for Republicans, there’s another dynamic at play—attacking DeSantis is a sure-fire way to curry favor with Trump, which could pay long-term dividends. Case in point: earlier this month, the press secretary for South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem, another 2024 GOP aspirant, laid into DeSantis for reconciling himself to Florida’s 15-week abortion ban and not pushing for a more restrictive law. “Does he believe that 14-week-old babies don’t have a right to live?” Noem’s chief spokesperson said in an interview with the conservative-leaning National Review.
According to The Daily Beast, Noem’s gambit was a message to Trump. She wants to be his running mate in 2024, and what better way to increase her odds than going after his chief rival, DeSantis?
Noem is making a shrewd, arguably inspired political calculation. Pretty much everything would need to fall her way to emerge as the 2024 GOP nominee. Her better path to the White House is running 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 garnered invaluable name recognition, but she can likely count on Trump’s support. If somehow they win, she gets to be vice president!
Other Republicans, staring at single-digit poll results and anemic fundraising numbers, might make the same calculation as Noem.
It creates the other paradox of the 2024 campaign: the political incentive for nearly every Republican running is to attack DeSantis and not Trump. Considering that DeSantis’ national numbers are likely inflated (few Republicans outside Florida know all that much about him), it could make for a brutal campaign. And that’s not even mentioning that his refusal to bend a knee to Trump ensures that the former president will take every opportunity he can to lacerate 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 that he’d never have become governor without Trump’s support (which is kind of true).
Again, if all this sounds like a repeat of the nightmare that was the 2016 campaign…it’s because it is.
Republicans, unwilling to attack Trump, sic themselves on his chief rival as they jockey for the non-Trump mantle. Doing so leaves him unscathed and fails to weaken his unshakable base of support in the party, which is less than a majority but, in a winner-take-all primary system, is good enough to run the table and win the party nod.
Of course, a lot can happen in the next year to alter this potential outcome. Trump could get indicted. Republican voters may finally decide that they’ve had enough of him. The party could unite around DeSantis in a desperate effort to stop Trump.
Anything is possible, and only a fool would predict how a Republican nomination fight will play out. But the emerging dynamic of the race is becoming increasingly clear: It’s Trump’s to lose.