It’s now widely accepted that former President Donald Trump is likely to be the Republican presidential nominee in 2024. With Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis sliding back in the latest polls, Trump has little competition remaining among a primary electorate that continues to be infatuated with him.
But prevailing wisdom also suggests that Trump doesn’t stand a chance against President Joe Biden in the general election—with some Democrats eager for the opportunity to face him again. Many political analysts instead are fixated on the possibility that Trump will “steal” the election rather than win it outright.
This is a mistake. New data confirms that Republicans are increasing their turnout advantage. If Donald Trump is their nominee, he will be far more competitive than many think. After all, his flaws and indictments have done little to push Republicans away.
Of course, concerns about Trump trying to steal an election aren't unfounded. Despite Biden garnering a clear majority of the electoral college in 2020, Trump refused to concede, and instead urged his supporters to “stop the steal”—a message that famously culminated in the Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol.
Since then, observers have feared that legal loopholes and gaps in election administration could leave future elections vulnerable to attempts at being overturned. Progressives raised millions of dollars to oppose Republican candidates who were convinced the presidency was stolen from Trump, while pundits across the political spectrum have written article after article about how Trump and his acolytes could steal the election in 2024.
In the run-up to last year’s midterms, the media emphasized the role that election deniers—should they win—could play in the certification process in 2024 and raised concerns over how Trump and his allies could exploit loopholes in the Electoral Count Act of 1876 to steal the election from its rightful winner.
For many on the political left, the idea that Trump cannot win lingers from the shell-shocked days in 2016 when they convinced themselves that only Russian meddling could explain Hillary Clinton’s defeat. Exaggerated and discredited narratives dominated news cycles. Today this mindset can be seen in continued concerns that Russia or China will hand Republicans the election in 2024.
More recently, commentators spilled ink over how the Supreme Court case Moore v. Harper was a “bomb” that could “upend” or “transform” the 2024 election. Yet, with that case now decided and the so-called “independent state legislature” theory put to bed, some pundits still continue to speculate about how the case could “hang over” next year’s election.
But these fears miss the forest for the trees: the uncomfortable reality is that Trump may not feel the need to try to steal the next election, because he may have already won outright.
Consider first that more than 62 million Americans voted for Donald Trump in 2016, and more than 74 million did so in 2020. While some may rethink their choice this time around, many won’t think twice about voting for him again. The polls demonstrate his electoral strength.
At the moment, both the FiveThirtyEight and Real Clear Politics averages show Trump has widened his lead over DeSantis since early April. Betting markets echo the polls, and currently give Trump 2-1 odds of being the nominee over DeSantis.
This momentum isn’t just in the primary. The Real Clear polling average shows Trump leading Biden by 0.6 percentage points—more than a point-and-a-half better than DeSantis. While this difference is well within the margin of error, a closer look reveals that Trump’s competitiveness may be starker than this topline. In a recent Morning Consult poll, Trump made headlines for topping Biden for the first time. The poll shows him with a three-point lead over Biden, 44 to 41 percent; DeSantis trails the president by two points, for comparison.
Other polls show similar results. Trump isn’t just competitive against Biden; he’s likely the most competitive Republican in the field—a point that has held consistently, even when it looked like DeSantis had all the momentum. And should the Democrats’ nominee in 2024 somehow be Vice President Kamala Harris, Trump becomes the far-and-away frontrunner.
Of course, a lot can change in the 16 months between now and next year’s election. Sixteen months ago, Russia had just invaded Ukraine, an event that few saw coming. Sixteen months ago, inflation was still running hot at 8.5 percent, compared with 3 percent today. And sixteen months ago, the Supreme Court had yet to issue the Dobbs decision, a ruling widely understood to have impacted last November’s midterms in ways that were mostly unfavorable to Republicans. Of course, it also wasn’t that long ago that DeSantis seemed to have all the momentum.
What does this current situation say about the state of the American electorate? For one, it suggests that many Americans ultimately may not care about whether someone, Trump or otherwise, tries to steal an election by pressuring state and local officials to overturn results. The 2024 election is more likely to hinge on traditional issues like inflation and the state of the economy than it is on relitigating 2020 or the scandal surrounding Jan. 6 and Trump’s attempts to overturn the election.
The history of presidential elections consists of example after example of unexpected events arising close to Election Day. Those who assume that Republicans can’t win another nationwide election because of “demographics” or “Trump’s toxicity” ignore this history at their peril.
After the 2022 midterms, in which election deniers lost consistently, Trump has far less practical ability to pressure key officials should he lose. Those who wish to stop him in 2024 would be wise to focus on winning a traditional campaign, even if it doesn’t feel like one.
Americans, worried about the state of the economy or otherwise unhappy with progressive views on hot-button social issues, could very well decide to pull the lever for the candidate who mostly oversaw a strong economy—and also tried to steal the election. If Democrats don’t come to grips with this possibility and focus on winning outright, they may be the ones struggling to accept the outcome of an election.
Jonathan Bydlak is the director of the governance program at the R Street Institute, a center-right think tank.