Republicans are grappling with an increasingly apparent – and to some, uncomfortable – reality that an expectedly crowded 2024 primary field could once again boost former President Donald Trump to the GOP nomination.
With three declared candidates already in the race and several more expected to announce campaigns in the coming months, Trump and his allies are betting that a jam-packed primary will divide Republican voters between several candidates and prevent a clear alternative from emerging as a genuine threat to the former president.
And early polling suggests that such a strategy just might work. While most surveys show Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who is actively preparing for a likely presidential bid, leading Trump in hypothetical head-to-head matchup, the former president is the clear frontrunner when other candidates are added into the mix.
“The one thing to always remember is Trump has the highest floor, DeSantis has the highest ceiling,” Ford O’Connell, a Republican strategist and former congressional candidate, said. “And in a seven-ring circus, the highest floor is more important. Now, if it’s a two-ring circus, that’s a different story.”
A Fox News poll released this week found Trump leading a hypothetical 15-candidate primary field with 43 percent of the vote. DeSantis trailed him in second place with 28 percent of the vote, while no other contender broke double-digit support.
Former United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley, who entered the race last month, and former Vice President Mike Pence, who hasn’t yet announced a campaign, were tied for third place with just 7 percent support each.
A Quinnipiac University poll released last week told a similar story. Trump beat out 13 other declared or potential primary rivals with 42 percent of the vote, while DeSantis notched 36 percent support. Haley and Pence received 5 percent and 4 percent support, respectively, putting them in a distant third and fourth place.
For some Republicans, Trump’s dominance over a potentially crowded primary field has resurfaced memories of the party’s 2016 nominating contest, when the list of prominent candidates reached 17 at one point. The dynamics of that race were complicated, but some Republicans say that it should serve as a warning to many would-be contenders who are hoping to supplant Trump in the 2024 race.
“It’s not a one-to-one comparison with 2016, but I think everyone needs to be clear-headed about their chances here,” one Republican consultant who worked on a 2016 primary campaign said. “There are a lot of people that think they can be the one to take Trump down, but there comes a point where you’re hurting your own cause.”
In addition to Trump and Haley, entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy jumped into the fray last week. Pence has said that he will make a decision on a bid by this spring, while DeSantis is expected to wait until the Florida state legislature wraps up its regular session in May to make a final call.
But the list of prospective candidates is much longer; former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu, Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) and former Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, among others, are weighing bids of their own.
And while many Republicans say they’re doubtful that the primary field will get as crowded as it did seven years ago, the simple fact that GOP voters haven’t coalesced around one clear alternative to Trump helps the former president, at least for the time being.
“I think it’ll be a four- or five-person race – and that certainly helps Donald Trump,” said Katon Dawson, a former South Carolina GOP chair who is backing Haley in the contest. “So the question is: who can take some away from Donald Trump and who can get the other 50-something percent out there who are still undecided?”
There are signs that Trump’s standing among Republicans is more tenuous than it once was. An NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist national poll released last month found his favorability rating among Republicans and Republican-leaning independents dropping to 68 percent – the lowest recorded by that poll since Sept. 2016.
At the same time, he’s facing fresh skepticism from many in the party after Republicans dramatically underperformed in the 2022 midterm elections – including several candidates whom he emphatically endorsed.
And there are few polls that show Trump cracking 50 percent in a hypothetical Republican presidential primary. The NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll found that a majority of Republicans and GOP-leaning independents – 54 percent – believe the party has a better chance at recapturing the White House in 2024 with someone other than Trump as the party’s nominee.
But Trump doesn’t need to win a majority of the primary vote to clinch the nomination once again. Instead, he just needs to win a plurality of the vote in individual state nominating contests to put him on the path to victory.
“I think the first big question in all of this is: Is it going to be Trump or not? And for a majority of the party, in every poll you see, the answer is no,” said Dallas Woodhouse, a longtime Republican operative and the executive director of the conservative South Carolina Policy Council. “But a majority doesn’t do it. He can become the nominee with 30 or 35 percent support in the party.”
Keith Naughton, a veteran Republican strategist, played down the notion that a crowded primary field would propel Trump to the nomination. While there are several would-be candidates waiting in the wings, he said, they likely won’t last long once the first nominating contests get under way.
He acknowledged that a crowded primary field “definitely helps [Trump] in the first three states” – Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina – but argued that the list of candidates will likely winnow quickly after that.
“The Republican side is a lot more goal oriented; ‘we have to have a nominee, let’s figure out who it is,'” Naughton said. “The bottom line is the first three contests are going to decide who’s viable. Maybe there’s a surprise and you have someone sneak through and last a little bit longer.
“But, if Trump wins all three, he has the nomination, it’s all over,” he added. “If DeSantis wins two out of three, he can knock out Trump pretty quickly.”
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This story was originally published March 5, 2023, 6:00 AM.