A growing number of Republicans are coming to terms with the fact that former President Trump may very well be their nominee for the White House in 2024, worrying some who had hoped to move on from the controversial former president.
Despite fielding a slew of controversies — including a potential criminal indictment in New York — the GOP’s conservative base has largely stood by Trump, and there are signs that his support in the emerging 2024 primary may be solidifying after earlier indications of trouble.
Recent polls show him expanding his lead in the race, while his chief potential rival Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) has found himself playing defense, raising questions about whether he’s up to the task of taking on Trump in 2024.
The recent Trump bump has served as a reminder for some Republicans of the vise-like grip the former president maintains over the GOP’s most die-hard supporters — and how difficult it will be to actually do away with him next year.
“Old habits are hard to break, I guess,” said one Republican strategist who’s opposing Trump in the 2024 primary. “I think if you do write him off, you’re writing him off at your own peril. His supporters are loyal. He has a broad base.”
Republicans who are ready to move on from Former President Trump are coming to terms with the fact that he may be the party’s nominee again in 2024. (AP Photo/Nathan Howard)
To be sure, it’s still early in the primary season. Only two high-profile Republicans — former United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley and entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy — have formally jumped into the race to challenge Trump, and others, like DeSantis, may still be months away from making their own announcements.
But recent weeks have underscored Trump’s unique ability to command the news cycle and define Republican politics in his own terms.
His potential indictment in a New York hush money investigation has given him a cause to rally his base around, feeding his longtime claim that he’s the victim of a political witch hunt, and he managed to pull DeSantis into the kind of public spat that the Florida governor had hoped to avoid.
“He’s still the guy to beat,” said Saul Anuzis, a Republican strategist and former Michigan GOP chairman. “He’s the 800-pound gorilla in the room. If the election were held today, he’d most likely win.”
“There are a lot of Trump supporters who wouldn’t mind seeing a new generation come in, someone with less baggage,” he added. “But right now, no one is really making that comparison because everyone else in the race is just kind of noise. Nobody has really announced that’s put a dent in things.”
While DeSantis is widely seen as Trump’s most formidable Republican challenger, several recent polls show the former president widening his lead over the Florida governor.
A Monmouth University survey released last week found Trump running 14 points ahead of DeSantis in a multicandidate primary field. Similarly, a Quinnipiac University poll earlier this month showed Trump more than doubling his lead over DeSantis since February.
Recent polls have shown, at least for now, that Florida Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis isn’t close to garnering enough support to beat former President Trump for the GOP nomination. (AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell)
A Harvard CAPS-Harris Poll released on Monday also offered an encouraging sign for Trump: A full 50 percent of GOP voters in the survey said they plan to support Trump in the 2024 presidential primary.
But for all of his perceived strengths, Republicans said, Trump still has a long list of liabilities to his name.
In addition to the potential indictment in New York, he’s continued to publicly and privately rehash his loss in the 2020 presidential race and has only leaned further into the Jan. 6, 2021, riot at the Capitol. Over the weekend, he opened a rally in Waco, Texas, with a song that he collaborated on with a group of inmates incarcerated over their involvement in the riot.
And there are lingering questions about his political instincts and electoral track record, especially following his unsuccessful reelection campaign in 2020 and the GOP’s lackluster performance in the 2022 midterm elections.
Whit Ayres, a longtime Republican pollster, said that “the polls right now are all over the place,” but noted the larger challenge facing any candidate, declared or potential, hoping to come out ahead in the 2024 primary: The former president still has a seemingly unbreakable hold on a large portion of the GOP.
“About one-third are always-Trump voters, and they’ll walk through a wall of flames for him,” Ayres said. “They’re locked in for him regardless of whoever gets in the field. The other 60 percent are maybe-Trump voters.”
“The question is whether anyone can consolidate that 60 percent of maybe Trump voters who are open to somebody else,” he added.
Of course, Trump’s recent polling bump may very well be temporary, and recent surveys out of critical early voting states like Iowa and New Hampshire suggest a tough race for the former president.
Still, Keith Naughton, a veteran Republican strategist, said that there’s little doubt that Trump “was always going to be a threat” in the race.
“He was always going to be the main threat to win the nomination just because he’s got the name recognition, he’s got a loyal base,” Naughton said. “His opponents have never run nationally before — DeSantis is new to this, Haley is new to this — and that has always been a hard thing to overcome.”
Naughton said that Trump’s apparent strength right now owes in part to the fact that his current and would-be rivals have largely held their fire, allowing Trump to steer the primary in his preferred direction. Candidates like DeSantis, he said, need to show “teeth, or things are going to start to solidify.”
“Trump’s not going to let anyone dictate the course of events,” Naughton said. “He’s very loud, he’s very aggressive and he’ll say anything to keep himself in the spotlight, and there’s a lot of power in that. He generates clicks.”