Who will the Republican base turn to in 2024 as it seeks to pull the Oval Office rug out from under Joe Biden – or whoever ends up carrying the Democrat torch? The latest polling of registered voters suggests it is likely to be former President Donald Trump. It’s early days yet, of course, and Trump is the only declared candidate, so far. But he still commands a significant lead over his closest potential rival, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, in the newest surveys and the other would-be, might-be contenders are barely visible in the rearview mirror.
A Harvard CAPS-Harris poll, released exclusively to The Hill, puts Trump at 48 percent support among 2,050 registered voters surveyed in mid-January. DeSantis came in a distant second with 28 percent – and he is well ahead of the rest of the field, such as it is. Trump’s former VP, Mike Pence, garnered seven percent. Behind him were former US ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, and Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL), who split six percent evenly between them.
A Morning Consult poll conducted around the same time among 829 “potential Republican primary voters” gave Trump a 48 – 31 percent lead over the Florida governor. Pence was again in third place with eight percent. Haley was tied with Ted Cruz (R-TX) at two percent. That survey also asked respondents who their second choice would be and a plurality of Trump supporters – 44 percent – chose DeSantis while 37 percent of DeSantis’s backers chose the former president.
Additionally, the Harvard CAPS-Harris poll hypothesized a primary without Trump. In that one, DeSantis scored 49 percent with Pence way behind at 14 percent.
Donald Trump and the Florida Wild Card
What does all that tell us? Is it a problem for Donald Trump that he isn’t even over the 50 percent mark? Is it telling that, without Trump as a choice, more respondents chose DeSantis (49 percent) than picked Trump (48 percent) when he was among the choices? People who know about baseball might say we’re not even at the bottom of the first, yet, so it is far too early to read anything into the numbers. They are probably right, except in one respect: A very significant number of Republican voters or prospective voters are counting on Trump, another large section of them are hoping DeSantis throws his hat into the ring, and nobody else appears to have a prayer.
That may be a slightly distorted way of looking at it. After all, how many votes would Haley or Pence or Cruz – or Mike Pompeo, etc – have gotten in these polls if neither Trump nor DeSantis had been choices? However, the two front-runners are, between them, commanding the support of more than 70% of GOP voters. If Trump were to drop out of the primary race – as unlikely as that is – and if DeSantis were to decide against running, which is quite possible, where would the Republican Party’s base turn?
A look back at the 2020 Democratic Party primaries gives us a clue, perhaps, as to what would happen. For the Republican faithful, it is not a particularly glowing prospect. Democrats, in 2020, put up a field of mediocre and decidedly uninspiring candidates. In the end, Joe Biden pulled away from the rest by virtue of being backed by certain powerful congressional Democrats – he probably owed his victory in the South Carolina primary to the support of Jim Clyburn (R-SC) – and by portraying himself as more moderate than his opponents. A lot of party operatives believed such moderation or the appearance of it was crucial to capturing the White House.
The party’s primary voters were never excited about the prospect of putting Biden in the White House, but he was maybe less of a bad choice than any of the others. At least, that is very likely how most Democrats thought about it.
So, are Republican primary voters going to rally behind Trump, for better or for worse, when the chips are down? If the new GOP star from the Sunshine State jumps in, will those voters galvanize for him and leave Trump in the dust? Without either of those two vying for the nomination, it isn’t easy trying to imagine who else could inspire the turnout needed to defeat Joe Biden (assuming he does actually run and get his party’s nod for a second term). Considering the state of affairs in America today, some would argue 2024 is going to be a walk in the park, no matter who the GOP puts up. The reality, though, is that this just isn’t true. Looking beyond the actual policies and politics to the more specific issue of picking a strong candidate, it would appear the choice is between Donald Trump, on the one hand, and uncertainty and lack of cohesion, on the other. Only Ron DeSantis is the wild card. But it’s early days. Maybe a new force of nature nobody has considered yet is waiting in the wings.
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