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Four Scenarios for the 2024 Republican Primaries
Don’t believe the pundits saying they know how it will play out.
The midterm elections were a disaster for former president Donald Trump. A number of his handpicked candidates vastly underperformed expectations, costing Republicans control of the Senate and a more substantial House majority. Meanwhile, down in Florida, Governor Ron DeSantis had an excellent night, winning the state by 20 points and improving upon Trump’s 2020 margins in every single county.
But immediately, overwrought and unrestrained takes started flying. “Donald Trump is Finally Finished,” read one New York Times headline. “DeFUTURE,” blared The New York Post’s cover the day after the elections. There is some truth to this line of thinking: The elections really did help DeSantis and hurt Trump in the shadow campaign for the 2024 GOP nomination. But anybody claiming that Trump is headed for imminent demise and that DeSantis has all but clinched the nomination is getting too far over their skis.
If the midterms have taught us anything, it’s that politics is inherently uncertain. One would think that journalists may have incorporated a bit of humility into their work after Democrats defied all expectations, but that doesn’t seem to have happened. The same pundits who were confident Republicans would dominate in the midterms are now stating with equal certainty that Trump stands no chance against DeSantis.
For what it’s worth, Trump himself obviously disagreed with assessments that his political career is defunct. On Tuesday, he officially launched his campaign for president. It’s an unsettling moment. Despite his many flaws, Trump still commands an intense level of support and loyalty from Republican voters. The prospect of Trump reentering the White House just four years after trying to overturn an election is a grim one.
So with Trump officially running, and pundits expressing misplaced confidence about the outcome, what is the best way to think about the upcoming primary? In broad strokes, here are the four most plausible scenarios.
Scenario 1: Trump Clears the Field
First, Trump clears the GOP field and cruises to renomination. Despite the current narrative that Trump’s chances are evaporating, the former president remains incredibly popular among Republicans. He’s viewed favorably by around 70% of GOP voters and unfavorably by only 15%. Similarly, when put head to head against other Republicans, Trump has typically polled in the 40s or 50s, significantly ahead of DeSantis or any other potential competitor. And while DeSantis has indeed had a few good post-midterm polls, it’s possible that they represent a temporary bump, and that things will snap back to the pro-Trump status quo. No matter how many articles conservative media outlets like The Wall Street Journal, National Review or The New York Post publish attacking Trump, it’s ultimately these voters who will decide the GOP nominee.
Scenario 2: A Crowded Field Splits the Anti-Trump Vote
A second scenario is that a lot of Republicans enter the contest and split the electorate. After all, the GOP has more aspiring and popular politicians than just Trump and DeSantis. Among that crowd are Mike Pence, Nikki Haley, Tim Scott, Mike Pompeo, and Glenn Youngkin—all of whom appear to be mulling presidential bids. With a field this large, the anti-Trump vote could be dispersed among multiple candidates, clearing the path for Trump to win with just plurality support. This, in essence, would be 2016 redux. That year, the anti-Trump vote was split between Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, John Kasich, and Ben Carson until early March, by which time Trump’s momentum was unstoppable.
Scenario 3: The DeSantis Hype Is Real
A third scenario is that DeSantis enters the field, the hype around him bears out, and GOP voters quickly abandon Trump in favor of the fresh face. The events of the past week make this more feasible, even if many pundits have gone too far in pronouncing Trump’s disintegration a done deal. Several polls released post-midterms show support for DeSantis climbing rapidly, with a few even putting him ahead of Trump. A recent YouGov survey, for instance, has DeSantis leading Trump 42% to 35% in a head-to-head matchup. A number of other polls of early primary states, which are important for establishing candidate momentum and have outsized influence in primaries, show DeSantis ahead of Trump. If this support proves to be real and sustainable, DeSantis has a clear path to victory, especially if he remains a favorite of conservative media and donors eager to rid themselves of Trump. On top of all this, historical precedent is working against Trump: no party has renominated a losing presidential candidate in over 50 years (since the Republicans nominated Nixon in 1968).
Scenario 4: A Moderate Candidate Threads the Needle
A fourth and final scenario begins the same way as the second, with lots of Republican candidates entering the field. But in this scenario, Trump and DeSantis split the populist vote, giving an opening to a more moderate contender. A candidate like Tim Scott or Glenn Youngkin could earn a plurality of support in the early primary states and build upon that to take the nomination. And given the dismal Republican performance among independent voters in the midterms, some Republican voters may support these candidates because of their perceived “electability,” which is what carried Biden over the line in the 2020 Democratic nomination.
It remains to be seen how Trump’s hardcore base—the one that would stick with him even if he shot someone on Fifth Avenue—would react in such a scenario. Would they abandon the party in frustration? Stay at home? Inspire Trump to copy Theodore Roosevelt’s failed 1912 presidential bid and run an insurgent third-party campaign, all but guaranteeing a Democratic victory? There’s really no way to know.
Ultimately, we’ll just have to wait and see which path the GOP charts. With so much up in the air, the wise thing to do is hold off on making self-assured pronouncements about who is going to win the GOP nomination. At this juncture, such predictions are more likely to be a reflection of one’s own political preferences than of the actual evidence.
It’s exciting that there is finally a chance that Republican primary voters will put the last nail in the coffin of Trump’s political career. But the possibility that some Republican challenger to Trump might prove viable should not tempt us to mistake simplistic wishcasting for careful analysis.
Seth Moskowitz is an associate editor at Persuasion.
This article represents the individual views of the author, not those of Persuasion.
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