Now that we are in the 2024 presidential-election cycle with the first primaries just over a year away, it’s time to begin looking at how the two parties’ voters will approach their choices. At this point, a competitive GOP nomination contest seems a lot more likely than one among Democrats. Perhaps the punditocracy is underestimating Donald Trump’s strength within his party yet again, but even so, no one thinks he’s strong enough to clear the field and run unopposed. While no one knows exactly how many intraparty rivals Trump will face, it is already possible to look at polls to estimate his relative popularity among Republicans, and his “electability” as a general-election candidate against presumed Democratic nominee Joe Biden.
On the first measurement, let’s get something out of the way right off the bat: I don’t put a lot of stock in vague polls asking Republicans if they want to renominate Trump or “someone else.” Perhaps that’s because I am old enough to remember similar signs of disenchantment with presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama before they were renominated without opposition. Plus, more recent polls showed disenchantment among Democrats with President Biden, who nonetheless seems to be a lead-pipe cinch for renomination if he indeed runs. Republicans overwhelmingly remember the Trump administration positively, and one major pre-midterm poll gave him an 81 percent favorability rating among Republicans (arguably unhappiness over his role in the underwhelming GOP midterm performance will fade much like the Republican anger at his role in the January 6 insurrection). A post-midterm survey from Pew showed 60 percent of Republicans and Republican-leaners feeling “warmly” toward Trump (41 percent “very warmly”). He’s hardly a spent force just yet, and it’s more compelling to look at how specific potential rivals would perform against him.
There are presently 40 polls in the RealClearPolitics database measuring support among Republican voters for potential 2024 nominees. Trump has led in all 40. To be more specific, Trump leads Ron DeSantis, far and away his most formidable rival, by an average of 21.5 percent (48.8 percent to 27.3 percent). There is a school of thought (mostly based on the huge field of opponents Trump faced in 2016) that in a one-on-one competition DeSantis would dispatch Trump easily. There is a new Wall Street Journal poll showing DeSantis leading Trump 52-38 – with no one else in the race – but it’s unlikely DeSantis can clear the field entirely with so many other potential candidates ready to jump in if Trump looks vulnerable. And Trump’s tactically brilliant king-of-the-mountain performance in 2016 once the field had been culled of all but the strongest opponents should be taken into account in assessing his vulnerability.
So at this very early stage, it’s reasonable to affirm that DeSantis’s strength against Trump remains speculative and could be illusory, much like Rick Perry’s momentary burst of support in 2012 or Scott Walker’s alleged potential going into 2016. It’s also worth remembering that national polls assessing support for this or that presidential candidate mean a lot less than performance in the early nominating contests, which for Republicans will begin in Iowa and New Hampshire. We have yet to see how DeSantis performs in a presidential caucus or primary.
But there is one measurable optic that could affect Republican voter preferences from sea to shining sea if they show a glaring disparity: perceived 2024 electability. Just as Democrats who might have preferred a younger or more progressive nominee in 2020 settled on Biden as the most electable option against the much-hated Trump, Republicans could dump Trump in 2024 if he’s perceived as a sure loser while alternative candidates aren’t. So it’s probably a good idea to keep an eye on general-election polling along with primary polling.
There hasn’t been a wealth of 2024 general-election trial heats matching variable candidates just yet; they will begin arriving steadily once the field in both parties becomes more solidified. But so far there are already signs that a perceived electability advantage could be an important asset for DeSantis, aside from the very important data point that Trump has already lost to Biden once.
In the RCP averages, DeSantis is currently tied with Joe Biden at 43 percent, while Biden leads Trump by three points (44.7 percent to 41.7 percent). But the most recent poll, from USA Today–Suffolk, shows DeSantis leading the incumbent by four points (47-43), while Biden leads Trump by seven points (47-40). That’s a pretty big performance gap, and if it persists or even grows, it could affect Republican primary voters who detest Biden today as much as 2020 Democratic primary voters detested Trump. Yes, Trump can be expected to denounce all adverse polls as fake, and confidently predict total victory every time his name appears on a ballot. But even hard-core MAGA folk know in their hearts that their warrior-king has lost some altitude, and may want the kind of general-election victory that doesn’t require months of conspiring and an insurrection at the Capitol to achieve pay dirt. A focus on electability could produces some dilemmas for DeSantis (and other Trump rivals) as well; the Florida governor has spent a lot of time perfecting appeals to the most extreme elements of his party to outflank Trump on the rights. But DeSantis seems like the kind of politician who is motivated by opportunism more than principle, so he may give electability a try.
This post was updated to include the new Wall Street Journal poll.
More on politics
- House Republicans’ Assault-Weapon Pins Aren’t Just a Taunt
- Trump’s Lead in 2024 Polls May Be Thinner Than We Thought
- Trump Knows How to End Ukraine War ‘Immediately,’ But It’s a Secret