The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Is Donald Trump beatable in the Republican primary?

Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump addresses his supporters on the final day of the Republican National Convention on July 21, 2016, in Cleveland. (Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post)
8 min

The natural place to start with any examination of whether a certain electoral outcome is possible — in this case, whether Donald Trump could be defeated in the 2024 Republican presidential primary — is with an admission-slash-cop-out.

Certainly he could. Lots of things could happen between now and then, things that would be hard to predict, developments that reshape the political landscape completely. My favorite example of this is a recent one: In August 2018, would you have assumed that the 2020 election would be largely defined by a global pandemic?

But, again, that’s a cop-out. The actual answer to the question is that, should patterns hold even loosely, Trump is extremely well-positioned to be his party’s 2024 nominee should he desire to be. And there are numerous — countless! — indicators that he desires to be.

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A lot of what will follow is admittedly instinctual. That’s frustrating to me, personally, as I prefer to be able to affix thoughts to data as much as possible. And while we have some data that addresses the question, no one would seriously argue that polling nearly two years before a primary contest is particularly useful.

We will nonetheless begin with the data we do have. RealClearPolitics has a very early average of primary polling that gives us a good sense of where things are. Asked whom they support as their party’s nominee in 2024, most Republicans (and, in some polling, independents who plan to vote in the GOP primary) say they prefer Trump. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis is consistently in second, cruising along near 20 percent. Then there are a few people below 10 percent: former vice president Mike Pence, former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley and Sen. Ted Cruz (Tex.) among them.

Let’s consider these numbers in two contexts: how they compare historically and what they would mean if they held into late 2023.

To the first point, the best recent point of comparison is Hillary Clinton’s lead at a similar point in the 2016 nominating contest. In an October 2014 poll conducted by The Washington Post and our partners at ABC News, Clinton led the field with the support of 65 percent of the Democratic primary electorate. Joe Biden came in second, at 13 percent. He ultimately decided not to run that year.

Clinton, of course, went on to win the nomination — a point in Trump’s favor, even if his numbers aren’t quite as robust as hers were. But the biggest challenge to her candidacy came from Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), who in that poll came in at a not-impressive 1 percent support. By the time voting began in the 2016 primaries, Sanders had pulled nearly even.

How? Largely by running to her left. Sanders energized a segment of the Democratic Party — heavily younger voters — who felt the party was too moderate. He himself became a symbol, a popular figure in his own right that helped polarize reactions to his candidacy. But it also rallied voters to his candidacy.

Perhaps you see how the narrowing of the 2016 Democratic primary is an imperfect guide to the GOP in 2024. After all, Trump’s own election that year was a mirror image of Sanders’s: running to the party’s right, embracing its fringe and becoming a political symbol himself.

Why did Trump triumph where Sanders didn’t? For a few reasons. First, the Republican field was more fragmented, meaning that Trump’s solid base of support allowed him to win more contests. More of those contests allocated delegates through a winner-take-all mechanism, rather than a proportional one, meaning that a narrow win yielded a lopsided number of delegates to bring to the convention.

Which brings us to our second point: What if the current polling pattern holds by early 2024? A big if, yes, but let’s explore.

If Trump is at or around 50 percent in polling — if he’s even at, say, 35 percent, as he was in early 2016 — he’s in a strong position. Primaries are determined at the state level, and, there, results could be mixed. (In a June poll in New Hampshire, for example, Trump and DeSantis were effectively tied.) But having a healthy lead nationally will translate to easy wins in a number of states and to a quick accrual of delegates.

Now the question becomes: Will Trump’s lead hold? And we start to get into the instinctual stuff.

Before we do, though, let’s consider more mechanics. A primary process is not an up-and-down thing, it’s a winnowing. So a field of 10 people (or however many) quickly becomes one of four and then of two. So we have to ask how much of the support for candidates other than Trump is actual opposition to Trump and how much is simply liking other candidates slightly better.

YouGov, polling for Yahoo News, gives us a sense. Both last month and earlier in this one, it posed a head-to-head question: Trump or DeSantis. And while the gap between the two narrowed, in each case voters preferred Trump. Many weren’t sure, but it’s not the case that the 50-plus percent of Republicans would all glom onto whoever wasn’t Trump should the field narrow to the top two contenders.

Could this change? Sure. But one of the worst bets in American politics since 2015 has been to assume that Trump’s support from his party would fade. Yes, his favorability dropped among Republicans in the wake of the Jan. 6, 2021, riot at the Capitol. But it’s still above 80 percent in YouGov’s most recent polling — not far from where Hillary Clinton’s was among Democrats in its polling in October 2014.

What DeSantis seems to be doing in response to this is interesting. He’s making a bet on beating Trump at his own game, appealing to and energizing the right-most flank of the GOP by a relentless public focus on amplifying what the fringe is talking about. Much was made of Laura Ingraham’s public skepticism about whether it was useful to bring Trump’s baggage into a 2024 presidential contest. But for my money, the more interesting development was Alex Jones’s endorsement of DeSantis — on the grounds that DeSantis, unlike Trump, has credibly appealed to the anti-vaccine fringe.

In 2016, it was Fox News and Breitbart that were driving conversation in the base, conversation that Trump repeated and elevated, earning him enthusiastic support. Now, that center of energy has moved, and DeSantis is doing a better job of speaking to and amplifying it.

Much of what made Trump successful was differentiating between us and them. Things were pretty good for us — the average American taxpayer — during Trump’s presidency, prompting people to be less concerned about the attacks Trump was making on them, the people at the fringes, like immigrants. DeSantis is making the same bet for his reelection: that since, for us things in Florida are pretty good, his efforts to marginalize them — gay teachers, transgender people — will energize the base while earning at worst some tsking from average citizens.

But while he may be replicating Trump’s approach, DeSantis (unlike Trump in 2016) isn’t running against a collection of sniffy Republicans who’ve spent a lifetime in D.C. He’s running against the guy who pioneered appeals to the fringe and who’s still actively prowling those waters.

One of the most-cited metrics for Trump’s electoral clout is his focus on the 10 Republicans who voted to impeach him. Eight will certainly not be in Congress next year, either defeated in primaries or choosing to avoid that ignominy by retiring.

This raises its own question, though: How much of the response to Trump’s demands that those politicians be ousted is a function of Trump, and how much is it a function of the insistence on loyalty? In the wake of the search of Mar-a-Lago last week, we saw a lot of people who are generally Trump-skeptical taking Trump’s side, to his glee — but many did so not as a pro-Trump statement but (like DeSantis) as an anti-deep-state one. If what’s being measured in the purge of the pro-impeachment Republicans is fealty to a particular political approach and not fealty to Trump, Ingraham’s speculation about openness to other candidates may prove prescient.

DeSantis is better poised to benefit than most others. If GOP voters want to maximize their chances of electoral success while preserving as much of the Trumpian approach to politics as possible, the Florida governor is tanned, rested and ready to step in. If they want Trump, though? A substitute won’t suffice.

One final note on all of this, returning to the theme of the unpredictability of presidential primaries 18 months out. In that Post-ABC News poll from October 2014, Clinton earned 65 percent of the Democratic primary vote. On the Republican side, the field was led by the party’s 2012 nominee, Mitt Romney, with 21 percent.

The eventual winner of the 2016 Republican nomination wasn’t included in the options because no one anticipated he would run. Things change.