The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Trump can win the 2024 nomination the way he won in 2016: Barely

Donald Trump benefited in 2016 by having several rivals in the Republican field, allowing him to win delegates with a relatively small share of the vote. That could benefit him again if he runs in 2024. (Nati Harnik/AP)

When The Washington Post and our partners at ABC News asked Republicans whether they wanted to see Donald Trump nominated in 2024, the results were perhaps surprising: Less than half of respondents said they did, about the same percentage as said they didn’t.

This is certainly not the position in which Trump would like to find himself as speculation about the Republican field in two years’ time starts to take shape. Trump wants to box people out, for them to see him as so dominant that there’s no point in entering the race. He wants, in essence, for the 2024 primary to unfold the way the 2020 one did: a clear field that allowed him to glide toward the general election.

Our poll indicates that this is not the path forward for Trump. Instead, head-to-head primary polling — the utility of which at this point is functionally equivalent to asking your cat what it thinks — has Trump leading the field but south of 50 percent of support.

In other words, where he was when he won the nomination and the presidency in 2016.

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The grip that Trump has maintained on the GOP in the past six years obscures how loose it was back in 2016. People are very cognizant that he was elected that year with less than 50 percent of the vote; he famously got fewer raw votes than did Hillary Clinton in the November general election. But less remembered is that he also got less than 50 percent of the vote in the primaries, becoming the first elected president to get less than 50 percent of the vote in each contest in the modern presidential primary era.

See the yellow area on the graph below (repurposed from December 2016)? That’s the under-50-percent zone. Trump’s the only winning presidential candidate embedded in it. President Biden, by contrast, won most of the primary and general election votes cast.

How do you win a nomination without winning most of the votes? There’s one very important reason that you’ve already thought of and which we’ll get to in a second. But another reason is that the Republican nominating contest is designed to do exactly that.

There were 21 days on which voting or nominating conventions occurred that year. Only on the last seven did Trump win a majority of votes cast. There were days on which he won a majority of the vote in one or two states, but most of the time he earned fewer votes than his competitors.

But the system helped him in two ways. The first is that there’s a built-in advantage that goes to the winning candidate in a primary in many states. Nominations are won after candidates accrue a majority of delegates to the party convention. Often, the winner of a state, even if it’s with 45 percent of the votes cast, is given a bonus number of delegates, with the rest distributed by vote margin. So if you win the state, even with less than half of the vote, you can end up with most of the delegates.

In some states, the pot is even larger: The winner just gets all the delegates. Notice the third set of results above, shown with a black bracket. That was the primary in South Carolina, which was winner-take-all. So Trump got 33 percent of the vote — and all of the delegates. Notice the dark bar below.

On Super Tuesday (the tallest spikes above), Trump benefited mostly because he got a disproportionate number of delegates in each state. The system was weighted to winning, not to majority support.

The result was that the percentage of votes won by Trump remained under 50 percent for the duration of the primary season. Until the last few primary contests, he was edging past opponents and adding to his delegate total. As the primaries moved forward, he continued to hold about half of the delegates that had been allocated even as he had won only about a third of the votes cast.

Now the obvious caveat: Trump was able to prevail in the 2016 primaries because the field was so big for so long. He could snatch victory in South Carolina with 33 percent of the vote because there were still a half-dozen competitors vying against him. Had there been only two candidates after New Hampshire, it’s not clear that Trump would have won the nomination — which was why so many candidates hung around, hoping that they would be the last non-Trump candidate standing. Therefore, Trump continued to be able to leverage his fervent base of support well into the primary season.

In other words, Trump sitting at 50 percent support as 2024 slowly nears isn’t necessarily bad … if no other candidate gets a majority of the vote. That he has a robust, energetic base that makes up less than half of the electorate is more helpful in a crowded field than a narrow one. If the GOP electorate is broken into thirds — Trump lovers, Trump haters and those who might look elsewhere — giving voters in those second two groups more choices to pick from means a lower likelihood any candidate will leapfrog the former president.

What our poll suggests, then, is that if he wants to run again, Trump should encourage as many people to run as possible. Keep a big field and leverage that energetic base that others are unlikely to be able to match. He can win in 2024 the way he won in 2016: by the skin of his teeth.