When he left the White House, he decided he would take government documents and then decided to resist returning them — in a way that now presents perhaps Trump’s most significant legal liability to date.
Then he decided he was going to try to assert dominion over the party by endorsing candidates in the most important 2022 races in the country. Almost all of them underperformed their fellow Republicans on the ballot on Election Day and lost winnable races — including those who proved decisive in keeping the Senate in Democrats’ hands. There’s now a credible case to be made that Trump cost his party that chamber for the second straight election.
And finally, Trump decided that he would use the tail end of the midterms to focus on his own impending presidential announcement, which he made Tuesday night. Trump had backed himself into a corner: It’s exceedingly bad timing, but if he didn’t go forward with it, he’d look weak and chastened. And so he gave a speech in which the sales pitch amounted to: By 2024, voters may finally realize that things are bad enough that they may give me a shot.
None of this means the GOP won’t nominate Trump again in 2024. It has stuck with him through plenty, and its adherence to Trumpism has always been more about emotion than pragmatism.
But long before this week, Trump’s grip on the party was weakening. An NBC News poll in October 2020 found that 54 percent of Republicans identified more as Trump supporters than as supporters of the party. By the eve of Election Day 2022, that had dropped to 30 percent — a record low. And it’s quite plausible it’ll drop further now.
And perhaps most troublingly for Trump, who has smacked down any Republican who dares to challenge him, he can’t seem to do that so well with Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. Trump’s decision to start going after DeSantis has gone over like a lead balloon in some corners of the party. And again, Trump can either commit to it or look like he backed down.
Even three months ago, we had DeSantis overtaking Trump as the most likely GOP nominee in 2024. After DeSantis’s reelection landslide and Trump’s very bad day last week, we feel significantly more confident of that. The lane for a credible alternative who can make their nomination bid about actually winning the White House is now significantly wider — whether that’s DeSantis or someone else. And while the polling since Election Day is scant, new surveys from GOP-leaning groups in Iowa, New Hampshire, Florida, Georgia and Texas all show DeSantis suddenly asserting a lead.
Below are our latest rankings of the top 10 candidates most likely to be the GOP presidential nominee in 2024. As usual, this takes into account both their likelihood of running and their prospects if they do.
Honorable mention: Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.), Sen. Josh Hawley (Mo.), Sen. Tom Cotton (Ark.), Rep. Liz Cheney (Wyo.), Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson, South Dakota Gov. Kristi L. Noem, Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, former New Jersey governor Chris Christie, Donald Trump Jr.
Previously on this list, at No. 6: Arizona gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake, who — like many MAGA candidates this cycle — ultimately lost her very winnable race and lagged much of her party on the same ballot.
10. Sen. Rick Scott: On the one hand, the 2022 election was a major setback for the senator from Florida, whose stint as chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee ends without his having secured what had been a very winnable majority — and could even result in losing a seat if the GOP loses the Georgia runoff. But he’s now moving forward with a leadership challenge to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) anyway. If that fails, as expected, though? Scott seems rather impatient with where he is. (Previous ranking: 8)
9. Gov. Chris Sununu: Sununu is the only entrant on this list who has really leaned into criticizing Trump. To the extent there’s any appetite for that kind of candidate, he’d be the odds-on favorite for that lane. (Not coincidentally, he also notched one of the country’s biggest statement wins on Election Day, winning reelection in New Hampshire by 15 points — even as the GOP lost the state’s Senate race.) Sununu has given conflicting signals about whether he’ll run, but he’s also preparing to tour the country to make the case for his vision of conservatism. And he told The Washington Post’s Michael Scherer on Tuesday, “I’m open to everything. I seriously am. I never close off opportunity.” (Previous ranking: N/A)
8. Mike Pompeo: The former secretary of state kinda, sorta suggested late Thursday that the party should move on from Trumpism — or at least from Trump’s constant social media score-settling, which has been pervasive since Election Day. “Conservatives are elected when we deliver,” he tweeted. “Not when we just rail on social media. That’s how we can win.” (Previous ranking: 9)
7. Nikki Haley: After the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, Haley was one of the biggest voices making a pragmatic case that the party needed to move on from Trump. (Like others, she quickly backed off.) But even as Trumpism suffered another big setback on Election Day and some in the party make a similar argument, the former United Nations ambassador has been remarkably quiet. She seems to have decided it’s best not to leap too soon. But if others adopt the same posture, it’s far less likely the party makes a clean break and rallies behind another candidate. (Previous ranking: 7)
6. Sen. Ted Cruz: Few were as wrong about the 2022 election as the senator from Texas. In a Fox News interview published a day before Election Day, he offered, “I think this is going to be, not just a red wave, but a red tsunami.” Days earlier, he had ridiculed President Biden for predicting Democrats would gain a Senate seat and could hold the House — and both possibilities remain in play. Also worth noting: He dinged Trump for not spending more to help Republicans win. (Previous ranking: 6)
5. Sen. Tim Scott: While all the focus has been on DeSantis’s performance on Election Day, the senator from South Carolina quietly racked up an even more decisive win — defeating his opponent by 26 points — albeit in a redder state and in a race Democrats never seriously targeted. And while celebrating, Scott nodded to what might come next. He spoke of going to the polls in 2012 with his grandfather, who voted for both Scott and Barack Obama. “I wish he had lived long enough to see perhaps another man of color elected president of the United States,” Scott said. “But this time let it be a Republican.” If Republicans want a steady hand who could be broadly acceptable to many portions of the electorate, Scott can make a pretty compelling case that’s him. (Previous ranking: 4)
4. Gov. Glenn Youngkin: The Virginia governor gets a slight bump up on this list, since his 2021 win in a blue state looks even better now. It’s true that he benefited from more favorable dynamics than were present in this year’s election. But the huge victories for governors like DeSantis, Sununu and Ohio’s Mike DeWine only reinforced the electoral benefit of having someone able to craft their brand independent of — without necessarily breaking with — Trumpism. Meanwhile, Youngkin’s lieutenant governor, Winsome Earle-Sears, on Thursday called Trump a “liability” and said she wouldn’t back him in 2024 — something that apparently prompted Trump to send Youngkin a warning signal. (Earle-Sears was elected separately from Youngkin, but this certainly doubles as a nice trial balloon without having it come from Youngkin’s lips.) (Previous ranking: 5)
3. Mike Pence: The former vice president continues to walk the finest of lines on Trump. In an op-ed adapted from his new book last week and in media interviews in recent days, he’s talked a little more about what happened Jan. 6 and even called Trump’s words in the run-up “reckless.” Pence said Trump “decided to be part of the problem” and that Trump “endangered me and my family and everyone at the Capitol building.” But Pence’s readily apparent timidity in saying this kind of thing nearly two years later — it’s always layered with praise for the good times, when Trump wasn’t endangering Pence’s family — only reinforces his core problem. That problem: He’ll need lots of Trump backers to forgive him for the sin of not overturning American democracy. Maybe that’s more possible now, but he probably needs the party to break with Trump much more completely to have a shot. (Previous ranking: 3)
2. Donald Trump: What limited post-election polls we’ve gotten so far aren’t great for Trump, but they also aren’t from high-profile pollsters. The question is whether Republicans are indeed moving on from Trump in the name of pragmatism. Trump is the first president since the Great Depression to lose the House, the Senate and the presidency in a single term. Indeed, he’s looking more and more like the man who last did that: Herbert Hoover. Democrats kept running against Hoover even after he left the presidency, and turned that into the best midterm of the century for the president’s party. At the very least, Trump is more damaged goods than he’s been at any point in the past six years, because his self-appointed reputation as a winner is in tatters — whatever protestations he made in his speech Tuesday about his endorsement record. (Previous ranking: 2)
1. Gov. Ron DeSantis: Conversely, the Florida governor’s stock has never been higher, as he emerged from Election Day as perhaps the biggest winner on the GOP side. Among the stats: He defeated Rep. Charlie Crist (D) by nearly 20 points, won the Latino vote handily and became the first GOP governor candidate to carry Miami-Dade County since Jeb Bush two decades ago. DeSantis had already been closing in on Trump; a YouGov poll last month showed the governor within nine points of Trump in a one-on-one matchup. And the biggest shoe to drop in the 2024 GOP race is now whatever DeSantis decides to do next. He’s thus far been reluctant to engage with Trump, and perhaps that argues for not getting into the race too soon. (Previous ranking: 1)