The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The top 10 Republican presidential candidates for 2024, ranked

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, left, with his wife, Casey, and their children Mason, Madison and Mamie during an inauguration ceremony Jan. 3 in Tallahassee. (Lynne Sladky/AP)
8 min

The 2024 Republican presidential race is technically two months old. We say “technically” because there’s really only one candidate and very little sign that he’s running a bona fide campaign at this point. Instead, Donald Trump is making “major announcements” about NFTs and posting on social media. He just announced his first actual public campaign event … at some point later this month in South Carolina.

So where are the rest? If history is any guide, the hopefuls should start making their plans known starting in the next few weeks or months, tops. And when one gets in, the dam should break.

But history might not be such a great guide to the 2024 race. That’s because it brings some wholly unusual dynamics. On the one hand, Trump looks as vulnerable as ever to a challenge. But he’s still Trump. And basically nobody except Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis demonstrates any strength against him.

Trump and DeSantis are in a tier of their own at the top, but it’s not clear if a second tier has properly formed just below them. Plenty of Republicans have to be weighing not just whether they want to run against Trump but whether they want to wait and see what DeSantis does, lest they launch on a campaign but get immediately eclipsed by those two.

And for ambitious Republicans in those lower tiers, it’s got to be at least a little tempting to see how serious Trump is, before they come at the king. Some are making maneuvers and leaving open the possibility of a challenge, and some are even message-testing attacks on DeSantis. But you’re not in until you’re in.

So where do things stand in the prospective 2024 GOP field? Below are our bimonthly rankings of the 10 candidates we think are mostly likely to be the Republican nominee. (November’s is here.)

As usual, this takes into account how likely the individuals are to run, along with how likely they are to win if they do.

Honorable mention: Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.), Sen. Josh Hawley (Mo.), Sen. Tom Cotton (Ark.), Sen. Rick Scott (Fla.), former congresswoman Liz Cheney (Wyo.), former Arkansas governor Asa Hutchinson, former Maryland governor Larry Hogan, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, former New Jersey governor Chris Christie, Donald Trump Jr., former White House national security adviser John Bolton, former Arizona governor Doug Ducey.

10. Gov. Kristi L. Noem: This was a tough one to pick. Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.) falls off the list after indicating he’ll seek reelection rather than the presidency in 2024, but there’s not an obvious replacement. One thing did catch our eye recently, though: the South Dakota governor’s staff picking a fight with DeSantis. While responding to a National Review reporter’s inquiry on transgender issues, her spokesman offered what that publication described as a “an unprompted diatribe about the contrast between Noem’s and DeSantis’s records on the issue of abortion.” That diatribe questioned called into question how much DeSantis actually opposes abortion rights because he’s “hiding behind a 15-week ban.” “Does he believe that 14-week-old babies don’t have a right to live?” the spokesman asked. That should probably be understood as a pretty significant statement of intent from Noem. (Previous ranking: n/a)

9. Gov. Chris Sununu: But Noem isn’t the only one. One of the emerging potential arguments against DeSantis is that he’s too eager to use the heavy hand of government to wage the culture wars. And Sununu offered such an argument this week. “I think he’s absolutely right that the wokeness is really invading this culture in a very negative way,” Sununu said. “Now, where we might disagree is should the government come in and fix woke? Well, the government is never useful at coming in and fixing a cultural issue.” (Previous ranking: 9)

8. Nikki Haley: Haley once said she wouldn’t run against Trump if he ran again. That’s apparently out the window, with his announcing his run, but CNN reports that she doesn’t feel great urgency to make a decision at this point. (Previous ranking: 7)

7. Mike Pompeo: Few have made their designs on running as obvious as the former Trump secretary of state. But just how much of an appetite the GOP base has for him is another matter. Keep an eye on what happens when he releases his new book Jan. 24 and what kind of reception he gets on his book tour. (Previous ranking: 8)

6. Sen. Ted Cruz: Cruz was effectively the runner-up in the last open GOP presidential primary, in 2016. Since then, he has sought to align himself with Trump and focus on the large conservative market for Twitter trolling. What would he even run on in 2024, though? We’re honestly not sure. And he will be seeking reelection in 2024. He had a tough 2018 race, but Democrats might struggle to make that happen again. (Previous ranking: 6)

5. Gov. Glenn Youngkin: The lessons of Chris Christie loom large here. Youngkin is just more than a year into his term as Virginia governor, yes, but politics is often about striking while the iron is hot. Christie didn’t when he could have in 2012 and when lots of people were pleading with him to do so; he wound up an also-ran in 2016, when he was far less popular. A key part of Youngkin’s agenda did just suffer a significant potential setback, in light of Democrats winning a special state Senate election that could help them kill his attempt at a 15-week abortion ban. (Previous ranking: 4)

4. Mike Pence: It’s exceedingly rare for a former vice president to run against the former president they served with. But it’s looking increasingly likely in 2024, with Pence doing all the things you’d expect a would-be candidate to do, like making trips to South Carolina and The Villages in Florida. And his stock is arguably rising, as the party flirts with the at least partial break with Trumpism that Pence so badly needs. (Previous ranking: 3)

3. Sen. Tim Scott: Again, whether you want to call it a second or third tier, this bracket of Republicans is very amorphous at this point. But we can certainly see an argument for the senator from South Carolina having a shot to catch on in a way others like Pompeo, Cruz and Pence might not, given his personal style and compelling biography. It’s certainly notable that Trump is effectively beginning his campaign in South Carolina, where both a senator and former governor could be among his would-be usurpers. (Previous ranking: 5)

2. Donald Trump: It hasn’t gotten any better for Trump since the 2022 campaign left him at perhaps his weakest political point in years. He continues to trail DeSantis in most head-to-head polls. No, the race won’t really be one-on-one — at least not initially — but those surveys still mean something: They suggest Trump could at some point run into a ceiling of support. And just because, back in 2016, that ceiling wasn’t as low as we thought doesn’t mean it doesn’t pose problems in 2024. We continue to rank him behind DeSantis and feel increasingly confident of that. (Previous ranking: 2)

1. Gov. Ron DeSantis: You know you’re the — or at least a — front-runner when your would-be opponents start coming for you even before the campaign begins. But how effectively can those Republicans actually prosecute the case against him? Noem can argue he hasn’t been forceful enough on abortion, but he’s made great pains to appeal to hard-right social conservatives on things like the coronavirus, vaccines and gay and transgender issues. (As The Post’s Philip Bump notes, these issues conveniently put him to Trump’s right.) So he’s got credibility built in. Sununu and others like former Arizona governor Doug Ducey can argue for a more limited governmental role in the culture wars, but there’s a reason few are making that case; the fervor for those culture wars is obviously very strong. Despite Trump’s political decline, his ethos of fighting with any tool available — even if it’s the government — appears to live on.

Of course, now we need to wait and make sure DeSantis is actually going to run. His book drops in late February. (Previous ranking: 1)