A few weeks ago, I had lunch with a seasoned GOP veteran who has been through their fair share of presidential political campaigns (but is not currently affiliated with any of the 2024 candidates). At the time, the question on the lips of most political observers was whether the newly re-elected Florida Governor Ron DeSantis could wrest the nomination from former President Donald Trump. This person, however, told me that they "believed in the field" of potential candidates, more so than the current frontrunners.
A couple of weeks later, another seasoned GOP strategist I spoke with had a similar take. When asked how they assessed the current odds for the GOP nomination, they gave Trump a 40% chance, with DeSantis and "the field" each having a 30% chance of winning the nomination.
In other words, both were skeptical that the GOP nomination would ultimately come down to DeSantis and Trump.
That theory looks quite reasonable today. Donald Trump has been indicted in New York City and is likely to face even more legal action against him in the coming weeks. DeSantis is getting attacked by everyone from Disney to Donald Trump Jr. as donors are reportedly feeling less bullish on the political aptitude of the Florida governor.
The field, however, remains small. Besides Trump, only former UN Secretary and South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson and businessman Vivek Ramaswamy are officially in the race. On Wednesday, South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott launched an exploratory campaign. A few more familiar names are expected to throw their hats into the ring, including former Vice President Mike Pence and former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu sounds like a man who wants to run, but it's not clear that he's going to do it. Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie likes to talk about what he would do as a candidate, but it's not like he's got a full campaign operation ready to hit the ground running.
The candidates who have announced or formed an exploratory campaign lack the name recognition of Trump or DeSantis. Among the other potential candidates, only Pence is well-known. All are polling in the single digits. Their below-the-radar status, however, could be one of their strongest assets.
Trump is taking up all the oxygen anyway. No candidate can break through that noise. Instead, now's the time for Haley, Scott and others to take trips to the early states without being under the white-hot glare of 200 million TV cameras. Test out the stump speech. Get one-on-one time with the power players in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina. Build some buzz with grassroots leaders and influencers.
Meanwhile, let DeSantis take all the incoming heat from the national media and Trump's social media account. Let Trump rail against the Manhattan District Attorney. The more damaged DeSantis and Trump look, the more likely that donors and voters will be looking for a fresh and unblemished alternative.
That's the theory at least.
And this is how then-Sen. John Edwards went from asterisk to 2004 contender. While early frontrunners Howard Dean and Dick Gephardt engaged in a knock-down, drag-out battle at the Iowa caucuses that year, Edwards was able to run above the fray, as a young, optimistic and approachable alternative. As the Des Moines Register noted in their endorsement of his candidacy, "When we first met John Edwards, we were inclined to write him off as the possible Democratic presidential nominee." But, they wrote, "The more we watched him, the more we read his speeches and studied his positions, the more we saw him comport himself in debate, the more we learned about his life story, the more our editorial board came to conclude he's a cut above the others."
As such, it makes zero sense for these lower-tier candidates to start a fight with Trump at this point. With the exception of Pence, the rest of these candidates are relatively unknown. They need to tell their story. They need to build a narrative. They can't afford to be known as the candidate who was first to punch Trump. That's not going to gain them any current Trump supporters, nor will it endear them to the majority of GOP voters who are looking for an alternative, but aren't interested in a "never-Trump" choice.
What about an avowedly anti-Trump candidate like Christie? What if, instead of trying to actually win the nomination, he plays the role of a kamikaze pilot? After all, Christie is the guy who ended Florida Sen. Marco Rubio's 2016 run by knee-capping him in a debate, even as his own campaign was also taking on water. But according to another GOP strategist (who is also unaligned in 2024), this kind of bank shot strategy is unlikely to work. Republicans know Trump. They know the good, the bad and the in-between. They don't need anyone, especially someone within their own party ranks, to tell them that he's damaged goods. In fact, said this strategist, those attacks don't pull voters away from Trump and instead draw voters back to him.
The other problem with the "field" theory is that no candidate in the modern era with low name ID and low standing in the polls has gone on to win the nomination. For those who point to Donald Trump's 2016 victory as proof of an underdog candidate winning the nomination, I will point out the fact that he had universal name recognition. That's not something that anyone other than Pence can claim today.
Meanwhile, other late surging candidates have failed to ultimately oust the frontrunner. In 2004, Edwards did go from 5% in the November 2003 Des Moines Register poll to second place in the caucus in January of 2004. That was enough to get him on the ticket… as the vice presidential nominee to John Kerry (who started the race as the favorite). Former Sen. Rick Santorum came from waaaaay behind in 2012 to the last man standing versus former Gov. Mitt Romney. But he ended up 1,063 delegates behind Romney (who was the early frontrunner). And in 2020, a little-known South Bend Mayor – Pete Buttigieg – won (*) the Iowa caucuses, came in second in New Hampshire, and… promptly dropped out and rallied behind South Carolina winner Joe Biden (the early frontrunner) a couple weeks later.
But as the saying goes, you can't win if you don't play. A terrible debate performance by DeSantis or a scandal that consumes the Florida governor's time and attention, for example, could open up a slot for one of these candidates to capture the large chunk of the "sometimes Trump" voters that DeSantis currently holds. Should Trump decide not to run (a very unlikely scenario), all bets are off. The number of candidates running would explode and the free-for-all would promise a fierce contest through the primary season.
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