Donald Trump continues to redefine the role of a U.S. president. Normally, a one-term president, who presided over the loss of the House and Senate and came up short in his own re-election campaign, would be a pariah within his party. Or, at the very least, someone who the party would like to keep out of the spotlight.
Trump, of course, has only tightened his grip on the party since losing re-election. His endorsement in a primary carries unparalleled weight, with GOP candidates tripping over themselves to travel to Mar-a-Lago to secure his support. His rallies continue to attract thousands of devotees. Drive outside a major metro area and you will still see Trump flags and signs dotting the landscape. Among Republicans, Trump enjoys a 70 percent favorable rating.
And yet, there's growing evidence from both quantitative and qualitative sources, that his path to a 2024 GOP nomination may not be as smooth as one would assume.
Republicans aren't opposed to Trump running again. A recent CBS/You Gov poll taken in early January found 76 percent of 2020 Trump voters either wanted him to run in 2024 or to "fight to be put in office right now." A November Marquette University poll found 60 percent of Republicans wanted him to run for president, while 40 percent did not.
Yet, for a few weeks now, I've picked up signs of ambivalence from some GOP voters about the thought of Trump running again in 2024. These aren't anti-Trump types. They like Trump. They'd support a candidate for a down-ballot contest like Senate or House who had Trump's backing. But, they are not sure they want a re-run.
Some think he's worn out his welcome with too many voters and won't be able to win a general election. Others are simply worn out at the thought of another four years of the "Trump show." Barney, a Trump voter in a focus group conducted by GOP pollster Kristen Soltis Anderson for the New York Times, doesn't think that Biden won the election "fair and square". Even so, he's not interested in seeing Trump run again in 2024. "His show's over," Barney said, "We need some new blood at the head of the country and different types of leaders. I mean, this divide among the parties is getting really crazy, crazy. And living where I do, I mean, it's just every day."
In a post on Twitter the other week, Sarah Longwell, a Republican political strategist and publisher of the conservative news and opinion website The Bulwark, shared similar findings among GOP voters she'd surveyed.
"In 2021," Longwell wrote, "I did 20-25 focus groups with Trump voters. Excepting some outliers, roughly half enthusiastically want Trump to run again. While the other half would happily vote for him, but prefer to move on to someone new, like DeSantis (most often) or Kristi Noem."
Other GOP strategists I've spoken with say they are hearing the same level of hesitancy in focus groups of Republican voters that they are conducting. These voters aren't against Trump, but they are open to the idea of a fresh face, one without all the drama and baggage that Trump will bring to the table.
It's also hard for anyone, even someone as good at commanding the spotlight as Trump, to be able to hold voters' attention and support for four years. Out of office and off social media, Trump no longer gets the wall-to-wall coverage he once enjoyed.
According to recent NBC polling, fewer Republicans identify as a "Trump Republican" today than they have at any point over the last three years. Since January of 2019, the NBC survey has asked Republican voters to choose whether they consider themselves to "be more of a supporter of Trump or a supporter of the Republican Party." For most of his presidency, more identified as a "Trump Republican" than a "party Republican." By the 2020 election, a majority (54 percent) of Republicans considered themselves more of a Trump supporter. But, since 2021, the percentage of Republicans who identify as more of a Trump Republican has dropped 10 points. In fact, today, just 36 percent identify as more of a supporter of Trump, while 56 percent see themselves as more of a supporter of the Republican Party.
And, much to Trump's chagrin, no one has better exploited the opportunity to be seen as a "Trump alternative" in 2024 than GOP Gov. Ron DeSantis. While Trump has been sidelined, the Florida Governor has been busy building up a national fundraising base, a political portfolio and national profile. My colleague, David Wasserman wrote about a conversation he had with a GOP strategist whose organization is privately poll-testing Trump against DeSantis in an imaginary 2024 presidential primary. The group, Wasserman writes, has found Trump's lead over the GOP Governor varies from 25 points in the Deep South to single digits in the Midwest, with a tie among GOP voters familiar with both.
Of course, there's no guarantee that DeSantis will run. Or that he would win. It's always dangerous to be seen as a 'front runner' this far out from an election. The knives will be out for the Florida Governor (and not just from Trump world).
Another "underrated 2024 scenario," wrote GOP pollster Patrick Ruffini in a Tweet the other day, is that "Trump runs and one big name from the list decides to challenge him. They don't win," Ruffini goes onto to write, "but in coming close they become the undisputed frontrunner for 2028, a la Reagan '76, Bush '80, McCain '00, Romney '08, Hillary '08, etc. It's high-risk, high-reward, in that they could fall flat on their face. But probably carries a higher probability of success than taking their chances on a 16-candidate free-for-all." In other words, while Trump still looks hard to beat, it may be a cleaner path to the GOP nomination than waiting — along with every other ambitious Republican — for a Trump-less primary in 2028.
And, of course, there are also plenty of recent examples of long-shot, single-issue candidates (i.e., not the big, flashy names with lots of money and press attention) who caught on and gave the front runner a tougher-than-expected fight. Think Mike Huckabee in 2008, Rick Santorum in 2012, Bernie Sanders in 2016, and Pete Buttigieg in 2020.
Bottom line: Trump is the most powerful figure in GOP today, but that doesn't make him invincible in a 2024 primary for president.