Conventional wisdom says that either Gov. Ron DeSantis or Donald Trump will be the GOP nominee in 2024. It’s easy to see why. Both are well-known and well-liked within the party. They both have gobs and gobs of cash. And, they are head and shoulders above the rest of the field in early polling. 

But, this also seems too… easy. If nothing else, conventional wisdom has been turned inside out and upside down these past few years. Remember when Scott Walker was the 2016 front-runner? Or Jeb! Remember how Joe Biden was all but certain to fall to a more dynamic and progressive foe (Kamala!). Or, heck, go back to 2007 when the matchup for 2008 was almost certain to be Hillary vs. Rudy. 

The path to the GOP nomination wasn’t always this uncertain. The phrase, “Republicans fall in line, Democrats fall in love,” was a pretty accurate description of the nomination process for much of the 20th and early 21st centuries. From 1952-2008 there were 10 competitive races for the GOP nomination. Gallup polled in all of those contests and found that “2008 is the only year in which the eventual nominee, John McCain, achieved front-runner status relatively late in the campaign cycle. In the other nine, the nominee rose to the top of the pack in the year prior to the election, and in eight of those elections, the nominee was the front-runner by March.”

2012 continued the pattern of unpredictability. At this point in 2011, polls taken by Gallup and CNN found a three-way race between Sarah Palin, Mike Huckabee and eventual nominee Mitt Romney. This year, it’s not clear if Trump or DeSantis is the “real” frontrunner at this point. On the one hand, Trump is the 800 lb. gorilla. He has a pretty firm hold on about 40 percent of the GOP vote. In a crowded field of candidates, that’s enough to win the nomination. On the other hand, Trump’s star power has clearly dimmed, and in one-on-one match-ups with DeSantis, DeSantis often comes out on top.  DeSantis promises a newer, younger, and more exciting future. Trump’s trying to sell season two of a series that was canceled a couple years ago. 

Still, being the frontrunner this far out brings its own set of challenges. You are in the spotlight, but also under the microscope.

Trump is used to the glare of attention. And, is clearly desperate to get back in it (hence his travel later this month to key primary states of South Carolina and New Hampshire). DeSantis has skillfully used his post as governor to build a national brand as a “woke” killer. But the scrutiny—and sniping—from his rivals has only just begun. In fact, I’d argue there’s more pressure on DeSantis to perform well these next few months than there is pressure on Trump to dominate. 

The best place to be at this point is under-the-radar but also in the public eye. When the others wilt, wobble or whiff, this person looks like an attractive alternative.

That’s why I’m watching Gov. Brian Kemp very closely these days. In a recent column about Kemp’s wooing of electric car battery manufacturing to the state, POLITICO’s Alex Burns writes that “[w]hile national Republicans are bereft of a positive vision — still reeling from the chaos of the Trump presidency and the misery of a disappointing midterm election — Kemp is a rare actor in his party trying something shrewd and new.” Burns argues, and I agree, that Kemp is “the most resilient conservative politician of the Trump era, with a gift for finding a solid spot on shifting ground and fixing himself there.”

He’s also the only GOP Governor who can boast of winning—twice—in a purple state (and under non-ideal circumstances at that). Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin can lay claim to winning an election in hostile territory, but unlike Kemp, Youngkin didn’t have to face a primary and can’t run for re-election. Kemp’s Lazarus-like rise from 2021, where he was a favorite target of a furious Donald Trump, to an easy win over well-funded Democratic superstar Stacey Abrams a year later is proof of his understated but incredible political skill.

A new poll out this week only helps to underscore Kemp’s 2024 appeal. The University of Georgia School of Public and International Affairs survey found the GOP Governor’s approval rating at a whopping 62 percent, including 34 percent approval from Democrats and 49 percent among independents.

For his part, Donald Trump’s favorable rating in the state clocks in at an anemic 38 percent with only 22 percent of independent voters viewing him favorably. Most notably, Kemp’s 90 percent approval among Republicans is almost 20 points higher than Trump’s 71 percent. It’s quite a turnaround from April of 2021 when Trump was seen more favorably by Republicans in the state by 15 points (87 percent to 73 percent). There was no better representation of the current political fortunes of the two men than the front page of Wednesday’s AJC, which featured a rather unflattering picture of the former president under the headline: “Decision on Indictments Soon,” right next to a picture of a beaming Kemp and the headline of “Kemp Enjoys Record Approval Rating.”

Also helping to make Kemp’s case is the fact that Trump’s showing isn’t much better than President Biden’s numbers in the state. Biden has a 35 percent job approval rating. In other words, if you want to make the case that you can win in a state Biden carried last time, Kemp has the strongest argument. 

The other challenge at this very early stage of the game is to understand the mood of the electorate. In 2016, voters clearly weren’t interested in another “establishment” standard-bearer, and despite losing the last two presidential elections, were willing to take a big risk with an untested, undisciplined, but utterly unique Trump. 

For Democrats in 2020, fear of Trump's second term was more powerful than ideology or personality. “Forget about falling in love,” Democratic voters declared, “we need to fall in line with the person best positioned to beat Trump.”

For Republicans, the mood this year suggests that voters are looking for someone like Trump just without all the baggage and the drama. Hence the appeal of DeSantis. But there’s no guarantee that it will be the case a few months from now, or that DeSantis will still be seen as the ideal candidate to fit that space.
 

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