For a while now, political prognosticators and armchair campaign analysts have mused that the GOP presidential primary is almost a carbon copy of the 2016 contest. A crowded field of candidates, few of whom are willing to confront Donald Trump directly, will once again ensure that Trump will roll-up primary wins and ultimately capture the nomination in 2024. 

Yet it’s also true that things are very different from the 2016 cycle. 

First, Trump is a lot more popular among Republicans and Republican-leaning independent voters than he was in 2015-2016. 

A Marist poll taken in July 2015 found just 41% of Republicans had favorable opinions of Trump compared to 49% who viewed him unfavorably. By July 2016, most Republicans had warmed to the GOP nominee, but a considerable percentage still viewed him unfavorably: 65% favorable to 29% unfavorable. This month, the former president — who has been indicted in two cases, found liable in a battery and defamation lawsuit and faces more potential legal jeopardy stemming from his role in the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol and alleged voter interference in Georgia — enjoys almost universal support among GOP voters, at 79% favorable to 19% unfavorable.

Back in 2016, plenty of GOP voters were wary of nominating the former reality TV star. A CNN poll taken in August 2015 found that just 38% of GOP voters thought Republicans had a better chance of winning in 2016 with Trump as the nominee, while another 58% thought Republicans would have a better chance with someone else. The most recent June CNN poll found Republicans more evenly divided, with 51% saying they had a better chance with Trump and 49% saying someone else.

In other words, back in 2015, Trump’s vulnerabilities within the Republican primary electorate were the size of a semi-trailer. Today, they’ve been reduced to the size of a motorcycle. 

Former New Jersey governor and 2016 GOP candidate Chris Christie argues that the only way to beat Trump is to go directly at him. “If you want to be the nominee, you got to go through Donald Trump. I don’t think there’s any other way to do it.” 

That may have been a good strategy in 2016, but it’s not all that clear that it will work in 2024. 

First, as a messenger, Christie is a flawed vessel. The June CNN poll found that 61% of Republican voters said they would not support his candidacy “under any circumstances.” A recent Marist/PBS NewsHour/NPR poll found Christie’s favorable ratings with Republicans deeply underwater by 28 points. In other words, not many Republicans are even open to hearing what Christie has to say, nevermind agreeing with his message.

Beyond the messenger problem, there’s a messaging challenge as well. When asked how they’d prefer other Republican presidential candidates to address Trump’s indictment, just 12% of Republican voters in a June CNN poll agreed that those candidates should “condemn Trump’s actions,” while 45% said they shouldn’t take a stand on it either way. Another 42% preferred that the Republican candidates “publicly condemn the government’s prosecution of Trump.” Overall, almost 75% of Republicans think Trump should continue his campaign for president despite his indictment, and almost 60% think he should continue to run even if he is convicted. 

That does not look like an electorate eager to support a “truth teller” about the dangers of nominating Trump again. 

Another new poll, this one from Marist/NPR/PBSNewsHour, suggests that an “electability message” is far from compelling to potential primary voters. When asked which was more important in choosing a nominee for president, a candidate who stands “on conservative principles” or one who had “the best chance to beat Joe Biden,” only 35% chose defeating Biden.

Based on this data, it is easy to understand why many of Trump’s rivals, like Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and former Vice President Mike Pence, are attacking Trump for being insufficiently conservative on everything from abortion to fiscal policy to “woke” politics. If most Republicans aren’t interested in seeing Trump’s legal troubles litigated in the primary, but are eager to support a candidate with well-defined “conservative principles,” this looks like a winning strategy.

However, I’m not convinced that traditional poll questions like asking voters to choose between “electability” and “values” or asking them whether Trump should stay in the race or drop out based on his legal liability, are able to fully capture the gray area in which many voters are currently residing. 

Reporting from early states is picking up some of this ambiguity. 

“Right now I am a Trump supporter,” said 76-year-old Karen Szelest of Indian Land, S.C., in a recent interview with the Associated Press.

“However, I think they’re doing everything they can to have him not run for president of the United States. And I think perhaps, for the betterment of the country, I may vote for somebody else because they keep going after Trump, going after Trump, going after Trump.”

“‘I admire Trump for what he did for our country; I admire him immensely,’” said Linda Chicarelli Renkes of Rock Island, Ill., in a June 17 New York Times piece.

She praised businessman Vivek Ramaswamy for his promise to pardon the former president if elected.

“‘But I’m tired,’” she added.

Thus far, no candidate has been able to find a way to fashion that ambivalence into a compelling message. It’s a message that acknowledges that Trump is being railroaded by the forces conspiring against him, but that same unrelenting pressure makes it all but impossible for Trump to effectively govern. In other words, it’s less about “Trump can’t beat Biden” as it is “even if Trump beats Biden, he’ll still be under attack. And, will have to spend his presidency focused on himself instead of the problems facing you and your family.”

In 2016, Trump was dismissed by much of the political class because he looked so obviously flawed. But GOP voters, who saw establishment candidates with “perfect” political resumes lose election after election, saw little downside to casting their lot with a candidate who was everything those conventional candidates were not.  

Since then, Republican voters haven’t become any more enamored with traditional political figures. Take a look at the GOP candidates nominated in 2022: a former football star (Herschel Walker), a reality TV show doctor (Dr. Mehmet Oz), and a former TV anchor (Kari Lake). The fact that all three lost winnable races hasn’t deterred Republicans from picking outsiders. 

As such, it is easy to understand why so many of the candidates running this year have failed to catch fire. While many of them boast of their time “standing up” to the establishment, all of them, with the exception of Ramaswamy, have traditional political backgrounds. It’s also why we shouldn’t be surprised to see a Ramaswamy boomlet. As Bulwark publisher Sarah Longwell noted in a recent tweet: “Was in Iowa this week doing focus groups with 2x Trump voters with @JudyWoodruff for @NewsHour. Of the voters that were interested in moving on from Trump (a clear minority), many of their heads were saying DeSantis, but their hearts were saying Ramaswamy.”

Ramaswamy isn’t interested in attacking Trump — in fact he has asked his fellow candidates to join him in pledging to pardon the former president — but he is trying to present himself as the most obvious Trump successor: an outsider, a wealthy businessman, a truth-teller who isn’t worried about upsetting the apple cart. 

Does he have what it takes to beat Trump and/or win the nomination? That’s highly unlikely. Trump, for all his talk of “outsiderness” was a very well-known figure who had been actively building his political persona and skill set for years. Ramaswamy has not. Moreover, his rivals are well aware of his potential threat and are prepared for it. “Scrutiny,” one strategist from another campaign told me, “will not be [Ramaswamy’s] friend.”

Bottom line: Republican voters’ attachment to Trump is not unbreakable. But, breaking it will require someone who offers a compelling and authentic alternative to the current frontrunner.

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