5 min read
US Presidential Primaries: Who Really Has a Chance to Win?

Yeshaya Gedzelman

Although the 2024 Presidential general election is still more than a year away, campaigning for the Republican presidential primary is already underway. Late next month, candidates who have received at least 40,000 individual donations to their campaign will be eligible to participate in the first primary debate. Much like the 2016 and 2020 primaries, the contenders will be defined by their opposition or support for former president Donald Trump. Trump has already cast doubt on his attendance for the first primary debate, citing his large lead and his belief that he would be dealing with a “hostile network”. 

Still, if Trump follows through on skipping the primary debates, it would be an interesting and perplexing shift in campaign strategy for a candidate who surged to victory in the 2016 primaries through the consistent media coverage that his campaign attracted. Although much of the negative coverage of Donald Trump was critically slanted, the increased media attention given to “the Donald” gave him an increased reach for recruiting potential supporters to his cause.

Trump's bellicose and condescending attitude towards his competition in the upcoming primary contest has been backed up by polling in recent months. Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, the candidate who has the best chance of beating him in the primaries, was trailing (as of July 15th) by close to 30% (Trump 50%-DeSantis 20.5%), according to 538 - the polling aggregate and ranking website. 2023 has been a disastrous year for DeSantis, who once led Trump in some polls as recently as December of 2022. A close look at the above-mentioned polling website 538 shows that since March of this year, support for DeSantis has never topped 30% and has even routinely dipped below 20% since mid-May. Despite the recent downturn for the Governor’s campaign and Trump’s huge lead in polling, DeSantis’ chances of winning the Republican nomination are greater than any of his fellow candidates not named Trump. His ongoing public feud with Disney over an educational bill that was enacted in 2022 (Often referred to by his critics as the “Don't Say Gay” law), brought widespread media coverage and demonstrated his dedication to fighting for conservative values. 

DeSantis showed his determination by passing the law, even if it meant taking on a multinational corporation as powerful as Disney, that is set to invest 17 billion dollars into Florida in the next decade. Now, he will face his next challenge, beating Donald Trump in the upcoming primaries. The success of his campaign will be determined by his ability to simultaneously woo voters from Trump’s camp and the centrist wing of the Republican party. 

Former Vice President Mike Pence also faces this same challenge. Once a staunch defender of Trump’s policies, Pence was accused by Trump of refusing to overturn the election results, around the time of the January 6th Capitol Hill riots, souring their relationship. Earlier this year in March, Pence accused Trump of having “endangered my family” through his “reckless words” and defended his refusal to overturn the election results, saying he “had no right” to do so. Yet, Pence may be too closely associated with the Trump administration to effectively distance himself from his former running mate. It is interesting that the peak support for Pence this year was on January 6th (with 11.6% Republicans backing him), though support for his candidacy in polls this year has rarely exceeded 10%. For his campaign to have any chance of posing a plausible challenge to Trump, he will need further regression in support for DeSantis and improve on his appeal to evangelical voters, who are currently the largest religious voting bloc in the US. He will also need to defend his participation in the Trump White House without further alienating Trump’s voters and demonstrate that his brand of conservative and religious values is not too extreme for centrist Republicans. Barring this herculean effort, it appears unlikely he will be able to establish himself as a serious contender for the nomination. 

During the 2016 Republican party presidential primaries, there was a significant minority of the GOP (An acronym for “Grand Old Party'', a nickname for the Republican Party) voting base that was often referred to as “Never Trumpers”. These centrist and typically neoconservative Republicans were determined in their opposition to Trump’s candidacy and preferred to vote in the 2016 primaries for any of the Republican candidates, aside from Trump. Although the vast majority of Republicans voted for Trump in the 2016 general elections, a sizable segment of conservatives only backed him because their alternative was to vote for Hillary. Once again, a number of candidates will compete to win the support of this centrist sect of the Republican party. 

One interesting contender is Vivek Ramaswamy, a relatively unknown (compared to his fellow candidates) figure in politics until his Presidential run this year. Ramaswamy’s CV is the epitome of an American success story. The son of Indian immigrants, he received degrees from Harvard and Yale, and has achieved an impressive record of business success, with Forbes estimating his net worth at $630 million. In March, his campaign was receiving poll averages of less than 1%, but since then his campaign has steadily improved its showing in the polls, with support for his candidacy now receiving polling averages of 6.8% (as of July 30th, 2023),  and he is currently garnering more support in the polls then anyone not named Trump or DeSantis. 

Aside from Ramaswamy, there are two other candidates that have a viable chance to tap into the neo-conservative faction within the GOP. Ever since she resigned from her post as ambassador to the UN during the Trump administration, many political analysts suspected Nikki Haley would run for president in 2024. During her tenure as Governor of South Carolina, Haley gained large-scale media coverage for her decision to take down the long-standing confederate flag hanging on the grounds of the state’s legislature. The daughter of Indian immigrants, Haley’s career has been a story of impressive trailblazing. She was South Carolina's first female governor and the first Indian-American to serve in a presidential cabinet. Since she announced her candidacy, support for her in the polls has fluctuated from a minimum of greater than 3% to a maximum of nearly 10%. Her campaign has struggled to sustain any momentum this year in polling, so Haley will need to increase her support base during the debates in order to have a fighting chance in 2024. 

Like Haley, Senator Tim Scott is also a rising star in the GOP hailing from “the Palmetto State” (the nickname for South Carolina). So far, Senator Scott has failed to achieve much support for his candidacy according to polling, at times support for his campaign has even been below 1%. He faces an uphill battle in the coming months to convince donors and voters that he has a plausible chance, when the dust settles, to be the party’s standard bearer. 

On January 15th of next year,  Republicans will officially inaugurate the primary contest when Iowa hosts the first of the fifty presidential caucuses. For there to be any chance that the Republican party will nominate another candidate besides Trump, several things will need to happen. First, there will need to be a candidate that can effectively convince Republicans that they have a more viable chance than Trump of achieving victory in a head-to-head matchup against President Joe Biden. One way they can advocate for this idea is by pointing to the results of the 2020 presidential elections and Trump’s poor showing with independents. In the 2016 elections, Trump received slightly more of the independent vote against Clinton (Trump 43%-Clinton 42%). The 2020 elections were a different story for Trump’s performance with independent voters, losing by a margin of 9% (Biden 52%-Trump 43%). 

Trump’s rivals will need to be able to make an effective case that Trump cannot win in 2024 if they want to siphon off support from his voter base and wrest away his control of the party. They will likely point to the difficulties of nominating a candidate with looming legal battles and a tendency towards incendiary rhetoric. Still, barring an unforeseen collapse of Trump’s campaign, it would appear he is well on his way to securing the Republican nomination for 2024. While a lot can happen before the primaries start in January, based on the polling to-date, it seems very likely that Trump will be the nominee. There is still time left for other candidates to convince the Republican Party that nominating Trump again would be a mistake. So as the primary contest begins in earnest, observers should expect to see an escalation in rhetoric between Trump and everybody else. However, when the dust settles, expect Trump to be the next GOP nominee for President.

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