By Tito Rebecchini
On paper, the Republican presidential primary election is well over a year away. In reality, it is already well underway. It started the very moment Donald Trump lost the presidential election in November 2020. Since Trump’s loss, various ambitious Republicans have been testing the waters for a presidential run.
The stage is now set for the start of a brutal intra-party conflict. Some powerful and influential figures vying for the top spot. Other than Trump, Ron DeSantis, Mike Pence, and Nikki Haley are aiming for the top job.
The 2024 Republican primary hinges on a crucial question. Is Trump going to win the Republican candidacy a third time, or is another contender going to steal his crown as king of the Republican Party?
The front-runner: Donald Trump
The biggest name on the list, and as it stands the most likely winner, is none other than former president Trump. Despite losing in 2020, he remains the leader in early polling at around 44%, according to FiveThirtyEight.
Some reasons for his frontrunner status are the fact that he has served a term as president already and faces no issues with publicity and name recognition. He also benefits from an ultra-loyalist, sometimes cult-like following mainly drawn from grassroots Republicans.
Nevertheless, since leaving office, Mr. Trump has struggled to regain steam. He has been plagued by scandals and seems to be off his game in recent times. Various legal investigations, most prominently one that culminated in an FBI raid of his Mar-a-Lago residence, have given him negative publicity.
Furthermore, meetings with Nazi sympathisers Nick Fuentes and Kanye West may have turned off more moderate Republicans. He has faced a never-ending stream of legal issues, both relating to his time as president and to his business ventures, and they do not seem likely to end anytime soon. Scandals upon scandals may be too much even for the former president. If too many worries start to circulate over Trump’s electability, Republican elites may move to boost a rival.
The most recent scandal, an indictment regarding Trump’s hush-money payments to a pornographic actress, may be enough to sway Republican voters away from Trump. While it is yet unclear what the electoral effect of the legal proceedings is, the trial will take time and money, which means Trump will be less able to campaign. It also raises concerns over his electability. Nevertheless, his most ardent supporters came out to protest the decision, sparking security concerns.
Trump may face a serious problem; his base of support within the Republican Party is primarily working-class whites and ethnic minority Republicans. These groups are historically the least reliable and most unlikely to turn out to vote. If Trump loses the primary, it will inevitably be down to low turnout in the aforementioned groups.
Trump has maintained a favourability rating of between -10 and -13, a very steady rate, for over a year. It is currently around 55% unfavourable and 41% favourable.
Mr. Trump declared his candidacy for the presidential primary on 15 November 2022, very early on compared to historical examples. This decision is proving to be a gamble that may cost him dearly; only one primary winner since 1980 announced their candidacy outside the 220 to 420-day window.
The apprentice: Ron DeSantis
This perceived weakness by the front-runner has spurred Republicans with presidential aspirations to challenge Mr Trump in the primary.
This weakness had been a gift for one man in particular: Florida Governor Ron DeSantis. Mr DeSantis is a Harvard Law School graduate, a former member of the US Navy, and a three-term member of the House of Representatives, where he was one of the initial founders of the House Freedom Caucus, the far-right group of House Republicans.
On top of this, he has an impressive electoral record, making him an appealing candidate for those worried about candidate electability. Most recently, in the 2022 gubernatorial election, he won in Florida, a state with a PVI of R+3, a measure of the partisan lean of a state, by almost 20 percentage points.
As Florida governor, Mr DeSantis has gained significantly in popularity within Republican circles due to his leading role in the culture wars. His debut success was his strong opposition to mask mandates and lockdowns.
Since then, he has scored many political points by waging culture wars. Some of the most prominent are his attacks on the LGBTQ+ community and education via the ‘Don’t Say Gay’ bill, which heavy-handedly regulates classroom content regarding LGBT+ identities, and the politicised amendment of the African American history curriculum.
He is currently polling around 32%, making him a close second place. All in all, he is proving to be a serious challenger and a considerable worry for Mr Trump.
Trump recognises this threat posed by DeSantis and has not held back with attacks. Trump has claimed to have boosted DeSantis with an endorsement that led DeSantis to the governor’s mansion back in 2018. He has also come up with creative nicknames, such as ‘Ron DeSanctimonious’, ‘Meatball Ron’, and even ‘Tiny D’.
The ‘longshots’: Nikki Haley and Mike Pence
There are two other possible contenders; Nikki Haley and Mike Pence. Nikki Haley, the second major Republican to declare their candidacy, has an impressive CV. She has served as governor of South Carolina for two terms, then as Trump’s UN Ambassador.
Mike Pence has an even stronger résumé. After six terms in the House of Representatives and one as governor of Indiana, he rose to fame as Trump’s vice president. However, there has been no lack of bad blood between the two, with Trump siding with January 6th rioters who wanted to hang Pence. Pence gained significant attention during the January 6th committee hearings, due to his role in carrying out the vote certification despite heavy pressure from Republicans.
However, both Haley and Pence are not serious challengers at the moment and lack a real path to victory as things stand. Both stand well below 10% in available primary polls.
Head to head
A Trump vs DeSantis matchup seems to be the most realistic scenario at the moment.
A Trump win would reaffirm his grip on the Republican Party. He would have more authority over the party platform and would be able to exert his power of patronage. Trump’s endorsements are highly sought after, and they would gain further weight if they come from a presidential candidate.
Meanwhile, a DeSantis win would mark a turn away from Trump, without moving away from the far right itself. DeSantis would push many of the same right-wing policies as Trump, but he provides a brand of politics considered by many as more electable and respectable.
Politics is highly volatile in the modern world. US politics moves fast. Much has changed since the last primary, and much will change before the next one.