If the 2024 Republican primary were held today, Donald Trump would be renominated as the party’s presidential candidate. But this hoary formulation for elevating the importance of the current state of polling carries with it a very burdensome set of caveats: Primaries are held over time, not all at once, and it will be a year before those primaries are complete. In the call and response of discussing polling at this point in time, that’s the first response: It’s still pretty early.
It’s not that early, though, and we can already get a sense of where things are headed. Trump is, in fact, in the lead, trailed by an increasingly large coterie of opponents.
Which brings us to another polling-related call and response. Trump leading a crowded field is exactly where things stood when he began picking off primaries on his path to the nomination seven years ago. But this year — even this early — there are two important differences.
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You can see those differences when you consider FiveThirtyEight’s running average of national polling. Eight years ago, that average began in November. At that point, Trump and neurosurgeon Ben Carson were running about even. But then Carson began to collapse and Trump slowly added to his support. Once voting started and candidates began dropping out, Trump kept adding to his lead.
By the end, Trump had two opponents who had a large portion of the support of Republican voters — but it didn’t matter, since those opponents (Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas and Ohio Gov. John R. Kasich) hadn’t won nearly enough delegates to compete for the nomination at the convention. The push from Republicans opposed to Trump for the eventual nominee to face only one clear alternative was unsuccessful, killed at the hands of the ambitions of Republicans who all wanted to be that alternative.
On Feb. 1, 2016, Trump had about a third of Republican primary support. Cruz, in second — though the winner of that day’s Iowa caucuses — had only half as much support. But half the electorate was splintered among a slew of other candidates.
Now look at where the polling average stands now.
There are fewer national polls, which means less movement. But you can see two ways in which the state of the field is different. First, Trump has much more support now than he did in 2015. Second, he really only has one strong opponent. In fact, if you look at the right edge of the green section — indicating the upper limit of the combined support for Trump and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis — you can see that it rides along the 75 percent mark. Since March, about three-quarters of Republicans have said they plan to vote for Trump or DeSantis, with the only change being Trump gaining more of that support.
Now imagine that the election were held today — or, at least, that voting was to begin today. It’s not like Feb. 1, 2016, when Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida was trailing just behind Cruz or Ben Carson was just a bit further back. If you’re searching for a viable alternative to Trump, there’s only one contender: DeSantis, who has four times the support of former vice president Mike Pence, who’s in a distant third. If voting were today and Pence suggested that he was the only guy who could pass Trump, he would be laughed at.
Then there’s the other difference: Trump is way ahead of everyone else. He was doubling up Cruz on Feb. 1, 2016. But he’s more than doubling DeSantis now. DeSantis says he’s the only guy who can beat Trump, but that, too, should inspire some chuckles among anyone looking solely at polling.
The inevitable response: things will change! And, sure. That’s true. But even a more modest Trump lead is a huge advantage, as it was in 2016. That year, he built a delegate lead much faster than he built a polling lead, because the GOP primary process is built to advantage the front-runner. Contests are often winner-take-all when it comes to delegates, meaning that the winner of a 40 percent plurality of the vote gets 100 percent of the delegates to bring to the convention and vote on the nominee. Other contests are winner-take-most, meaning that the winner gets a disproportionate share.
For anyone but Trump to be the nominee, he needs to lose a large chunk of his support. For anyone but Trump or DeSantis to be the nominee, someone needs to make a real challenge to DeSantis — and then hope Trump loses that chunk.
That doesn’t need to happen now, of course. There’s still time! But, as the veteran campaign strategist Stuart Stevens likes to say, the only nonrenewable resource in a campaign is time. And time is passing at a rate that should increasingly make everyone but Trump nervous.
Source: Washington Post
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