We offer a field guide to the 2024 Republican presidential campaign.
Officially, the 2024 Republican presidential campaign has barely begun, with only two major candidates — Donald Trump and Nikki Haley — having entered the race.
In reality, the campaign is well underway. Looking at the historical evidence, Nate Cohn, The Times’s chief political analyst, argues that a typical nomination campaign is already about halfway done by this stage. “The notion that the campaign is already at halftime is a little mind-bending,” Nate writes, “but if you reimagine a presidential campaign as everything a candidate will do to amass the support needed to win, it starts to make a little more sense.”
Consider that Joe Biden won the 2020 Democratic nomination largely on the strength of work that he did — especially as Barack Obama’s vice president — years earlier. Or that Trump probably could not have won in 2016 without his reality television fame. Most modern nominees have had the support of at least 20 percent of their party’s voters at this stage in the campaign, Nate notes. Rising from obscurity is rare, partly because campaign donors and staff members have begun to pick their candidates by now.
For these reasons, there are two distinct categories of 2024 Republican candidates. The first includes only Trump and Ron DeSantis — by far the early polling leaders — and the second category includes everybody else.
When we asked our colleague Maggie Haberman to imagine a scenario in which the nominee is not DeSantis or Trump, she told us, “It’s possible, but it’s just very hard to see.” One way it could happen, she added, would be if DeSantis took a commanding lead and Trump then tried to destroy him. “If it looks like DeSantis is going to be the nominee, Trump is likely to do whatever he can to tear him down before that happens,” Maggie said.
Today, we spin out the possibilities in our inaugural field guide to the 2024 Republican race.
The former president
Trump leads in most early primary polls, typically with more than 40 percent of Republicans’ support nationwide. He could win the nomination simply by retaining that support while remaining voters splinter, as happened in 2016.
But Trump’s weaknesses are real. His support tends to be lower in higher-quality polls. Criminal investigations hang over him (as this new Times story explains). He has already lost once to Biden. And his preferred candidates underperformed other Republicans last year by about five percentage points on average.
Republican politics often have little to do with policy proposals these days. Still, there are potential policy debates between Trump and DeSantis. Trump has started making a populist critique of DeSantis for his past support of proposals to cut Social Security and Medicare. DeSantis could criticize Trump for supporting Dr. Anthony Fauci and for enacting federal spending that caused inflation.
The Florida governor
DeSantis has ascended to national prominence for two main reasons.
First, Florida is thriving during his governorship by some metrics. Many more people are moving there than leaving, The Wall Street Journal’s editorial board pointed out. Florida’s unemployment rate is among the nation’s lowest, at 2.5 percent. During the pandemic, DeSantis lifted restrictions relatively early, and many experts predicted disaster. But Florida’s overall Covid death rate is only modestly higher than the national average, and its age-adjusted death rate is lower. Last year, DeSantis won re-election by 19 percentage points.
Second, DeSantis delights in confronting liberals, and not just about Covid. He has flown migrants to Massachusetts to protest President Biden’s immigration policy. “Florida is where woke goes to die,” DeSantis has said, summarizing the fights he has picked on medical care for transgender youth and on racial issues. “DeSantis’s appeal right now is that he is perceived as both a fighter for conservative causes and a winner,” says our colleague Michael Bender, who’s covering the Republican field.
How might Trump attack him? “Trumpworld sees DeSantis less through the lens of specific policies than how they can paint him generally either as a phony or as someone partial to old-school establishment thinking,” Maggie said. “Mostly, they anticipate that Trump will try to smear him repeatedly and they think or hope that DeSantis will ultimately have to respond, which so far he’s mostly avoided.”
It remains unclear how well DeSantis, who is not a particularly charismatic politician, will fare in the rigors of a national campaign.
The potential field
Haley, a former South Carolina governor, is running as a Reaganesque optimist who believes in small government and foreign policy hawkishness. She served in Trump’s cabinet and describes him as a friend — while she offers a sunnier vision of America than he does.
Gov. Glenn Youngkin of Virginia, a former private-equity executive, also takes a Reaganesque approach. He is comfortable with business executives and evangelicals, two big Republican constituencies.
“I don’t like losers,” Chris Sununu, New Hampshire’s governor, recently said. “I’m not anti-Trump, I’m not pro-Trump. We’re just moving on.” Sununu also calls himself a conservative who’s not an extremist. Larry Hogan, Maryland’s former governor, would also like to find space in this lane.
Mike Pence is a longtime favorite of evangelicals. But Trump supporters distrust him for not trying to overturn the 2020 election result, while many Trump critics would rather not select his former vice president.
Mike Pompeo has a sterling résumé: He graduated first in his class at West Point, was elected to Congress and served as Trump’s secretary of state. He has remained mostly loyal to Trump. “How does he differentiate himself?” Michael Bender asks.
Here’s how one of these candidates might defy the odds: Maybe Trump is as wounded as some people think, or DeSantis will struggle on the national stage. Space might then open for an alternative, and one of the second-tier candidates could shine during the early debates and campaign appearances.
In past campaigns, early poll leaders have sometimes faded (like Rudy Giuliani in 2008) and long shots have won nominations (like Jimmy Carter in 1976 and Bill Clinton in 1992). Upsets do happen, but they’re called upsets for a reason.
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Matthew Cullen, Lauren Hard, Lauren Jackson, Claire Moses and Tom Wright-Piersanti contributed to The Morning. You can reach the team at email@example.com.