June 9, 2023

The Field Fills In

What is different now from 2016 is the growing view among many in the Republican Party that Trump is the weakest candidate to put up against President Joe Biden.

With the entries of North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum, former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and former Vice President Mike Pence, the 2024 GOP field is suddenly filled in and formed. While there are rumors of other entrants, the GOP appears set to avoid a rerun of 2016 with 17 candidates.

2016 saw Donald Trump beat Jeb Bush, Ben Carson, Chris Christie, Ted Cruz, Carly Fiorina, Jim Gilmore, Mike Huckabee, John Kasich, Rand Paul, Marco Rubio and Rick Santorum. Additionally, Lindsey Graham, Bobby Jindal, George Pataki, Rick Perry and Scott Walker ran, but dropped out before the Iowa caucuses. Scott Walker is most notable because he was the guy with all the buzz. He entered July 13, 2015, and was out by Sept. 21, 2015. Bush and Walker led the polling until July of 2015. In fact, the high point in Scott Walker’s polling was April 1, 2015. By the time he actually announced, polling averages showed his popularity had already declined eight points from his April polling high.

This year, Doug Burgum, Chris Christie, Ron DeSantis, Larry Elder, Nikki Haley, Asa Hutchinson, Mike Pence, Vivek Ramaswamy and Tim Scott will challenge Trump. The race is inarguably Trump’s to win or lose. He polls nationally around 50% for the GOP. To win the nomination, all candidates must go through Trump. What will be notable is how many of the other nine candidates will decide to make the race about DeSantis instead of Trump.

In 2016, Ohio then-Gov. John Kasich, a liberal Republican, stayed in the Republican primary attacking Ted Cruz, who much of the party began consolidating around against Donald Trump. Every candidate had withdrawn except the three. Kasich, instead of attacking Trump, poured his resources into stopping Cruz. Cruz withdrew on May 3, 2016, and Kasich withdrew one day later, having ensured Trump’s victory.

2024 could see a similar effort against DeSantis and, already, several of his rivals treat him, not Trump, as the man to beat. All this helps Trump. What is different now from 2016 is the growing view among many in the Republican Party that Trump is the weakest candidate to put up against President Joe Biden. Christie and Pence both seem to understand that Trump must be dealt with before DeSantis, lest they repeat the Kasich play of 2016.

With his entry the other day, Pence answered the question I have said he would have to answer that no other candidate would — why you, not your boss? Pence runs as a former vice president to Donald Trump. He has to answer the question why voters should pick him and not the man who chose him for vice president. His answer, onstage in Iowa, is that Trump asked Pence, on Jan. 6, 2021, to choose Trump, not the Constitution, and Pence chose the Constitution. Now he runs for the Constitution, against Trump.

Christie too, early in the week, blasted reporters for saying Christie seems more interested in running against Trump than winning the GOP nomination. Christie noted that one must run through Trump to get that nomination. Both men seem ready to kamikaze their campaigns into Trump, which might actually help them, but undoubtedly could help others.

As for former president Trump himself, he seems to have settled on a safe, conservative play. He will not take the stage with the other candidates at the first Republican primary debate in August. He undoubtedly hopes the candidates will, onstage, tear DeSantis to pieces. He has not barnstormed the country. He has mostly vented, in all caps, on his own social media platform, hoping others will screenshot and tweet what none would otherwise see. Like Smaug on his gold, Trump prefers to just rest on his polling lead while the other nine candidates fight each other. It is a reasonable play.

The problem, however, are pending indictments. Those may rally the faithful to him and raise his polling. But the indictments will cost him money and time and could wear him down, let alone cart him off to jail. There are risks ahead for the man at the top with nine ambitious men and women ready to take his place.


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