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The Republican Presidential Primary: Still Early, but Maybe Getting Late


— The calendar year before the presidential primary voting begins is often defined by winnowing, as contenders emerge and then fade.

— But Donald Trump and Ron DeSantis are taking up so much oxygen that we may already have the top contenders, with everyone else who runs essentially an afterthought.

— DeSantis is polling well for a non-candidate, but we need to see how he actually performs before assuming that his support is solid.

— If another candidate supplants DeSantis (or Trump), or at least vaults into their stratosphere, don’t necessarily assume it will be someone who is currently well-known now or has a lot of formal political experience.

Assessing the GOP presidential primary

It feels late — and also early — in the race for the Republican presidential nomination.

It may be late because despite the fact that we are still nearly a year away from the actual voting, the top 2 contenders seem to be so clear. The winnowing process that so often defines the year in advance of the primary voting may have effectively already happened – it’s just that the winnowed candidates, some of whom aren’t even candidates yet, don’t know that their fate is already sealed.

And yet it may be very early because the person who seems like Donald Trump’s chief rival, Gov. Ron DeSantis (R-FL), is both in an enviable, impressive position but also is unproven as a national candidate, which means he is not guaranteed to have staying power.

Donald Trump already served a single term as president, lost reelection, and is seeking to be renominated, putting him in the position of being a quasi-incumbent. In national polls of the GOP presidential primary that ask about multiple candidates, Trump typically registers in the 40s, sometimes getting into the 50s. That is a strong starting point, but he is not the undisputed leader of the party, like he was in 2020 when he was an incumbent running for reelection. He also may be coasting to some degree on name ID. Still, Republicans have long struggled to actually land punches on him — to the extent they have even tried.

Meanwhile, DeSantis remains an undeclared candidate, but he is acting very much like an actual candidate. He just released a book, and he embarked on a national tour recently, including speaking at one of the great Republican forums in the country, the Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, California. While he generally polls considerably lower than Trump in national polls, DeSantis still registers a level of support ranging from the mid-20s to the low-to-mid 30s. That is impressive for someone who has never before run for president or been part of a presidential ticket, as Nate Cohn recently documented in the New York Times.

In the RealClearPolitics average of national polls, Trump and DeSantis together get about 75% of the total support. That’s a little bit more than what national polls showed in the early days of the 2008 Democratic presidential primary, which turned into a 2-way contest between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama: At this time in 2007, Obama and Clinton generally shared about 60%-65% of the support in national polls. Maybe this race will just end up looking a lot like that 2008 Democratic contest — one in which many candidates competed, but only 2, Clinton and Obama, ever really showed much ability to actually win the nomination.

But this race is not guaranteed to follow the Clinton-Obama model. The composition of the debate stage — or stages, depending on the number of candidates — at the first Republican presidential primary debate in August remains a mystery. Political scientist Seth Masket has identified 14 potential Republican candidates, but only 5 of them have announced bids — and only 2 are people we would consider prominent national politicians. There is Trump, of course, as well as former ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley. Beyond them, there is businessman Perry Johnson, who was last seen failing to secure a place on the Michigan gubernatorial ballot; Vivek Ramaswamy, an entrepreneur and author; and Corey Stapleton, the former Montana secretary of state who has previously lost several primaries for higher office. Meanwhile, a couple of potential contenders have said they will not run: Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) and former Gov. Larry Hogan (R-MD).

That still leaves several other possible candidates who are technically undecided but have been behaving as though they might become candidates. DeSantis obviously leads that list, but we would also add former Vice President Mike Pence, Sen. Tim Scott (R-SC), and former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, among others.

Whether those candidates can get any traction depends very much on the first of 5 questions and observations we have about the GOP field.

1. We have to see DeSantis prove it

As mentioned above, DeSantis is in an unusually strong position for a newcomer to presidential politics. In addition to garnering a quarter or more of GOP support in national polls, DeSantis has arguably been even more competitive with Trump in state-level polls. He even sometimes leads Trump in polls of key states that ask about multiple candidates, as opposed to just a hypothetical head-to-head with Trump (where DeSantis often fares better). DeSantis has led Trump in recent multi-candidate polls of likely or registered voters released since Feb. 1 in California, Pennsylvania, and Virginia, while Trump has led DeSantis in Arizona, Kansas, Maryland, Missouri, New Hampshire, and South Carolina (we used the latest polls list from FiveThirtyEight to track these surveys). So the individual polls vary, but both Trump and DeSantis backers can point to good results for their candidate in individual states.

Say what you want about Trump, and we have said plenty, but he is basically a proven commodity at this point. He has won, he has lost, he has been at the center of politics for almost 8 years now and has been a well-known figure in American life for much longer than that. He is well-defined. He continues to face several ongoing legal questions — Insider laid all of them out here. These cases are obviously worth monitoring but we’re not going to assume in advance that any of them will ensnare him or cause his campaign serious damage. That is not to say that we should assume Trump’s level of support will be static in the primary — he may rise or fall depending on his own performance or the performance of his rivals — but at this point we think it’s less likely that he experiences huge gyrations in his level of support.

DeSantis is different — or at least might be different. We have no idea how he will perform as an actual presidential candidate, and the public’s perception of him is less solid. Maybe he enters the race, is well-received, and emerges more clearly as Trump’s chief rival, perhaps even surpassing the former president. Or maybe he flames out, as other seemingly formidable but ultimately unsuccessful candidates before him, like then-Texas Gov. Rick Perry after he was a relatively late entrant to the 2012 GOP presidential race. Perry skyrocketed to the top of the GOP field but then fell off quickly as he performed poorly as a candidate.

Current polling numbers are not going to help us project how DeSantis will actually perform. We don’t know what to expect — all we know is that we don’t know.

How well DeSantis campaigns is really the key to the question posed at the start of the article, whether it is late or early in the primary process. If DeSantis is as strong as he now appears, there just is not much oxygen for anyone else besides Trump.

2. Wine track versus beer track

The astute political journalist Ron Brownstein long ago coined the term “wine track” versus “beer track” to analyze presidential primary coalitions. He recently discussed the history of the dynamic and how it has often applied to Democratic primaries, but now is very salient on the GOP side (we recommend his CNN piece for a fuller exploration of this dynamic).

Basically, on the GOP side, the “wine track” means having a 4-year college degree, while “beer track” means not having a 4-year degree. Trump won in 2016 by not only doing better among beer track voters than wine track voters, Brownstein writes, but also because wine track voters were more divided in 2016 among different candidates than beer track voters were.

This blue collar/white collar divide is evident in polling. For instance, a recent national survey from the GOP firm Echelon Insights showed Trump leading DeSantis 46%-31%, with Pence at 9% and Haley at 6%. Trump dominated among those who do not have a bachelor’s degree, 54%-27%, but DeSantis led Trump, narrowly, 36%-33% among those who had a bachelor’s degree or more. The Pence/Haley combo also got more support among college graduates — 22% combined compared to 11% among the non-college group. This poll — and others show similar findings — illustrates the basic dynamic: Trump is stronger with the non-college group than the college group, and the college group is more divided than the non-college group.

We can see this at the state level, too. The GOP firm Differentiators polled likely Virginia GOP primary voters in late February, finding DeSantis up 37%-34% in a multi-candidate field. But the regional splits were telling: DeSantis led Trump by 14 points in the highly-educated Washington, DC suburbs/Northern Virginia region, while Trump led DeSantis by 17 points in rural, western Virginia, where 4-year college attainment is not nearly as high. This reflects the pattern we saw in Virginia in the 2016 primary: Trump beat the second-place finisher, Rubio, by about 3 points statewide. Rubio won the core DC suburban counties, as well as Richmond and its most vote-rich suburban counties. Trump won almost everywhere else, including landslide margins in many western Virginia locales.

So one can see the outlines of a dynamic similar to 2016, and how in order to defeat Trump, a single candidate likely needs to consolidate the “wine track” (college-educated) vote at least as well as Trump consolidates the “beer track” (non-college) vote. That candidate very well may be DeSantis but, again, we’ll just have to wait and see.

While individual states varied, exit polls in many GOP contests in 2016 pointed to an overall electorate that was basically split 50-50 between those who held 4-year college degrees and those who did not. Non-college voters more clearly outnumber college-educated voters in the broader electorate, but remember that primaries (even very competitive ones) are going to have lower turnout than presidential general elections, and that people with degrees are likelier to vote than those who do not have degrees. That said, it’s also possible that exit polls, which have a reputation for overstating the education level of the electorate, may have suggested that the 2016 electorate had a bit higher of an education level than it did in reality.

Trying to determine the education level of the likely GOP electorate is going to be a challenging but important task for pollsters in the leadup to the primary season, because there is likely to be a difference in the preferences of college graduates versus non-graduates, with Trump drawing more support from voters who do not have a 4-year degree and his main rival, or rivals, doing better with those who do have a 4-year degree.

3. Watching for a Carson or Cain

Though the 1988 presidential election is most remembered for its largely negative general election campaign between then-Vice President George H. W. Bush (R) and Gov. Michael Dukakis (D-MA), it was also the first of 3 attempts that Joe Biden made at the White House. While Biden ended up dropping out before the first primary votes were cast, there were a handful of other Democrats in the running — the press sometimes referred to the group of hopefuls as the “Seven Dwarfs.”

Some primaries that have taken place more recently — namely the 2016 GOP and 2020 Democratic contests — have felt more like watching 101 Dalmatians, to use another Disney reference. In the latter primary, roughly 2 dozen candidates ended up participating in at least one debate.

The ballooning number of candidates in recent cycles has been driven, at least to some degree, by the entrance of lesser-known, electorally inexperienced candidates. Could one or more of them break through, at least for a time, in 2023 or 2024?

Trump is the ultimate example of what has become a familiar dynamic on the Republican side: Someone with no previous elected experience achieving prominence within the party. But there were other examples in recent GOP presidential primaries. In late October/early November in 2011, the late businessman Herman Cain took a lead in national GOP primary polling. Four years later at almost the exact same time in the GOP primary, Trump very briefly relinquished the national polling lead to Ben Carson, a prominent former neurosurgeon. Neither first-time candidate lasted at the top for very long, and both ended up as afterthoughts when the voting actually began, but we do wonder if we may see similarly shocking rises this time.

It may be that the dominance of Trump and DeSantis prevents anyone else from breaking through. But if someone does, it may not necessarily be the most obvious, or most experienced, alternatives who do.

4. Home cooking

One thing to watch out for, especially as candidates enter the race, will be the strength of candidates in their own home states. Throughout the past several primary cycles, some candidates have been able to perform well in their home state, or region, despite having limited support elsewhere. For someone trying to actually win a nomination, doing well in one’s home state seems like a prerequisite.

One of the more recent examples, on the Republican side, came in 2016: Kasich carried his home state by 11 points over the then-ascendent Trump. Though it earned the governor a less-than flattering nickname — after that mid-March contest, Trump derided him as “1 for 38 Kasich” — it did give the Kasich campaign some credibility, in that he became 1 of only 3 candidates in a wide field to actually beat Trump in a nominating contest. The Ohio primary that year also previewed some of the dynamics that took hold in the general election: Kasich took majorities in several metro counties, but Trump won almost every county in the state’s post-industrial Appalachian east. Still, on that same primary day, Trump easily won Florida over home-state Sen. Rubio, which pushed Rubio out of the race.

In past cycles, the “favorite son” effect has made some contests that occur earlier on the calendar less predictive. In 1992, the Iowa caucus, which kickstarted the campaigns of future presidents Jimmy Carter in 1976 and Barack Obama in 2008, got little attention. That year, its home state senator, prairie populist Tom Harkin, was running. As other Democrats eschewed Iowa, and Harkin won with close to 80% of the vote. But in the next contest, the New Hampshire primary, Harkin’s fourth place showing cast doubt on his national viability. Bill Clinton, a southerner who finished second to former Sen. Paul Tsongas of neighboring Massachusetts, meanwhile spun his relatively strong showing by famously declaring himself the “comeback kid.”

South Carolina — which has, all things considered, been one of the more predictive early states — has also occasionally been impacted by home region candidates. In the 2004 Democratic contest, Sen. John Edwards, from next door North Carolina, won the contest handily but struggled in subsequent primaries, although he remained competitive in some other southern contests — most notably, he won his home state’s caucus despite having dropped out. Edwards, of course, eventually found his way onto the national ticket that year. In early 2012, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R) seemed to have some momentum but similarly stalled out — he carried South Carolina and then his neighboring home state, Georgia, on Super Tuesday. Former Sen. Rick Santorum (R-PA) then emerged as the most viable conservative alternative to eventual nominee Mitt Romney (R-MA). Had Gingrich not been in the running, would things have been different if his voters consolidated behind Santorum?

The 2024 GOP field might include at least 2 South Carolinians, each of whom could conceivably have some similar home-state appeal: former Gov. Haley entered the race last month, while Sen. Scott has been sounding like a candidate in recent months. Still, with presidential politics becoming more nationalized, the home state bonus candidates receive has been lessening. In the 3 most recent South Carolina polls (all from conservative sources), Trump and DeSantis were first and second in the state, with Haley and Scott behind them.

In our home state, Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R-VA) has been widely rumored to be an eventual national candidate. While he gets a near-unanimous (87%) positive favorability from Republicans in the commonwealth, the aforementioned Virginia poll from the Differentiators found him taking just 6% against a field of potential candidates (another February poll from Roanoke College found Youngkin also at 6% in Virginia). Gov. Chris Sununu (R-NH), a Trump critic and potential candidate, polled at just 7% in a recent Emerson College survey of his home state. To the extent that any of these announced or potential candidates break through, one would think they would first have to show significant strength at home.

5. Trump’s candidacy is without modern precedent

Trump is effectively in an unprecedented position in the modern history of presidential nominations, a time period that covers basically the last half-century, when presidential nominations became much more about winning primaries and caucuses as opposed to using backdoor wheeling and dealing to win the nomination at the convention. In that timeframe, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, George H.W. Bush, and Trump lost reelection bids. None of the prior trio later sought a return to the presidency, although Ronald Reagan and Ford did discuss the latter joining his ticket as the vice presidential nominee in 1980. So what Trump is attempting is unfamiliar, as is so much else about his political persona.

In a webcast held shortly after the 2020 election, longtime Almanac of American Politics co-author Michael Barone looked to history when evaluating the GOP’s future. One of Barone’s conclusions was that past Republican presidents were typically popular with their party while in office, but had difficulty winning over their fellow partisans when trying to stage a comeback.

The best example of that phenomenon was from over a century ago (which, again, speaks to how rarely former presidents seek a return to the White House). After leaving office, Teddy Roosevelt remained a popular figure, and actually finished first in most states that held Republican primaries in 1912 — but he could not convince Republican convention delegates to dump his successor, William Howard Taft. Roosevelt famously ran as an independent “Bull Moose” candidate in the general election, which handed the presidency to Democrats. Pundits have discussed the prospect of a third-third party run by a snubbed Trump since at least 2016, but looking to 2024, Trump may face some logistical hurdles if he opts to go that route.

While history has not been a perfect guide in today’s politics — a recent example being Democrats overperformance in last year’s midterms — Trump’s standing with Republicans is not as strong as it once was — a sign that the party may be ready to move on.

Trump is probably the favorite to start, if only because — as mentioned above — we need to see how DeSantis performs. If the Florida governor does enter, and does maintain or grow his level of support after becoming a candidate, then the battle for the nomination becomes more of a coin flip.