As is often the case, there is an uncomplicated way to consider the 2024 Republican presidential nominating contest and there is an overly complicated way to do so.
The uncomplicated way is this: Donald Trump is extremely well positioned to win. He’s above 50 percent in the polls and has been for months — well above the level of support he enjoyed in 2016. He retains high levels of approval from likely Republican voters that has not wavered significantly over the course of the year, controversies and indictments notwithstanding.
Then there’s the complicated way. It holds that Trump’s current position, like his position eight years ago, is a function of frustrating external circumstances that have allowed him to rise to the top of a crowded field. That, in essence, it’s Trump’s hold over a relatively small number of Republican voters that gives him an advantage — and provides a weakness. The complicated argument centers on the idea that there is a silver bullet out there in the world that either independently or in combination with other factors could fairly quickly negate the prospect of Trump’s renomination.
As is usually the case, the uncomplicated argument is the better one.
The trigger for this assessment, as you are probably aware, is Robert Costa’s report on a nascent (but not exactly novel) effort to coax Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R) into the race. Voting in the Republican primaries starts in a few months, you see, and Trump retains that wide lead, so the idea is that there simply exists no alternative to Trump who can eat into his lead. And that maybe Youngkin is that alternative.
To some extent, this is logical: If you think that a majority Republican voters might consider someone other than Trump for the nomination, it’s simply a matter of putting that someone in front of the voters.
One flawed assumption is obvious in that plan, though: There’s no evidence that voters might make such a consideration. After all, there are already more than a half-dozen people who could serve as that someone who have been unable to solidify a majority of Republican support — or, in most cases, even double digits.
There was someone who came sort of close: Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. He was running near Trump in national polling earlier this year, but only before he actually jumped into the race. Trump’s attacks on DeSantis, coupled with public appearances (like his visit to a train derailment site in Ohio) and the indictment brought against him in New York, helped Trump to gain ground and DeSantis to lose it. Once DeSantis announced, he got no traction.
The draft-Youngkin crowd have a response to that: DeSantis just isn’t a good candidate. And there may be something to that. Incidents of awkwardness have created a self-reinforcing narrative about the Florida governor’s discomfort with politicking.
But former ambassador Nikki Haley isn’t awkward in that way, nor are all of the other candidates facing off against Trump. And they, too, are mired in the single digits against Trump — suggesting that the key factor here may be Trump, not the opposition. This also gets to the other flawed assumption in the idea that voters just need to see the right alternative, so draft Youngkin: It’s a sort of ontological argument that ignores the possibility that Youngkin’s campaign skills might be no better than DeSantis’s.
There’s another problem, too. It is impossible to reconcile “the field is too crowded, making it easy for Trump” with “we should expand the field.”
Other Republicans skeptical of Trump have focused less on finding that one perfect candidate out of the 200-million-odd U.S. adults who fit the definition of “not Donald Trump” who might be able to beat him and, instead, on figuring out how to get more people out of the race. New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu (R) recently declared that narrowing the field to a one-on-one fight against Trump would lead to the former president’s defeat. Except, again, that this isn’t supported by the data. Trump’s above 50 percent! A chunk of those who support other candidates identify Trump as their second pick, meaning that forcing almost everyone else out would cause Trump’s support to grow! This strategy, too, wouldn’t work.
So we come back to the possibility of a combination: Bring in the perfect candidate and get everyone else out. Setting aside the scant likelihood of getting six ambitious politicians to agree that someone else would be the best Trump alternative, we can quickly see why Youngkin might similarly not be the desired savior.
There’s been some polling on a Youngkin candidacy. In May, Fox News included him in a wide field of potential Republican candidates for the nomination. Trump came in at 53 percent and DeSantis at 20. Youngkin landed at 1 percent, lower than former Wyoming representative Liz Cheney. Well, he wasn’t a candidate! you might respond. And that’s true. But it is also true that DeSantis wasn’t a candidate at that point either. Not to mention Cheney.
Earlier this month, YouGov went ahead and pitted Youngkin against Biden in a head-to-head matchup. Biden won by 8 points. Only 7 in 10 Republicans said they planned to back Youngkin. Sure, he’s relatively unknown, but he was also identified as “the Republican” in a matchup against Biden. This is not an indicator of a candidate poised to consolidate a party already besotted with Trump.
There are a few factors at play here. One is the ongoing sense among many Republicans who dislike Trump that, surely, their party couldn’t have moved that far away from them. That there must be something that can derail his candidacy. It’s a sentiment that should have been effectively quashed at some point in the past seven years but, for many people, hasn’t been.
The new Youngkin speculation landed on the same day as a New York Times report that should give the lie to this idea. The Club For Growth, which has had a rocky relationship with Trump, tried to fund an effort to undercut his candidacy. They found that their attacks often didn’t work — and, in some cases, backfired. This wasn’t a “perfect alternative” approach or a “consolidate against him” approach but a “take him down” approach, and it was not successful.
But this brings us to another factor. There are a lot of people out there in the world who have personal power, or money, or both, and who are used to being able to shape the world around them. There are a lot of deep-pocketed Republican donors in particular who meet that description. So they look around for a solution and, here, view Youngkin as a possibility. (That there is no shortage of remora-like consultants willing to encourage these flights of fancy doesn’t hurt.) Surely if they all coalesce around the Virginia governor, they can reshape the race!
Maybe. Or maybe Trump is popular with Republicans and holds a huge lead as a function of that popularity. Maybe there is no silver bullet here, no way in which that personal power can change the minds of the GOP electorate.
Maybe it’s less complicated than they would like it to be.