A couple of caveats off the bat:
- It’s still very early. The first votes are still several months away.
- Trump’s own problems have yet to really make an impact.
That said, the feeling that “Donald Trump is inevitable” is taking a stronger hold as his opponents – most notably Ron DeSantis – struggle to gain any sort of momentum. We’ve seen some movement at the lower end of the field (Tim Scott, Chris Christie, and Vivek Ramaswamy notably), but overall there just isn’t much happening that could shake up the field in the near future.
In a New York Times/Siena College poll of Republican voters’ thoughts on the country and the election, the former president comes in at 54 percent overall in the primary field, which is currently where he’s averaging among other recent polls. DeSantis is sitting at 17 percent nationwide in the poll, just shy of this 18.4 percent average among recent polls.
No other candidate gets above 3 percent, and 14 percent of Republican voters remain undecided.
On its surface, it doesn’t look good for anyone not named “Donald Trump.” He still has a commanding lead, he has the most passionate supporters, and he is the only one in the field with experience being president. He came into this campaign season a heavy favorite, and he’s done nothing to put his lead in jeopardy. Since that is the case, one has to wonder if there is a path forward for any of the other candidates.
It’s hard to say for sure. DeSantis came out of the gate well ahead of the rest of the non-Trump field, but he’s stagnated and even dropped pretty significantly from his peak, according to RealClearPolitics.
There is some other data in the poll, however, that may help illuminate the path forward, and there is still the matter of Trump himself.
According to the poll’s results, 16 percent of GOP voters are not voting for Trump in the general election. More specifically, when asked “If the 2024 presidential election were held today, who would you vote for,” Trump got 84 percent support from those polled.
What’s more 8 percent said they would vote for Joe Biden (which raises some questions about how Republican those Republicans are), 3 percent said they would vote for another candidate, 4 percent said they wouldn’t vote, and the rest were undecided. That means there is a sizable chunk of the Republican base begging for someone else.
There’s also the fact that Trump is at his weakest, interestingly, in the South. According to the poll’s crosstabs, he barely crosses 50 percent in that region, which is also DeSantis’ strongest region (22 percent there vs. 12-13 percent in the Midwest, Northeast, and West). In the Midwest, Trump has 52 percent of support, but every other candidate except for DeSantis does better in that region.
The Legal Drama
What the poll doesn’t – and, frankly, can’t – take into account is Trump’s legal drama. The legal bills he’s having to pay to fight the multiple investigations and indictments in court are an absolute drain on his resources, and while he may not be showing the impact of that right now, when it comes time to really hit the primary states hard, his resources will already be fairly drained.
That has an unseen effect on data like today’s poll, which is a national poll and while it does have some regional crosstabs, the more important data still out there is state-level polling. When you take that into account, you see that Trump isn’t as strong as he would like to be in the early states.
- Iowa: Trump is averaging 50 percent as of right now, but that’s with a big outlier poll that showed him at 62 percent in May. More recent data suggests he’s currently in the low-to-mid 40s.
- New Hampshire: Trump is averaging 41 percent, and Scott and Cristie have surged a bit.
- Nevada: Trump is averaging in the low 50s based on what little polling we have here.
- South Carolina: Trump is also averaging in the low 40s here, with Nikki Haley at 13 percent and Scott at 9 percent.
So, clearly Trump is still ahead, but there is the fact that appearances on the ground and in local media have a major impact on those numbers. The people in those states like to see their states getting attention, and they reward politicians for their efforts in that. If Trump can’t afford to make trips to those states, hold rallies, attend events, etc. because of court obligations and legal fees, that puts him at risk of losing some of that support.
But it’s a double-edged sword for those wishing to replace Trump. All of this data put together incentivizes staying in for the long haul as it suggests it’s possible to outlast Trump, which means resources to oppose him would still be spread thin. That could ultimately benefit Trump and keep him viable even with all the legal drama.
Currently, Trump can stay the course and still win the primary. In fact, right now, it looks like that is the case. But it’s very hard to assume he’s inevitable, given the landscape and the greater context of the election season. What’s not inevitable is DeSantis as Trump’s successor. He needs to right the ship, quickly, and not just reset, but rebound. And the other candidates need to find a way to consolidate their scattered bases.
The only thing that’s for sure is that it’s going to be a long election cycle.