Former President Donald Trump enters Wednesday’s CNN town hall as both the prohibitive GOP frontrunner for the 2024 nomination and a man just found liable in a civil case for sexually abusing and defaming former magazine columnist E. Jean Carroll.
While we cannot yet know what effect that verdict will have on the race for the Republican nomination, Trump’s large polling advantage was built with this civil trial in the news and after being indicted earlier this spring in a separate criminal case related to hush money payments to Stormy Daniels. (Trump has denied all wrongdoing.)
The leads Trump has in surveys of Republican voters and in endorsements from elected officials at this stage are some of the strongest for a nonincumbent in the modern presidential primary era.
Trump is polling, on average, north of 50% in national polls of likely GOP primary voters. His nearest potential challenger – Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who has yet to launch a campaign – is earning a little north of 20% of the Republican primary vote on average. No other potential Republican candidate is in double digits.
There are very few candidates, of either party, in nonincumbent races who were near or north of 50% in the national primary polls this early on. Those included Republicans Bob Dole in 1996 and George W. Bush in 2000, and Democrats Al Gore in 2000 and Hillary Clinton in 2016. All of those candidates won their party’s nominations, and none of those races were particularly close.
Interestingly, all the legal controversies involving Trump have not hurt him in the polls. At the beginning of the year, Trump was earning a little more than 40% of the vote, on average, and was only about 10 points ahead of DeSantis. Trump’s lead is now triple that at closer to 30 points, on average.
The advantages that DeSantis once had have similarly melted away. In New Hampshire, for example – the site of Wednesday’s town hall – DeSantis was up by 12 points over Trump at the beginning of the year, according to University of New Hampshire polling. Trump has now opened up a 20-point advantage in the latest UNH survey among likely GOP primary voters.
Of course, if it was solely the polls where Trump was ahead, that might be one thing. Polling isn’t always predictive, and there could be some underlying dynamic that could shift it. But the other big factor working in Trump’s favor is that many elected members of the party are behind him.
Trump has the endorsements of well more than 60 Republican governors and members of Congress. None of the Republicans running or thinking of running even come close to double digits endorsements from elected officials of that level.
The importance of endorsements should not be understated. The party apparatus uniting behind one candidate can often be key in turning a race around. On the Democratic side in 2020, for example, Joe Biden was lifted when his former rivals endorsed him ahead of Super Tuesday.
The failure of the GOP establishment to back a single Trump alternative in 2016 was part of the reason he was able to win the nomination. Elected Republican officials were splintered on who they wanted to be the nominee, and Trump was able to take advantage of this divided field.
This time around that option of the establishment rallying to a non-Trump candidate isn’t available to the same degree. Anyone who had a similar share of endorsements as Trump at this point in the nomination process has gone on to win their party’s nomination since 1980.
What might it take for Trump to lose his frontrunner status?
The 1980 Democratic presidential primary might give us a clue. It remains the only time in modern history in which a nonincumbent (Ted Kennedy) was polling north of 45% at this point and didn’t go on to be his party’s nominee.
Kennedy’s bid was overtaken by events on the ground. Specifically, then-President Jimmy Carter rallied back to win the nomination following the beginning of the Iranian hostage crisis. What was a clear lead for Kennedy became a large Carter advantage basically overnight.
The crucial difference here is that there isn’t an incumbent in the 2024 Republican race. Still, there are a lot of potential events involving Trump.
We don’t know how Republicans will react to his loss in civil court, which Trump has said he will appeal. We don’t know what will happen if he is convicted in a possible criminal trial related to the hush money payments. (After being charged by a Manhattan grand jury with 34 felony counts of falsifying business records in that case, he’s trying to move it to federal court.) We don’t know what will happen if he is indicted in other cases around the country related to his efforts to overturn the 2020 election, his conduct in the run-up to the January 6, 2021, attack on the US Capitol, and his handling of classified documents.
Perhaps the biggest unknown is how Republican voters will react if DeSantis actually gets into the race. It’s possible voters look at him differently if and when he truly starts campaigning.
For now, though, Trump is well ahead. It will take something big to knock him off his perch at the top of the Republican polls.