Before the 2022 midterm elections had even finished, the 2024 presidential race was already underway, with Donald Trump formally announcing his candidacy on November 15. On the political right, two schools of thought have emerged regarding Trump and the 2024 primary. The critical difference between the two is that, for various reasons, one group wants Trump to be the GOP nominee in 2024, and the other does not.
The first group is easy to understand. These people supported President Trump throughout his first term and, despite a tough loss in 2020, believe he remains the best man for the job. Because this group sees Trump as the clear choice, they do not want other candidates, such as Ron DeSantis, to enter the primary. This side wants Trump to win the nomination uncontested so he can unify the party behind him while keeping maximum pressure on the Democrats.
The other group is also relatively easy to understand. They believe that Trump is not the best person for the 2024 GOP nomination and therefore seek to nominate anyone but the former president. This view is not to be confused with that of Never Trumpers, who are in a different category entirely, but might reasonably be called Not-Again Trumpers. Although these individuals supported Trump in the past, they see his 2020 loss to Joe Biden as evidence that he would be a weak candidate in 2024. They point to a disappointing Republican performance in the 2022 midterms—among Trump-backed candidates in particular—as further evidence that nominating him in 2024 is a bad idea. In short, this camp does not want Trump to be the nominee because it believes another candidate is more likely to win the general election. Because of his strong poll numbers and massive reelection victory, Ron DeSantis is emerging as their preferred candidate.
Lumping conservatives into two broad buckets risks oversimplifying things, but it serves as a useful schematic for understanding the broad currents of thought on the GOP primary. Indeed, the tenets of each group have already become entrenched and are forming the early battle lines of the 2024 primary. And yet, while they vehemently disagree about who the nominee should ultimately be, these camps have similar views on how the structure of the race should unfold—namely, that most Republican officials should not run for president.
Essentially, the first camp wants no one but Trump to run to give him an easy path to the nomination. Since Trump is already running, the second group wants there to be only one challenger to avoid splitting the vote, with Ron DeSantis being the most promising contender.
Between these views, there is little room for anyone not named Trump or DeSantis. But there are a lot of other prominent Republicans who appear interested in running for president. While Tom Cotton opted to forgo a bid, well-known politicians like Mike Pence, Glenn Youngkin, Brian Kemp, Tim Scott, Nikki Haley, Mike Pompeo, Chris Christie, Larry Hogan, and Ted Cruz all appear interested in running. Even Gov. Asa Hutchinson, whom few people outside of Arkansas have heard of, is considering a bid.
We can assume that anyone who runs against Trump falls into the second camp because they would simply endorse Trump instead if they wanted him to be the nominee. Moreover, while all of these individuals are qualified to be president, with the exception of former Vice President Pence, they have essentially no support according to the latest polls.
So, why should someone not named Trump or DeSantis run? The answer is simple—they should run to make the Republican Party better.
The justification for these so-called minor candidates to launch bids of their own follows the same logic as the defense of free speech. More candidates entering the race will allow the eventual nominee to sharpen their message and incorporate popular ideas from other contenders into their platform.
Chief among the benefits of a multi-candidate race is having options in an inherently uncertain political environment. A lot can happen between now and the Iowa caucuses, and it would be foolish to settle on a candidate this far out.
Trump is currently 76 and will be 78 on election day 2024; Ronald Reagan was 73 when he began his second term. It would be downright reckless for the Republican Party to throw all its energy behind a man this old, this far in advance. Similarly, DeSantis currently looks very strong and may be on a successful path to the nomination. But it is also plausible that the political winds could shift over the next few years, making him a less desirable option. Recall that at this point in the 2016 cycle, Chris Christie looked like a much stronger candidate than he really was. A scandal-plagued second term left him weak and ineffectual by the time the 2016 primaries were underway, rendering him a near non-factor in that election.
The point is not that Trump or DeSantis are necessarily bad options, but that it would be wrong for conservatives to prematurely declare that these are the only viable choices without even surveying the rest of the field.
A multicandidate race would also help the GOP update its policy priorities. Following an underwhelming midterm performance, the party desperately needs direction. The “Republican Promise to America” proposed by House leadership clearly failed to inspire voters, and the party has not updated its platform since 2016.
The best way to redirect and refresh the Republican Party’s focus is through an issue-based debate among serious presidential candidates. While DeSantis can point to an impressive record in Florida, other contenders also offer compelling conservative visions. Mike Pence, for instance, has crafted a “Freedom Agenda” that can serve as a valuable blueprint for the party’s future. Glenn Youngkin has been quietly enacting many significant reforms in Virginia and recently released a plan on housing affordability. Former UN Ambassador Nikki Haley brings a lot to the table regarding foreign policy, and Tim Scott has demonstrated leadership on the hot-button issue of criminal justice.
Conservatives should be pleased with the rich field we have at our disposal. We ought to welcome an open debate of ideas and priorities among serious candidates, as it will help the eventual nominee present a robust policy agenda in the 2024 general election.
Critics, especially those in the Not-Again Trump camp, will point to the 2016 GOP primary as a cautionary tale. Conventional wisdom has it that Donald Trump won the primary because too many Republicans ran for president and split the opposition amongst themselves. This supposedly enabled him to rack up an early delegate lead without ever garnering the support of a majority of Republican voters. For those whose main goal is to nominate someone other than Trump, this would constitute the worst-case scenario in 2024, which is why they want to unite around Ron DeSantis as quickly as possible.
If the conventional wisdom surrounding the 2016 election were true, then rallying around the strongest Trump challenger early would make a lot of sense. However, as is often the case when it comes to simplistic political narratives, the truth is far messier than first meets the eye.
Simply put, Donald Trump was the 2016 GOP nominee because Republican primary voters preferred him over the alternatives. To the average Republican, this statement makes perfect sense. But to a certain type of right-of-center pundit—one who probably disliked Trump from the start—this is a hard pill to swallow. To avoid facing this fact, some conservative elites have found solace in the idea that Trump could have been defeated if a single opponent emerged earlier in the process. The evidence for this notion is that Trump was winning contested primaries with plurality, rather than majority, support. In other words, more votes were cast for someone who was not-Trump than were cast for Trump when mutliple candidates remained in the race.
The talking heads interpreted this as evidence that a majority of primary voters were opposed to Trump but could not settle on an alternative. This argument is easy to understand, especially since it confirms the mainstream media’s prior belief of “Orange Man Bad.” However, it glosses over the fact that voters are complicated and do not follow the logic of political commentators. Basically, this argument assumes that anyone who was voting for a non-Trump candidate did so because they opposed Trump and that they would have voted for any reasonable alternative.
This assumption just doesn’t jive with reality. Strange as it may seem, there really were voters who preferred John Kasich but saw Trump as a perfectly acceptable second choice. This niche might not have been a huge number of people, but such a contingent existed and was large enough to push Trump into majority territory when combined with his own large base of support.
We can look at voters’ second-choice preferences from the 2016 primary to see this phenomenon in more concrete terms. A New York Times/CBS News poll from January 2016, conducted before any votes had been cast, found that 36% of Republican primary voters supported Trump. But an additional 11% of Republicans said he was their second choice. Essentially, weeks before the Iowa caucuses took place, Trump was already the first or second choice of 47% of Republican primary voters nationwide. A similar survey by NBC News during the first week of March, after the field had substantially winnowed, found that Trump was the first or second choice of 51% of Republicans.
People will inevitably speculate about what might have happened if non-Trump candidates had done things differently. But all available evidence suggests that Trump was going to win the 2016 GOP primary. In other words, Trump won the nomination because Republican voters liked him, not because too many candidates were competing for the not-Trump vote. At best, earlier consolidation would have delayed Trump’s victory, but it is nearly impossible to see how anyone other than Donald Trump could have become the GOP nominee in 2016.
It is vital that conservatives understand this fact as we approach the 2024 primary. If people in the Not-Again Trump camp approach the election falsely believing that he won in 2016 because too many candidates ran, then they will blind themselves to alternative options and ideas precisely at the time we should be considering them. Unfortunately, this is already starting to happen, as can be seen in some recent conservative commentary.
The takeaway is simple: every qualified Republican who can bring something to the table in 2024 should run for president. There is no harm in testing the waters and putting some fresh ideas out there. Of course, when the time comes, if a candidate can’t win, they should drop out and endorse the most viable contender for the sake of party unity. But for the time being, conservatives should welcome a lively debate about the future of the GOP, and the best way to ensure that happens is a crowded and messy 2024 primary.