Comment: GOP field isn’t crazy to run against Trump, DeSantis

Those are the front-runners, but a lot can happen in the next year as the campaign presses on.

By Jonathan Bernstein / Bloomberg Opinion

With three Republicans formally declaring their candidacies for president this week and Miami Mayor Francis Suarez moving closer to his own announcement, it’s increasingly clear that despite his status as the party’s standard-bearer and his sizable lead, former president Donald Trump isn’t scaring anyone off from challenging him.

Neither is Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who while trailing Trump by double digits is still far ahead of any other contenders in both polling and endorsements.

Trump is regularly polling at slightly higher than 50 percent in national primary trial heats, and has the overwhelming bulk of high-profile endorsements. No wonder smart pundits are calling it a two-man race between Trump and the Florida governor, with Trump holding an overwhelming advantage.

And yet former vice president Mike Pence, former New Jersey governor Chris Christie and North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum all jumped in this week and are among 10 major GOP candidates in the race so far; eight of whom hold conventional credentials for the job. In this century, only the 2016 Republicans and the 2020 Democrats had more serious candidates. Suarez would make 11, and there’s still a possibility that others, such as South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem, might join the group.

Why all these candidates? Presumably because they believe they have a chance to win. (Yes, there are other theories about why people run for president, from enhancing their personal brand to wanting a shot at a cabinet post. None of these — except for running as a protest candidate focused on a specific policy issue or ideology — really holds up

We can’t know what candidates are hearing as they compete in the invisible primary, the months of seeking support from party actors that precede the involvement of voters beginning (for Republicans this cycle) in Iowa in January 2024. Surely what they’re hearing isn’t entirely discouraging, however.

And it isn’t hard to see Trump’s weaknesses. He’s already been indicted once in New York, is by all accounts about to be indicted in the Mar-a-Lago secret documents case, is likely to be indicted a third time in Georgia for attempting to overturn the 2020 election, and could still be indicted a fourth time by the Justice Department in connection with the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection. The original New York indictment, in which he was charged with 34 counts in a hush-money scheme, didn’t hurt him in polling. But it’s hard to predict how the party and its voters will react should additional indictments happen, especially if they lead to Trump falling behind in general election polls. GOP candidates appear to think there’s a good chance that more legal troubles will be a serious problem for Trump’s candidacy, creating opportunity for them.

Beyond that, Trump is averaging about 54 percent in national nomination polling, according to FiveThirtyEight. If even a bit of that is simply name recognition then he may not really have half the Republican vote. He’s not in as strong a position in early polls as Hillary Clinton was in 2016. It’s certainly plausible that those open to voting for Trump in a competitive primary against a mainstream conservative are already with him, while at least some of those who say they’ll vote for him might flip to a different candidate once they learn more about the alternatives. For what it’s worth, Trump’s polling is somewhat worse (in very limited data) in the early-voting states of Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina than he is nationally.

And while Trump does have a substantial lead in high-profile endorsements, over the past six weeks he’s actually added fewer than DeSantis and South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott. It could just be a pause, but it may be an indication that Trump’s support among party actors is more limited than it seemed earlier in the spring.

In other words, it’s not a huge stretch to believe that Trump could be weaker than he seems. And most presidential campaigns are premised on wishful thinking.

One thing I wouldn’t worry too much about is the possibility that New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu raised: that a large, split field will deliver the nomination to Trump. The history of the sequential nomination process is that winnowing works. Candidates drop out once they have no realistic chance at winning. It doesn’t matter how many candidates formally announce, or show up at the first debate. What matters is whether they drop out later.

Indeed, recent history suggests that several declared candidates will drop out before the Iowa caucuses. More will exit after Iowa and New Hampshire. It’s worth noting, as nomination rules maven Josh Putnam points out, that candidates only split the delegates if they achieve certain thresholds. And while it’s possible that several anti-Trump (or at least non-Trump) candidates could split votes so that none of them reaches delegate thresholds in Iowa and New Hampshire, after that most of them will have dropped out, so it won’t be an issue later in delegate-rich contests.

To be clear, Trump holds a large lead. Those who think he’ll collapse are probably fooling themselves, and if he does it’s likely DeSantis will win anyway. But there’s enough uncertainty here that it’s not crazy for other candidates to enter and odds are that one or more of them will have a significant surge in popularity — and polling numbers — between now and March 2024.

Which one? I have no idea. But I will suggest that Pence is better positioned than many realize to take advantage of a surge if he does get one; vice presidents and former vice presidents are systematically underrated, Pence included, and if the party and its voters do turn against Trump, he’ll be a logical candidate to inherit a lot of support. Which, of course, doesn’t necessarily mean it will happen.

Crazier things have happened. Just look at the last time Republicans had an open nomination.

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering politics and policy. A former professor of political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University, he wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.

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