|Dear Readers: We’re pleased to welcome polling expert Natalie Jackson back to the Crystal Ball this week. She explores Donald Trump’s continued strength in the GOP despite a recent indictment. We also urge you to listen to our recent Politics is Everything podcast episode with Natalie, where we discussed Trump, the GOP’s polling requirements for entry into primary debates, and much more. Listen and subscribe here or wherever you get your podcasts.
— The Editors
KEY POINTS FROM THIS ARTICLE
— Despite a second indictment, Donald Trump remains in a strong position in the GOP presidential primary field.
— Trump continues to earn majorities or near-majorities in polls, far outpacing his rivals, including Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis.
— Republicans would rather have a nominee they agree with than an electable one.
Trump’s strong primary position endures
As the Republican presidential primary field fills out and former President Donald Trump confronts a second indictment, an intriguing battle of numbers has emerged among GOP pollsters aligned with Trump and Florida Gov. (and now candidate) Ron DeSantis over whether Trump can win a general election against President Joe Biden.
In a column for National Journal a couple of weeks ago, I discussed the team DeSantis argument and why leaked numbers that are favorable for Trump’s archrival are nothing to hang one’s hat on. The pollsters affiliated with DeSantis (or pro-DeSantis PACs) continue to push back on polls that look strong for Trump. In many cases their critiques are valid, but it’s unclear that a non-Trump Republican would overcome the hurdles they cite as problems for Trump.
Shortly after, team Trump has started pushing back by pointing out that the general electorate knows little about DeSantis, and demonstrating how they can make the DeSantis polling numbers look worse by saying bad things about him. That’s a common campaign message testing strategy that campaign pollsters use to figure out their opponents’ weaknesses — it’s just usually not made public. Like the pro-DeSantis leaked polls, however, this pro-Trump memo was leaked to make a specific point.
That was before Trump’s latest indictment, but the arraignment in Miami looks to change little in the GOP primary race. The particular Trump vs. DeSantis electability data war is likely to continue, as DeSantis has chosen to attack the Justice Department rather than Trump. Trump still maintains three significant advantages that DeSantis and the other candidates will have to climb a mountain to overcome:
1. Trump is earning majorities in primary polls
It’s still early, but both FiveThirtyEight’s and RealClearPolitics’s polling averages show Trump currently above 50% in national primary polls, and solidly leading in early state polls. Only a few polls have emerged since the indictment, but there is not a clear sign of this changing. It’s still early (repetition intentional), but breaking the 50% threshold is substantial, particularly given that the remaining vote has to be divided among a lot of candidates and only DeSantis regularly gets into double digits. A CBS News-YouGov poll, partially conducted after the latest indictment news, shows 75% of likely Republican voters are considering voting for Trump, with the next contender (DeSantis) being considered by 52% — and from there it drops to a fifth or less. Even if Trump loses a few percentage points due to the indictment, the uphill climb for the challengers is steep with a lot of rock scrambling.
2. Republicans think Trump is their best bet against Biden
That same CBS News-YouGov poll shows that 62% of Republicans say Trump would definitely beat Biden in 2024. A recent Monmouth University Poll had a similar finding — that 63% of Republican voters think Trump is likely their best bet. These numbers could certainly change. That’s true of any numbers in this column — that’s why I keep saying it’s still early. But nearly two-thirds of the potential primary electorate thinks Trump is the one to beat Biden. That means most Republicans are not open to DeSantis’s argument that he’s more electable. If people aren’t open to an argument, it won’t be very effective.
3. Republicans would rather have a nominee they agree with than an electable one
A moderate Republican would have a smoother pathway to victory than Trump or DeSantis, particularly given Biden’s lackluster numbers, age, and relatively low-key persona. But moderate candidates face a very difficult primary environment where ideologues are more likely to vote for strong conservatives. A March CNN poll showed 59% of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents would choose a candidate they agree with on the issues over a candidate who has a strong chance to beat Biden (41%). This undoubtedly favors Trump over other candidates. Michael Tesler pointed out in FiveThirtyEight that Republicans now equate Trump support with conservatism. The CBS News-YouGov poll showed that Republicans split 50-50 on whether they should focus on appealing to moderates and independents vs. motivating conservatives and Republicans.
There are still two significant complicating factors for Trump, though. The first is obviously his ongoing legal risk, with now two indictments and additional investigations ongoing. However, these investigations don’t seem to affect Republicans’ views of him, although an ABC News-Ipsos poll conducted after the second indictment does show that 38% of Republicans think the charges are serious, compared to only 21% in the first indictment. That said, the same poll shows that 80% of Republicans think the new charges are politically motivated, and nothing prevents Trump from running while under indictment — or even from prison.
The other complication is that the GOP primary field is large. It remains possible that one of these alternatives could catch on with voters and dislodge some of Trump’s supporters. A large field challenging an ex-president (an incumbent once-removed?) seems odd if Trump is really the party leader.
Contrast that with 2020, when Trump faced no significant challenges. That said, the GOP would have to align behind one alternative by January or so in order to give that candidate any chance of winning the nomination. And even then, we have no idea whether Trump or DeSantis, or any other candidate, would win. You can say it the other way, too: We have no idea whether Biden will win. It’s too early and the numbers all show a close race, as I wrote a couple of weeks ago.
Still, the evidence we have now indicates that if the field remains Trump vs. nearly a dozen (or more) others, Utah Sen. Mitt Romney is correct: Trump is “by far” the most likely Republican presidential nominee in 2024. Electable or not.
|Natalie Jackson is a research consultant working in political polling and a contributing editor with National Journal. More of her writing can be found on her substack.|
Author: Natalie Jackson