Conservatives across the nation are in the Washington, DC, area this weekend for the annual Conservative Political Action Conference.
Some potential 2024 Republican presidential contenders – such as Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis – have been noticeably absent. But former President Donald Trump will speak at the conference Saturday, and he comes in on a wave of momentum in the polls.
Trump is a clear, though not prohibitive, favorite to win next year’s Republican nomination for president. Right now, he’s averaging about 44% in the national primary polls. He’s 15 points ahead of DeSantis who is at 29%.
A 15-point lead may not seem impressive at this early stage of the primary campaign, but it’s notable for two reasons.
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The first is that most candidates in Trump’s position right now have gone on to win their primary. Take a look at all the candidates who were averaging at least 35% in past national primary polls in the first half of the year prior to the primary (e.g., January to June of 2019 for the 2020 primary).
Since 1972, about 75% of these candidates have gone on to win the nomination when they faced at least one major challenger. Those polling between 35% and 50% at this stage of the primary campaign have won about 67% of the time.
It would be easy to dismiss Trump’s numbers as merely the product of high name recognition, but history suggests something different. The eventual nominees from this group include, among others, President Gerald Ford for 1976, Vice President George H.W. Bush for 1988 and Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole for 1996.
It turns out that name recognition is important to winning nominations and will likely be a strength for Trump, not a weakness.
In other words, Trump’s current standing in the polls is statistically relevant, even though it is early.
Candidates in DeSantis’ position haven’t been nearly as successful. Those polling between 20% and 35% have gone on to win their party nods about 40% of the time since 1972.
A polling recovery
The second reason Trump’s advantage over DeSantis is notable is that it’s growing. This is a change from where we had been for much of last year.
Trump was especially struggling following Republicans’ underwhelming performance in last fall’s midterm elections. His once 40-point polling lead over DeSantis declined to 10 points, on average, over the latter half of November through December. Trump’s share of GOP support went from north of 50% to about 40%.
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The reason was pretty clear: Much of the blame for the GOP’s historical midterm underperformance for an opposition party was laid at Trump’s feet. Many candidates he supported, including those who backed the falsehood that the 2020 election was illegitimate, lost winnable races.
Due, in part, to the midterm results, Trump was no longer seen as the most electable Republican for 2024. A Marist College poll in mid-November found that just 35% of Republicans thought he gave them the best chance to take back the presidency. That was down from 50% in late 2021.
DeSantis, meanwhile, could point to his nearly 20-point reelection victory in Florida last year as a sign of his electability.
So what has turned it around for Trump so far in 2023?
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The most basic explanation is that he’s been back on the campaign trail, while DeSantis has just been dancing around a bid for the presidency.
Dominating the press coverage of the 2016 Republican primary campaign was key for Trump in crowding out his competitors.
Since the start of the year, Trump has received more mentions on Fox News than he got immediately after the midterm elections. Meanwhile, DeSantis’ mentions are down.
By going out and campaigning, Trump can remind Republicans what they liked about him in the first place. He can put the memories of a bad 2022 election behind him. The percentage of Republicans who now think he represents their best shot to win in 2024 is back up to above 40% in Marist surveys.
DeSantis has also had to deal with former UN Ambassador Nikki Haley declaring her bid for the presidency. The twice-elected South Carolina governor is polling a little better than she previously was (though still below 10%), but that only further divides the non-Trump vote.
The question going forward is what happens if and when DeSantis formally announces a 2024 run? That could offer a real clue as to whether Trump remains the favorite until the first primary votes are cast.
For now, though, Trump will certainly take the position he’s in compared with a few months ago.