By Chak Kai Wong —Correspondent
It may be still early in the 2024 campaign cycle, but the field of Republican primary is already shaping up to be a contentious one filled with conservative candidates from a diverse range of backgrounds.
There are currently four names in the Republican primary: former President Donald Trump, former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley, former Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson and entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy. President Trump is currently leading the nomination polls by wide margins, and his recent indictment appears to have further boosted his approval ratings inside the Republican party. The crowding out effect of Trump is therefore still keeping many speculated candidates at bay. This group includes Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, former Vice President Mike Pence, former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and New Hampshire Governor Chris Sununu.
At the heart of this fierce competition for the 2024 Republican nomination lies the question over the electability of the former President. As the frontrunner in the Republican primary, Trump has been under the spotlight ever since his announcement at Mar-a-Largo last November. Despite repeated charges and criminal investigations, former President Trump’s poll numbers have been surging consistently. He is now holding a starking 19 percent lead (48% to 30%) over his chief rival Gov. DeSantis according to a recent Reuters/Ipsos poll.
Following Trump’s court appearance in New York, Republican voters still overwhelmingly believe that the criminal charges are in fact politically motivated. “For those who think this will harm President Trump’s chances at running for the White House in 2024, I have news for you: it won’t. The same people who were outraged over the possibility of Hillary Clinton’s prosecution for obvious crimes are now celebrating yet another witch-hunt against the former president and political opponent of the current president,” said Kevin Hern, the head of the Republican Study Committee, an influential conservative caucus in Congress.
Hern was not alone in his defense of the former president. In a seemingly irrational fashion, Trump’s Republican opponents in the 2024 primary did not utilize this opportunity to discredit him as a candidate or cast doubts over his electability in a general election. Instead, they rallied around Trump and his MAGA base; and in most cases, even defended him against the assumed witch hunt from the so-called “deep state”. “The risk of attacking Trump (and losing to him) might be a miserable and perhaps even humiliating experience that candidates don’t want to go through — just ask Cruz or Jeb Bush. After all, Republicans are currently largely unified in outrage at what they see as Bragg’s prosecutorial overreach,” said Patrick Ruffini, a Republican pollster and co-founder of Echelon Insights.
“Today it’s abundantly clear that there is no way to get the nomination except through him. Where there may be an opening is if there’s a realization that the charges will hinder Trump from winning a general election, like his ability (or lack thereof) to win over suburban and other swing voters — let alone win a general election against President Biden. However, Republican voters aren’t thinking this way just yet.” added Ruffini.
Recent data may be able to explain why Republican primary voters have not yet come to the conclusion that Trump’s electability in 2024 is even weaker in the public perception than 2020. According to the New York Times, surveys have shown that about 70 to 80 percent of Republican voters still believe that the 2020 election has been stolen from Trump in the first place. “The problem with electability is that it leads to a should. And voters, especially Trump voters, don’t like being told what they should support. Trump has completely remade the Republican Party. The question now is who is going to lead the Trump party,” said senior journalist John Ellis in an interview.
Another current candidate worth mentioning is the former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley, who is currently attempting to walk a very thin line between appealing to the MAGA base of Trump with her experience serving as his U.N. ambassador and attracting primary votes from the more moderate wing of the Republican Party using her experience serving as South Carolina’s governor.
It may be a difficult path, but Ambassador Haley certainly believes that she can benefit from the presidential run, especially after her campaign secured more funds than the amount raised by former President Trump in the first quarter of 2023. “I am very proudly supporting her. I believe in her. I’ve seen her get things done, and think she has tremendous leadership skills. She’s somebody who would be an incredible candidate to lead our party in the general election for president,” said David Wilkins, former U.S. ambassador to Canada and the S.C. House Speaker.
As for Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, who has always been considered to be the most serious alternative to Trump by most pundits, the political situation has been deteriorating for him as he is showing signs of faltering amid dipping poll numbers in hypothetical face-offs against President Trump. Gov. DeSantis has recently been haunted by backlashes for his skepticism over the Ukraine War and was forced to publicly backtrack his comments. “The way he’s handling the potential Trump issue is fine. But Ukraine — he really put himself in a box I think. It was very driven not so much to mimic Trump but to ingratiate himself with donors that are smitten with him,” said Rob Stutzman, a GOP communication strategist.
As the campaign season draws closer to the end, and if Gov. DeSantis is still setting his eyes on the presidency, he will eventually have to break through the current stage of silence, confronting Trump directly on a debate stage. Until then, DeSantis can enjoy the advantages of his evasive strategy. But the question remains whether he is capable of securing the nomination in a crowded and chaotic primary that favors the candidate with the most loyal base. “People project onto him what they want to see in him, and that’s a really nice place to be politically. Why would he mess with this ‘do as little as possible’ strategy when it has been relatively successful for him?” said Fergus Cullen, a Republican politician in New Hampshire.
“But it can’t last forever,” added Cullen.