By week's end, the 2024 Republican field will have swelled to about a dozen candidates, but only about half of them are even worth mentioning.
Donald Trump, who is currently dominating the Republican primary at about 54% in FiveThirtyEight's aggregate polling, is still the guy to beat. Sure, he's been found civilly liable of battery and defamation; he's been criminally indicted in Manhattan for falsifying business records in a hush-money payment scheme; he's facing near-certain federal indictment for mishandling classified documents and possible obstruction of justice; and he will likely be indicted for election fraud in Georgia. But Trump is still the GOP front-runner, with more than double the support of his nearest rival, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who sits at 21%—more than 30 points behind Trump.
DeSantis has done nothing but take on water since early March, when he was just 15 points behind Trump. With donors surely clamoring for him to start attacking the front-runner, DeSantis was in Iowa last weekend testing out some tepid jabs.
"We need to dispense with the culture of losing that has beset the Republican Party in recent years," DeSantis told the crowd at Sen. Joni Ernst's annual Roast and Ride event. DeSantis added that Florida and Iowa Republicans know how to win elections. "We had red waves in 2022, the rest of the country, not so much," he quipped, declining to namecheck Trump and his hand-picked band of 2022 losers.
Despite being a bizarro retail politician, DeSantis is still statistically the best bet to make the Republican primary a two-person race with Trump. At some point, whittling down the field to a head-to-head will require more of DeSantis than vague swipes at the front-runner, but it may be enough for now as former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie launches his presidential bid this week with the promise to rough up Trump.
Christie has premised his bid on directly challenging Trump and, to the extent that Christie makes good on that promise, he will benefit Democrats, DeSantis, and any other potential Republican contenders. Christie himself, however, is unlikely to rise to that level in the race. Christie has no constituency in religiously obsessed Iowa, the first-in-the-nation caucus state. And even in "live free or die" New Hampshire, a much better political fit for the brash East Coaster, he finished a distant sixth in 2016. Christie had bet all his chips on the Granite State, yet didn't even crack double digits, finishing at a paltry 7.4% and dropping out of the contest immediately after.
Speaking of having no constituency, the very popular sitting governor of New Hampshire, Chris Sununu, just took a pass on his own vanity bid, writing in a Washington Post op-ed that beating Trump is more important.
Sununu warned that the Republican Party was on a collision course with "electoral irrelevance" and "the stakes are too high" to lard up the GOP field with so many also-rans that Trump slips through.
Sununu is absolutely right, but he also didn't see a clear path to winning the nomination or he would have run.
"No one can stop candidates from entering this race, but candidates with no path to victory must have the discipline to get out," Sununu wrote. "Anyone polling in the low single digits by this winter needs to have the courage to hang it up and head home."
Looking at you, Nikki Haley, Mike Pence, and Vivek Ramaswamy! Former UN Ambassador Haley and former Vice President Pence have done nothing but slowly bleed support over the past few months since they both polled at roughly 7% in early March. Even as DeSantis lost altitude, virtually all his support accrued to Trump, while both Haley and Pence sank a couple points. Ramaswamy, an Indian American tech entrepreneur, is faring even worse. Plus, let's be real, he's a tech entrepreneur—Republicans basically despise Big Tech.
All three candidates also traveled to the Hawkeye State last weekend, with Haley taking the same weak-kneed approach to Trump as DeSantis.
"It's time for a new generational leader," Haley told the crowd, "We've got to leave the baggage and the negativity beside—we've got a country to save."
During her little-noticed CNN town hall Sunday, Haley also swiped at DeSantis for his dispute with Disney and its top executives.
“Because they went and criticized [DeSantis], now he’s going to spend taxpayer dollars on a lawsuit,” Haley said. “All this vendetta stuff, we’ve been down that road... Pick up the phone, settle it the way you should."
As Sununu said, get ready to drop out, Haley. Same goes for Pence—his candidacy was over before it started. Trump's cultists despise Pence while anti-Trumpers think he's a Trump sellout. Still, both candidates will likely plant themselves in Iowa for as long as they can continue funding their campaigns.
If Pence weren't Pence, he'd be a natural fit for a state where Republican primary voters love to elevate Christian zealots that immediately bomb in New Hampshire. One such evangelical true-believer is Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina, who was also in Iowa last weekend looking for votes.
"I scare the dickens out of the radical left and Joe Biden—the proof of my life destroys their lies," Scott said on the stump, referring to his biography of being a young Black boy born in South Carolina and raised primarily by a single mother.
Scott is effectively Pence without the baggage and name recognition, but with genuine charisma. He's got an inspirational story wrapped in a Christian bow to sell; he has committed to signing the most conservative anti-abortion legislation that can get to his desk as president; and a strong Iowa finish in second or even a close third could launch his campaign to another level.
Scott has a long way to go in terms of learning the ropes of a national presidential campaign, but he's a skilled fundraiser with potential. And unlike DeSantis, he's not just a cheap imitation Trump.
But for now, the Republican field is bloated with also-rans and people auditioning for vice president. More Trump indictments are coming down the pike and Republicans like Sununu are still hoping to scuttle his path to the Republican nomination.
“By choosing not to seek the nomination, I can be more effective for the Republican Party in ways few other leaders can,” Sununu wrote in the Post op-ed, noting that he has outsized influence as governor of the first-in-the-nation primary state. “I plan to endorse, campaign and support the candidate I believe has the best chance of winning in November 2024,” he added.
Whatever the national polls say, the early states do matter, and Trump is due to encounter headwinds. Whether they will prove strong enough to thwart his campaign remains to be seen.
We have Rural Organizing’s Aftyn Behn. Markos and Aftyn talk about what has been happening in rural communities across the country and progressives’ efforts to engage those voters. Behn also gives the podcast a breakdown of which issues will make the difference in the coming elections.