What Would It Take to Beat Trump for the Republican Nomination?

The former President has a 50 point lead. Is he unstoppable?

Former President Donald Trump continues to be the runaway leader for the 2024 Republican nomination. FiveThirtyEight shows Trump at 50.8%, DeSantis at 19.5%, and Ramaswmy at 6.8%, Pence at 6.6%, and everyone else under 4%. The RealClearPolitics average shows similar numbers. Further, the gap between Trump and DeSantis has grown considerably over the last few months.

It seems about as likely that the Republicans will nominate someone other than Trump as the Democrats nominating someone other than President Biden.

Indeed, DeSantis’ appeal seems to be cratering as he tries to out-MAGA Trump. He’s smarter and more capable than Trump but lacks his charismatic appeal and ability to make crowds laugh with him.

And, as a WaPo report from yesterday morning (“Mike Pence struggles to gain attention and traction in longshot bid“) makes clear, Trump’s former vice president isn’t exactly setting the world on fire.

As he finished up his remarks at an outdoor garden party hosted by a former state senator, Mike Pence made one final request to prospective voters.

“Even one dollar, although I want to emphasize you can give a lot more, would be a help tonight, even before you go to bed tonight, go online, send us a buck or whatever,” the former vice president said, dressed in a crisp light-blue button-down and navy slacks on a hot summer day in the Granite State. “We’re working around-the-clock to make sure we get enough donors to be up on that debate stage and I’ll see you all at the inauguration.”

One day later, nearly 80 miles away at the Wicwas Lake Grange in Meredith, N.H., state Sen. Timothy Lang Sr. stood alongside Pence at an evening town hall with a similar plea, encouraging attendees to grab a “Mike Pence for President” card with a QR code: “If you want to donate just a dollar, it counts toward the 40,000.”

It’s a remarkable request from a longtime and prominent Republican figure who, just 2½ years ago, was the second-highest official in the country under Donald Trump. But now, Pence is soliciting supporters for small-dollar donations in hopes of crossing the 40,000-donor threshold for participation in the first GOP debate in Milwaukee on Aug. 23.

While Pence’s advisers are emphatic that he will make the debate stage, the mere uncertainty is emblematic of the early challenges the Indiana Republican is confronting in his nascent campaign. Pence has struggled to gain attention or traction by running a traditional and low-key conservative campaign in a race dominated by firebrands like Trump and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis.

Vice presidents typically enter their party’s nominating contest as strong contenders if not front-runners. Yet Pence is registering well behind Trump and DeSantis and much closer to long-shot candidates like tech entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy, while also being far outraised by his rivals.

Honestly, I’m not sure there was ever a time when Pence was considered presidential material. He’s got the charisma of day-old white bread and no real accomplishments to speak of. He’s a Trump toady who stopped toadying at a crucial time—and yet still remains largely loyal to Trump.

Pence’s current standing in the race is in part due to the rare circumstance of competing against a former president, whom he served loyally for four years before publicly refusing Trump’s demands that he attempt to overturn the 2020 election results, according to interviews with Republican strategists, pollsters and early-state voters. Pence’s decision to certify the election results on Jan. 6, 2021, makes him unpalatable to many in the former president’s base.

Now, as he touts his conservative credentials and his experience as a former governor and vice president, he faces the tricky dynamic of highlighting the Trump-Pence administration’s accomplishments while simultaneously arguing that it’s time to move on from Trump. His candidacy is also a test for whether there is any appetite left in the Republican primary electorate for the traditional, Reaganesque principles that influenced Pence’s career.

“Mike Pence is caught between a rock and a hard place. He’s too Trumpy for the non-Trumpies and not Trumpy enough for the Trumpies,” said GOP pollster Whit Ayres. “If you say that Donald Trump is unfit for office, that puts people who voted for Trump in an uncomfortable position psychologically where they have to admit to themselves that they made a mistake. I suppose you could thread that needle by saying he was fit for office until Jan. 6th, and after that he wasn’t. But that’s really threading a needle with those folks.”

CNN’s Harry Enten (“Why Tim Scott may be one to watch in the GOP presidential race“) points in a different direction:

While the South Carolina senator remains well behind front-runner Donald Trump in the national horserace polls, a number of key indicators – from favorability ratings to early-state polling to fundraising – suggest Scott may be the GOP candidate to watch besides the former president or Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis.

Right now, most of the Republican hopefuls are not well known. Many voters will start paying attention as the debates begin and the primaries draw closer.

To see how these voters may react down the line, it can be helpful to see what’s going on among those who are already watching the race closely. Voters in this group seem to like what they’re seeing and hearing from Scott.

Take a look at the most recent Quinnipiac University poll that asked about all the GOP candidates’ favorable ratings. Among Republicans who had formed an opinion of DeSantis, Scott and Trump, Scott was the most popular. His favorability rating of 89% beat Trump’s 82% and DeSantis’ 81%.

A high favorability rating is far from a guarantee that a candidate will do well. After all, DeSantis and Trump have similar ratings on this score, and Trump is crushing the Florida governor in the polls.

But a high favorable rating often earns a candidate a closer inspection by voters. That happened to DeSantis earlier this year, helping him to climb in the polls. He has since fallen considerably behind Trump in national surveys, showing that such an examination doesn’t always work out in a candidate’s favor.

Scott, however, seems to be picking up some steam in the states that matter most at this point in the race: Iowa and New Hampshire. A candidate who is going to break through against Trump and DeSantis would need to do so in the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary.

The polling from Iowa has been limited, but an interesting nugget has emerged from the data that have been released to the public. All of it, including a Fox Business poll released on Sunday, has Scott in third place.

Likewise, the polling from New Hampshire has been looking up for Scott. A University of New Hampshire poll conducted this month had the senator in third place at 8% in the state’s GOP primary. Scott also had the best net favorability rating of any Republican candidate in the survey, regardless of name recognition. This is another indicator that the more voters get to know him, the more they’ll like him.

There’s more to the analysis, including the fact that Scott’s doing pretty well in the fundraising department.

Were I forced to put my money on it, I’d bet that Trump wins it without much of a fight. But there are enough indictments swirling around him that it’s possible that he’ll be forced out of the race. And I think it’ll take Trump being unable to run to prevent him from getting the nomination for a third straight cycle. (Indeed, all indications are that the indictments and surrounding evidence are having no effect on his support or actually bolstering it slightly.)

If that happens, though, I do think Scott or somebody like him is more likely to win it than DeSantis. It sure as hell won’t be Pence. In addition to having the charisma and charm to appeal to voters, it would help considerably to be a relative outsider who didn’t have to take a position on the big fights during the Trump era, including January 6th.

If not Scott, it may well be someone who’s not even running right now. A field cleared of Trump would attract more candidates.

FILED UNDER: 2024 Election, US Politics, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Jax says:

    Death. I think the only thing that will stop Trump from running is death. The base has indicated they are fine with him running the country from a prison cell.

  2. Steve says:

    It’s a cult of personality. He would have to die. Unless the Supreme Court rules he can’t hold office after losing one of his court cases he will be the nominee. Chances of SCOTUS doing that is close to zero. The big risk here is that a lot of Democrats seem to think some of court cases will hurt Trump support. It won’t, it will just energize them.


  3. CSK says:

    Trump will almost certainly win the nomination and pick Tim Scott as his v.p.

  4. I have to admit, I am having a hard time seeing the current GOP go from Trump to Scott, regardless of the scenario that would cause Trump to no longer be the candidate.

  5. MarkedMan says:

    It seems about as likely that the Republicans will nominate someone other than Trump as the Democrats nominating someone other than President Biden.

    This is, if anything, an understatement, but if we are going to play this game, here’s my scenario.

    Something (TM) happens and Trump does not win the early primaries, opening up a pathway for other candidates. Which ones? Well, you could say that the Republican base, at least 50%, aren’t Republicans but rather simply Trump fans. So if Trump completely leaves the picture (Drops out in return for no prison time? Death?), a large part of the most hardcore will simply not vote. I would expect to see primary participation down by 30% compared to if Trump was winning. At that point a more traditional Republican has a shot. Nominee Burgum?

    If, on the other hand, Trump does something so public and egregious that his hardcore stays home and his less all-in fans feel the need to vote for someone else, then I think Scott gets the nod. He won’t be considered a traditional Republican (although he is, except for his skin color) and since we presume the hardcore Trump stans are staying home, there may be a significant number remaining who want to send a “look, I’M not a bigot” message. And he also may have an advantage for those who wouldn’t have voted for Trump anyway and are looking to cast a strategic vote, as they may consider him the best shot for Republicans since he will attract some amount of Dems.

    The problem with any non-Trump scenario is that the Republican primaries are heavily biased towards crowning a victor as early as possible, so if he’s in it, he wins it. Half the states are winner-take-all. And the other half is effectively winner-take-all. From a NY Magazine analysis:

    Of the 26 states in 2020 that could have a qualifying threshold – those with some form of proportional rules – 18 of them set it to the maximum 20 percent.

  6. Kathy says:


    So, the classic case of the problem being the journey and not the destination.

  7. Daryl says:

    And I think it’ll take Trump being unable to run to prevent him from getting the nomination for a third straight cycle. (Indeed, all indications are that the indictments and surrounding evidence are having no effect on his support or actually bolstering it slightly.)

    Which beggars the question; how DO cults end?

    Most cults end gradually through defections, ceasing operations when the leader is exposed, dissolution on the leader’s death, splitting into many rival groups, or gradually evolving into a more open society, such as a mainstream religion or political party.

    Of these I think “dissolution on the leader’s death” is the only possible, yet unforeseeable and not clearly imminent, event on the horizon. Exposure as a rapist and a criminal, as you rightly note, is having no effect. Perhaps another loss by habitual loser Trump may be the kind of exposure needed, but the cult-members are clearly able to delude themselves about that. As for the other eventualities…I don’t see MAGA splitting, and MAGA is already about as mainstream as it can be with ~30% of the electorate and control of the House of Representatives.

  8. mattbernius says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    I have to admit, I am having a hard time seeing the current GOP go from Trump to Scott, regardless of the scenario that would cause Trump to no longer be the candidate.

    Honestly, assuming Trump drops out and DeSantis isn’t the clear heir-apparent, I think Scott’s chances are actually really good with the current GOP for a host of reasons. He can afford to be more neutral re:Trump than DeSantis can (I don’t think trying to out MAGA Trump is the right approach). He has the potential to bring back Rockefeller and Chamber of Commerce Republicans. Finally, the symbolism of Scott getting the nomination would be huge as well.

  9. Chip Daniels says:

    Looking across all the various Republican party states and legislatures and groups they control and it becomes evident that while it may have a cult-like devotion to one particular person, it also is a party solidly unified by ethnic/ cultural grievance and is therefore openly hostile to democracy.

    Wherever Republicans control the levers of power they work to make sure that all the organs of society- schools, colleges, churches, bureaucracies- are controlled by the party and work to the benefit of the favored class.

    The cult leader could drop dead tomorrow but Florida would continue to run exactly as it is doing. Trump isn’t the ventilation duct of the Death Star.

  10. Kathy says:

    When did we last see a primary when one candidate was never or very seldom attacked by all the others?

    What they should all do is 1) stop defending Benito from accountability, and 2) start attacking him on his criminal actions and his high incompetence while in office.

    No one but Ron DeSaster is going to get the MAGA base. Why keep trying to pander to them?

    I’m not saying this will win anyone the nomination, but it is about what’s left to attack the Cheeto with. I am saying that not attacking the frontrunner, or worse even, defending him, all but guarantees he’ll win.

    So, a tiny chance on one had, zero chance on the other. Me, I think tiny chance > zero chance.

  11. gVOR10 says:

    Judge Loose Cannon set the docs trial for May, by which time, as everyone is pointing out, the nomination may well be locked. And there’s no way the date’s not going to slide from that already late date. J6 charges haven’t even been filed yet. Nor GA charges. We are likely looking at a general election concurrent with trials. I regard Trump winning the general as unlikely. But everybody said it was unlikely he would win in 2016. And there’s always the possibility of some scandal or health event taking Biden out.

    We’re looking at a really ugly 2024. Garland should have appointed a special prosecutor on day 1.

  12. Kylopod says:


    Honestly, assuming Trump drops out and DeSantis isn’t the clear heir-apparent, I think Scott’s chances are actually really good with the current GOP for a host of reasons.

    He’s currently in a trial balloon, and trial balloons, in my experience, quickly deflate. Particularly when they come from the chatter of Republican elites desperately in search of a savior.

  13. charontwo says:

    Recent polling, IA and SC, today’s Post:


    RDS still holds a clear lead over Scott and Ramaswamy, but not hugely so.

  14. Daryl says:


    I think Scott’s chances are actually really good with the current GOP for a host of reasons.

    I respect your opinions, but if you think Tim Scott is going to get elected by a party that thinks slavery was beneficial…

  15. just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @Daryl: Still, in the absence of other reasonable choices (a BIG if, admittedly), the opportunity to own the libs will have some appeal.

  16. Daryl says:

    @just nutha ignint cracker:
    As I said above, absent Trump suffering a fatal illness, or other catastrophe, he is not going to get beat in the primary. He’s just not.
    And, by all rights, that should mean the end of the GOP as a viable political party.

  17. al Ameda says:

    It’s hard to imagine that a conviction in Florida, or later in Georgia, will matter at all to Republicans.

    If for some amazing and truly blessed reason he actually goes to prison before the election I can see a situation, similar to that scene in Goodfellas, where he’s running his campaign operation from his prison ‘suite’ and Nick Fuentes cooks cheeseburgers for him while he drafts a raft of pardons for his signature following his Inauguration on January 20, 2025.

  18. CSK says:

    It’s entirely possible for someone in prison to be elected. James Michael Curley in Boston was.

  19. Kathy says:


    Garland should have appointed a special prosecutor on day 1.


    On the other hand, the trial in DC for Jan 6th is likely to proceed earlier than the one in Florida for espionage. The delay in the latter is largely due to the need of security clearances for the lawyers involved, and the mountains of documents that form much of the evidence in the case (by volume, at least).

    For the Jan 6th charges, those obstacles don’t exist. We may see it tried in December or January.

  20. dazedandconfused says:

    The only one I can see who has the “chops” to win over an outrage-addicted demographic is Christy. He’s articulate, willing to mix it up with a bully, right down to inviting one to step outside if need be. This is the persona the seek, a fighter, which is the key to Trump’s appeal. This is what those people need to see before they will abandon Trump. It’s a street thing.

    I strongly suspect Trump will never allow himself to be on the same stage with him though.

  21. Sleeping Dog says:


    Quite likely, before the Docs trial starts, trump may already have been tried or in the process of being tried for 1/6, Georgia and the Stormy case.

    As far as these polls are concerned, this maybe a case where we should wait till the votes are counted to declare a winner. Right now being a trumpist is a badge of belonging, what a voter decides in the privacy of the booth could be different.

  22. dazedandconfused says:

    @al Ameda:

    About the worst thing I can envision happening is ankle-bracelet confinement to Mar A Lago with no golf course privileges. He may get convicted but incarceration will not happen until the appeals are done, by which time he will be somewhere in the neighborhood of 100.

    Miller will ghost write the tale of his struggle for him there. “Mine Camp”, I suppose.

  23. Gustopher says:

    What would it take? A chair.

    If DeSantis bludgeons Trump with a folding chair to demonstrate that he is “tougher than Trump”, I don’t think Trump gets the nomination.

    WWE, but for politics, and people who don’t know that pro wrestling is scripted and choreographed.

  24. @Steve: I think you need to make a distinction between base Republican support which is critical in a primary and general election mushy middle independent support. Independents have very low favorability ratings for Trump and as soon as it is a contest between Trump and Biden, nose holding comes into play and greatly favors Biden.