Op-Ed: Here's one factor that might peel Trump's diehard supporters away
Former President Trump speaks at the America First Agenda event in Washington on July 26. (Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times)
As some recent polls suggest, Donald Trump is vulnerable in the 2024 Republican nomination race and could face significant competition from Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. Still, the former president remains the favorite and is dearly loved by many Republican voters.
But even if Republicans like him, what could make them vote for someone else in the 2024 primary?
We examined this issue in a polling experiment by focusing on Trump's perceived "eligibility." That said, we wanted to understand if there are any Republicans who like Trump but are concerned that he may not be the strongest candidate against Joe Biden or any other Democratic candidate in 2024.
Eligibility is a slippery concept because a person who voters believe can win an election is hard to separate from the candidate they would prefer to win. Attempting to judge this distinction requires voters to think more deeply about candidates than they are usually asked to do.
The idea of eligibility assumes that some candidates will have an easier time in a general election than others and that this advantage is known at the time the nomination decision is made. That's hard to test. If the 2020 presidential election had been between, say, Chris Christie and Elizabeth Warren instead of Trump and Biden, it's conceivable that Republicans would have retained the White House, but we have no way of knowing that alternative outcome. Nonetheless, many political experts and voters consider concepts of eligibility when making decisions about candidates.
To test this, we polled hundreds of Republican voters and asked them two key questions: 1) Who would you like to see as the Republican presidential nominee in 2024? and 2) who would you make president today if you had a magic wand? This allowed poll-takers to differentiate between the person they wanted to win and the person they thought might win. The difference between these two, theoretically, is eligibility. (This approach has been used in previous presidential election cycles.)
There were 208 Republicans in our control group. About 49% of them said they would wave a magic wand to make Trump president. However, only 44% said they would like to see him as a candidate. This is a modest but statistically significant difference. Those who wanted Trump for president but didn't want him as a candidate were largely split among several different candidates as their preferred nominee, with the majority favoring DeSantis. While Trump is still the dominant candidate, he is vulnerable in the sense that some of his supporters don't believe he can win.
We also wanted to see if different ways of reporting Trump could increase or decrease this eligibility gap. In our experiment, we set up different conditions, randomly dividing the participants into groups of about 200 people. We showed each group a different version of a fictional message — one praising Trump for his work in office in 2020, one critical of him, and one that was neutral. We've also labeled the stories as coming from either Politico or Breitbart. We tested these particular media in a previous survey and found that respondents rate them as neutral or conservative. The control group saw no news story. (We later interviewed the subjects to inform them that the message was made up for academic research only.)
The results were particularly interesting when people in one of the experimental conditions saw an article by Breitbart criticizing Trump's job performance. After reading that, about 45% of respondents said they would wave a magic wand to make Trump president, but only 35% wanted him to be the GOP nominee. What was a 5-point eligibility gap in the control condition turned out to be a 10-point gap in this condition. The beneficiary of this experiment was overwhelmingly DeSantis.
While Trump beats DeSantis by 45% to 21% in the wand contest, his lead over DeSantis in terms of the nomination is much smaller -- 35% to 28%. The Intervention -- a conservative publication voicing concerns about Trump -- turned a coronation into an actual competition. This should be a serious concern for Trump.
Of course, this is just an experiment. The real world is far more complex. But it does suggest that even Republicans who are strong supporters of Trump are open to arguments about his ability to win elections, and those supporters seem to see DeSantis as a viable option, at least for now.
Recent months have brought Trump a particularly severe test, not least the revelations from the January 6 committee of the House of Representatives. Additionally, some recent polls show that while Biden is fairly unpopular, he would likely still beat Trump in another matchup. Republicans are certainly considering these factors as they consider their 2024 decisions.
Seth Masket is Professor of Political Science and Director of the Center on American Politics at the University of Denver. Christopher Celaya is a postdoc at the center.
This story originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times.
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