Welcome to FiveThirtyEight’s politics chat. The transcript below has been lightly edited.
nrakich (Nathaniel Rakich, senior elections analyst): It feels like this is the week the 2024 Republican presidential primary really started in earnest! On Monday, Sen. Tim Scott announced he was running for president, and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis is expected to formally jump into the race on Wednesday night as well. So we figured it was high time for another 2024 Republican presidential primary draft! The last time we did this was last December, when DeSantis was riding high on the polls and no major candidates other than former President Donald Trump were in the race. Things have changed a lot since then, so this should be interesting!
Here are the rules: We’ll go four rounds, and we’ll use a snake draft (i.e., the person who picks last in one round picks first in the next round) to keep things as fair as possible. Let me just pick some names out of a hat to see who goes first …
- Geoffrey Skelley
- Meredith Conroy
- Nathaniel Rakich
Dammit. OK, Geoffrey, you’re up!
geoffrey.skelley (Geoffrey Skelley, senior elections analyst): Well, tough luck for you all. I’ll take Trump with the first overall pick. This is about as chalky as it gets, and with good reason: Trump is polling just north of 50 percent in FiveThirtyEight’s national polling average, he’s a pseudo-incumbent (especially because a solid majority of Republicans don’t think he lost fairly in 2020) and he is the undeniable front-runner for the nomination. He’s in this situation despite facing felony charges in New York, other potential legal woes and his efforts to overturn the result of the 2020 election. Some of those things may actually be helping him.
Putting Trump’s position in a broader context, a candidate polling around where he is in the first half of the year before the primary has historically had a better than 3-in-4 shot of winning a party’s nomination.
meredithconroy (Meredith Conroy, political science professor at California State University, San Bernardino, and FiveThirtyEight contributor): He’s also leading the endorsement primary and his general favorability is inching upward, despite the indictment and recently being found liable for sexual abuse, so I think you made the right pick, Geoff.
nrakich: Yeah, Trump has been steadily rising in the polls ever since that DeSantis boomlet over the winter. He has gone from 45 percent in our polling average on March 6 to 54 percent on May 22. Why do we think that is?
meredithconroy: I think Trump is rising in the polls because DeSantis has been a little awkward on the campaign trail, and it doesn’t take much to shake people’s confidence in a newcomer. For example, according to interviews with folks in Florida politics, he doesn’t like talking to people and can be robotic. It’s not enough to sink a candidacy, but it’s also not a great start. DeSantis had an opportunity, and he squandered it. Polls showed Republicans were open to an alternative, but I think they’re spooked, so they went back home to Trump.
geoffrey.skelley: Trump may have gained ground thanks to his various problems, ironically. For instance, his campaign claims it experienced a major fundraising boom following his indictment in New York in early April on charges of falsifying business records, and his poll numbers have only gone up since then.
meredithconroy: The indictment was interesting because it was another opportunity for Trump’s rivals to argue that Trump has too much baggage. But they didn’t — they slowly came out and defended him. I guess that makes some sense, because the indictment plays into the “prosecutorial overreach” narrative that motivates the conspiratorial wing of his supporters, and also fuels the grievance politics that have come to define the modern GOP. But it was a missed opportunity.
geoffrey.skelley: Simply put, Trump is quite popular with the GOP base, and so his opponents are caught between needing to attack him to take him down and not angering the party base in the process. No one has found the Goldilocks approach to that yet, and I’m a bit skeptical anyone will.
nrakich: OK, Meredith, you said DeSantis had some flaws as a candidate. But are you still going to choose him with your first pick, or are you going to go rogue?
meredithconroy: Ha! I am going with … DeSantis.
Even though his star has fallen, DeSantis is still Trump’s closest rival. He’s still the main non-Trump candidate that non-Trump supporters could rally behind. That said, some of those folks seem to be looking for alternatives after DeSantis hasn’t shown himself to be adept at the retail politics necessary in a presidential primary. New York Times opinion columnist Jamelle Bouie calls it “the juice” and says DeSantis doesn’t have it. I saw someone else call it “sparkle.” We can also think of it as charisma or likability. All of these terms are loaded, and “likability” in particular usually just means “regular guy (usually white) you can have a beer with.” DeSantis is a white guy, but he’s not acting very regular, and if the media keeps repeating this, and clips of his awkward interactions continue to go viral, his campaign will have their work cut out for them.
Despite all that, he’s my pick because a good chunk of the GOP donor class still supports him, and he’s doing OK in the FiveThirtyEight polling average. Also, according to a recent YouGov/CBS News poll, while 73 percent of respondents say they are considering Trump, 51 percent are considering DeSantis; the remaining candidates don’t even break 20 percent. Plus, according to that same poll, DeSantis does particularly well among college-educated Republicans (they still break for Trump, but it’s more even than among Republicans without a college degree), and they are more likely to vote in primaries and caucuses, even though they are a smaller share of the GOP than they used to be.
nrakich: Yeah, I think DeSantis is as underrated now as he was overrated in December and January. Basically, he has a decent but not likely chance of beating Trump. Trump could always stumble, whether because his legal problems start to weigh him down or because voters start to worry he’s not electable or for some other reason. And DeSantis has been the natural heir to Trumpism for a while now. Although he is averaging just 21 percent in national polls right now, that’s far better than former Vice President Mike Pence, who’s in third place with 6 percent. And according to Morning Consult, 48 percent of Trump voters say DeSantis is their second choice, so he has room to grow.
geoffrey.skelley: That all makes sense to me, Meredith. Despite losing ground in the polls over the past few months, DeSantis is still far above any of the other prospective Republican candidates. That could change, but candidates polling around his level in the first half of the year before the primary have historically won a party’s nomination roughly one-third of the time. That’s still pretty good, all things considered. Moreover, you just know the media is itching to write a comeback narrative about DeSantis, so his campaign could play into that pretty easily.
meredithconroy: I do think there are new strategies he could take that he hasn’t tried yet. For example, DeSantis could take a page from Trump’s playbook and talk about stamina and strength. According to a CNN poll from March, the vast majority (87 percent) of Republicans or Republican-leaning independents saw it as essential that the party’s nominee demonstrate the sharpness and stamina to serve effectively in office. These sorts of tactics often hurt female candidates, but they could help a candidate like DeSantis.
geoffrey.skelley: And however much Trump can work against it with his appearances on the campaign trail, he’s in his mid-70s, whereas DeSantis is in his mid-40s. There’s talk of how that could play in the general election if it’s DeSantis versus Biden (who is even older than Trump), but it’s not impossible to imagine it mattering in the GOP primary context, too.
nrakich: OK, now things get hard, haha. For the third pick, I’m going to go with the most recent candidate to enter the race: Scott.
To be clear, I think anyone other than Trump or DeSantis has a real uphill climb to win the nomination. But I thought David Byler of The Washington Post made a good case for why Scott is the third-best positioned: He has managed to remain popular with both the pro-Trump and anti-Trump wings of the party. He’s gotten a fair amount of media attention as the only Black Republican in the Senate. (I think there’s also a not-insignificant part of the GOP electorate that would like to nominate a Black man to prove that they aren’t racist.) And he has a ton of money at his disposal: $22 million in his campaign account. And he’s not afraid to spend it: He’s already announced a $6 million ad buy in Iowa and New Hampshire.
meredithconroy: I would’ve gone with Scott too, Nathaniel. After all, he got the coveted Sen. John Thune endorsement! But jokes aside, for all the reasons you mention, Scott will be ready to step up if Trump’s legal troubles become too much or if DeSantis never regains the ground he’s lost.
geoffrey.skelley: Yep, agreed: I too had him positioned third on my board. That’s partly due to Scott’s high ceiling: With Trump and DeSantis pulling in roughly 75 percent of the vote in polls right now and no one else north of 6 percent, you’re looking for someone who could put together a campaign and a message that could gain traction with at least a good chunk of those voters. As Nathaniel laid out, Scott has the potential and early resources to do that!
nrakich: And then for my first pick of the second round (thanks, snake draft), I will choose Pence. Yeah, I know he may have burned his bridges with Trump’s die-hard supporters after Jan. 6, but I still think he’s in a better position than most other contenders we haven’t mentioned yet. A former vice president is going to have a good amount of institutional support, and his social conservatism makes him a good fit for evangelicals, a key part of the Republican base. And as Amelia Thomson-DeVeaux and Dan Cox recently wrote, that group is in Trump’s corner right now, but they’re not sold on him.
geoffrey.skelley: Yeah, making a good pick is really hard at this point. Scott has potential, whereas Pence seems … washed up. But he’s also a former vice president! That’s traditionally a good position to run from. It’s just that this time, the former vice president would be running against the president he served under, and Trump has also made Pence out to be a villain in his 2020 defeat because Pence didn’t disobey the law and try to intercede in the certification of Electoral College votes.
meredithconroy: I think the only political career left for Pence is whatever former Rep. Liz Cheney is doing. As Philip Bump wrote recently for The Washington Post, “Trump reshaped the party around himself and pushed demand for a pre-Trump-style Republican even lower.” Pence’s popularity among his party really took a hit after Jan. 6 and hasn’t recovered. According to Civiqs polling, only 41 percent of Republicans view him favorably, and 39 percent view him unfavorably.
nrakich: OK, Meredith, who’s your next pick?
meredithconroy: I think I am passing up a semi-good pick in [REDACTED], but I’m going to say Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin.
nrakich: Ooh, spicy!
meredithconroy: I know he’s said he will focus on Virginia’s state legislative elections this year, but he recently tweeted a video that screams, “I would be a better alternative to Trump than DeSantis,” so I think he could still jump in and fill in that not-Trump lane. Like DeSantis, people assume he can champion Trump’s issues without the baggage.
nrakich: I’m down on Youngkin simply for logistical reasons. According to a recent report from Axios, he might not jump into the race until November. That would make it pretty much impossible to wage a serious presidential campaign. You can’t jump into the race in November and expect to perform respectably in the first contests just a few months later. Other candidates will just have too much of a head start when it comes to resources, talking to voters, etc.
geoffrey.skelley: Youngkin certainly seems to be keeping his options open. However, it’s very hard to run for president as the sitting governor of Virginia. You get elected the November after the presidential election, take office in January of the midterm year, and then bam — it’s only a year until candidates start jumping into the race. That means you have to be planning a campaign or actively running for president for almost your entire tenure. (Virginia is the only state that doesn’t allow incumbent governors to seek immediate reelection.)
Still, in a world where Trump wasn’t running, I think Youngkin would probably run. So he might in a world where Trump is running, too.
nrakich: Who’s your next pick, then, Geoffrey?
geoffrey.skelley: Yeesh. At this point, I’m just going for upside, so I’ll stick with wealthy governors like Youngkin: I will pick Gov. Doug Burgum of North Dakota. It looks like he may very well run, and he certainly could come off as an outsider with his business background. In theory, he could spend lots of his own money on his campaign, too.
nrakich: Yeah, he’s been one of the odder names to surface in the rumor mill lately. But you’re right — his $1.1 billion net worth means he could potentially pull a Michael Bloomberg and spend his way into contention. Look out, American Samoa!
meredithconroy: But the era of outsiders is over! According to the YouGov/CBS News poll I mentioned earlier, only 48 percent of Republicans said they wanted an outsider as the next president (compare that to the 79 percent who said they wanted a “peacemaker”). I am really curious about what’s going on there (I’m guessing they like Trump, and Trump isn’t an outsider anymore, but it’s interesting nonetheless).
geoffrey.skelley: I just think Burgum is more intriguing than some of the other options left on the table. He’s conservative, although he may have also opened himself up to criticism on the right by vetoing recent Republican-backed legislation prohibiting public school employees from acknowledging transgender students’ pronouns and screening explicit materials from children at public libraries.
meredithconroy: I couldn’t pick Burgum out of a lineup, and I can identify Steve Bullock, so that’s saying something.
geoffrey.skelley: And with my other pick, I guess I’ll take former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley. I am very skeptical of Haley’s path to victory: She embraced Trump after initially pushing back against him during the 2016 campaign, but more recently she has tried to sort of have it both ways by critiquing Trump obliquely while not going after him hard enough to really hit home. I’m also of a mind that Haley could be hindered by her gender, as women candidates tend to be viewed as more liberal by GOP primary voters. However, we are running out of options, and I think she’s got a better — if still slim — chance than some other would-be candidates left on the big board.
meredithconroy: Haley is whom I was going to pick instead of Youngkin. She is doing OK in her home state, which is an early primary state and isn’t winner-take-all in terms of delegates.
Plus, as FiveThirtyEight contributor and political scientist Hakeem Jefferson has explained, the GOP would be happy to have her (this applies to Scott too) as messengers of racial progress, even if none actually exists. Nathaniel mentioned this earlier, but I think it is worth repeating.
nrakich: Yeah, I think it’s pretty notable that no one took Haley until now. After all, she was the only candidate in the race other than Trump for months! But I think it speaks to the challenges that women face in the Republican Party today. And despite months of campaigning, Haley is still polling at just 4 percent nationally.
meredithconroy: I think she would be a strong candidate if the GOP weren’t the party of Trumpism. But it is.
geoffrey.skelley: It is true that Haley could use primary debates as an opportunity to break through. Carly Fiorina, who was the only woman on the debate stage in 2016, successfully used the debates to increase her support, and she was starting from a worse position than Haley is in.
meredithconroy: Ya, maybe she’ll shine in the debates. We’ll have to see!
OK, I have the next pick. I am going with former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson. Hutchinson is the most anti-Trump candidate in the field so far, so maybe he can consolidate that small share of primary voters. Yes, I know it’s very unlikely — but I’m scraping the bottom of the barrel here.
nrakich: Haha. Yes, you are. I just think Hutchinson is too moderate and bipartisan to click with today’s GOP.
My turn again … Gosh, who’s left? I guess for my third pick, I’ll go with businessman Vivek Ramaswamy. He’s already managed to go from a total unknown to someone who’s considered a viable third-tier candidate thanks to his youthful charisma and aggressive media strategy. And his culture-warrior persona (he has been dubbed “the CEO of Anti-Woke, Inc.”) could be an asset in the unlikely event that both Trump and DeSantis collapse.
geoffrey.skelley: Trump certainly seems happy that Ramaswamy is running: He said earlier this month that, “The thing I like about Vivek is that he only has good things to say about ‘President Trump.’”
nrakich: OK, dear readers, I’m afraid we’re out of time and Geoffrey and I have a podcast to record. So let’s go rapid-fire for this last round. I’ll pick New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu. Meredith?
meredithconroy: Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie. Because why not!
geoffrey.skelley: If Christie runs, it will almost certainly be with the goal of going scorched-earth on Trump. Christie is not going to win the GOP nomination.
As for the last pick, there aren’t any Latino candidates in the field yet, so I’ll take the one who has been mooted: Miami Mayor Francis Suarez. He’s been considering a run and would be an outside-the-box nominee given his background as a mayor. Obviously he’s a long, long shot, though.
nrakich: OK! Here are everyone’s picks. Let us know on Twitter or in the comments who you think has the best team!