I’m not happy about it, and you’re not happy about it, but it’s time to talk about polls of the 2024 Republican presidential primary. We’re still (probably) more than a year away from the Iowa caucuses, yet pollsters have already asked about the Republican primary at least 96 times since the 2022 midterm elections.
Yes, it’s still very early to be looking at these polls, and yes, a lot can change in the next 12 months. But we are now in the period where 2024 polls are at least somewhat interesting. As FiveThirtyEight’s Geoffrey Skelley has written, national polls conducted in the calendar year before the election are fairly predictive of who will eventually win the nomination.
Or they would be … if this cycle’s polls weren’t all over the place. Some, like Morning Consult’s tracking poll, give former President Donald Trump a wide lead. Others, like a December survey from YouGov/The Economist, show Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis far ahead, despite the fact that he has not yet officially launched a campaign.
But there’s a reason the polls disagree so much: They’re asking about different campaigns. Some surveys are asking about a hypothetical head-to-head race between Trump and DeSantis, while others are asking about a multiway battle royal among several Republicans. In one of these scenarios, DeSantis is the favorite; in the other, it’s Trump.
When pollsters ask about a two-person race between DeSantis and Trump, DeSantis is usually ahead. A simple average of head-to-head national polls taken since the midterms1 puts DeSantis at 48 percent and Trump at 43 percent.
|Pollster/Sponsor||Dates||DeSantis %||Trump %|
|Léger/Association for Canadian Studies||Nov. 11-13||45||43|
|Marquette Law School||Nov. 15-22||60||40|
|Fabrizio-Impact/Wall Street Journal||Dec. 3-7||52||38|
|Suffolk/USA Today||Dec. 7-11||56||33|
|Morning Consult||Dec. 10-14||45||44|
|Echelon Insights||Dec. 12-14||46||47|
|Harris/Harvard CAPS||Dec. 14-15||52||48|
|YouGov/Yahoo News||Dec. 15-19||45||43|
|YouGov/The Economist||Dec. 17-20||48||40|
But in polls with more than two candidates in the field, Trump almost always leads. In national polling questions that included DeSantis, Trump and at least one other potential candidate, Trump has an average lead of 41 percent to 31 percent since the midterms.2 (No one else comes close.)
|Pollster/Sponsor||Dates||DeSantis %||Trump %|
|Seven Letter Insight||Nov. 10-15||34||26|
|Morning Consult/Politico||Nov. 18-20||30||45|
|YouGov/The Economist||Nov. 26-29||30||36|
|Marist/NPR-PBS NewsHour||Dec. 6-8||33||45|
|Echelon Insights||Dec. 12-14||32||41|
|Harris/Harvard CAPS||Dec. 14-15||25||48|
|YouGov/Yahoo News||Dec. 15-19||37||39|
|Big Village||Dec. 16-18||27||51|
|Morning Consult||Dec. 31-Jan. 2||34||45|
Some of the discrepancy could also be due to differences in the polls’ methodologies and turnout models. (For example, are they polling just registered Republicans, or Republican-leaning independents, too?) But this pattern was evident (albeit to a smaller degree) even when the same pollster asked about both a head-to-head and multiway race in the same poll.
|Morning Consult||Dec. 10-14||-1||+6||7|
|Echelon Insights||Dec. 12-14||+1||+9||8|
|Harris/Harvard CAPS||Dec. 14-15||-4||+23||27|
|YouGov/Yahoo News||Dec. 15-19||-2||+2||4|
Some of these polls will turn out to be wrong, seeing as we don’t even know who’s running for president yet. But unfortunately for us, we don’t yet know which field is the correct one. Plenty of Republicans other than DeSantis and Trump have hinted they might run for president too, including former Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley, Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, former Vice President Mike Pence and former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. But for now, they’re all polling in the single digits, and even if they do jump into the race, it’s very possible that they will drop out before voters actually start voting early next year — leaving us with a race that boils down to just DeSantis and Trump.
But these polls do give us one valuable piece of information, one that’s right under our nose: Trump seems to have a better chance at recapturing the nomination in a multiway race. This makes intuitive sense, too. So far, the 2024 Republican primary seems to be shaping up as a battle between Trump and the not-Trumps; notice how, in our polling averages, Trump’s support was very similar in both head-to-head (43 percent) and multiway (41 percent) matchups, but DeSantis lost a lot more support to other candidates (going from 48 percent to 31 percent). As those numbers suggest, if anti-Trump voters coalesce behind one alternative, it seems there are enough of them to defeat him. But if opposition to Trump is divided among multiple candidates, he could easily finish in first place with a simple plurality. And, because most states allocate all or most of their Republican National Convention delegates to the winner of their primary or caucus rather than splitting them up proportionally, that’s a recipe for Trump to lock up the nomination.
This is essentially what happened in 2016, when Trump was still a deeply controversial figure within the Republican primary; opponents like Sen. Ted Cruz, former Ohio Gov. John Kasich, Sen. Marco Rubio and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush all fought on thinking they could beat him, with the result that no one did. The same thing could happen in 2024; what remains to be seen is whether Republican elites will let it.