Welcome to FiveThirtyEight’s politics chat. The transcript below has been lightly edited.
nrakich (Nathaniel Rakich, senior elections analyst): I don’t want to alarm anyone, but the first nominating contest of the 2024 Republican presidential primary is likely just about a year away, and one candidate — you may have heard of him — has already announced his campaign.
So it’s no longer way too early for us to hold a fantasy-baseball-style draft of who we think the GOP will nominate! Everyone got their draft boards ready to go?
geoffrey.skelley (Geoffrey Skelley, senior elections analyst): Yeah, I just hope I’m not picking third or fourth. Kind of a clear top-two here, don’t you think?
alex (Alex Samuels, politics reporter): Nobody better steal my picks! 🔪
santul.nerkar (Santul Nerkar, editor): It’s a two-player draft! 👻
santul.nerkar: But I am very curious to see how things shake out after picks No. 1 and 2.
alex: Best of luck to whoever gets pick No. 3!
nrakich: OK, here are the rules. We are drafting the candidates we think are most likely to win the GOP nomination — regardless of their chances in the general election. As usual, we will do a 🐍🐍🐍 draft, where the person with the final selection in one round picks first in the next round. Now let me completely randomly choose the order for the first round …
OK, Santul, looks like you have the first pick! And, for the first time in forever, you actually have an interesting choice here!
santul.nerkar: [Cues up NBA draft music in my head]
To make things potentially 🌶 in the early going here, I’m going to go with someone other than former President Donald Trump, the face of the GOP for the last six-plus years. My pick is Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis.
santul.nerkar: My reasoning is fairly simple: Unlike in 2016, the last time the GOP primary had more than one viable candidate, it does appear that the GOP rank and file has coalesced around DeSantis as a non-Trump alternative. Poll after poll in the early going has found that, while Republicans aren’t exactly abandoning the former president and Trumpism, they do seem enthused by the idea of a candidate who stands for many of the things Trump does — without being Trump.
alex: I think this is a super smart pick, Santul! But I wonder if DeSantis flops, in part because he’s not really known for his personal appeal in the same way that Trump is?
Hmm … I guess now that I think about it, I’m not sure if that’ll help or hurt him. 🤷♀️
geoffrey.skelley: Let’s see what happens when DeSantis and Trump get on the debate stage together, but DeSantis is clearly the main alternative to Trump at this very early point. He’s attracted an unusually high level support in early polls for a governor who has never run nationally before. You don’t often see someone like that hitting 30 percent in national polls this early.
santul.nerkar: Yeah, that’s kind of where I’m at. He already enjoys high favorability ratings among GOP voters, despite never having run a national campaign.
nrakich: So this is obviously a very voguish pick right now, with DeSantis leading several early primary polls, but I personally think Trump is still the more likely nominee. Take a closer look at the polls that show DeSantis ahead: They’re almost all head-to-head polls between him and Trump. But I’m skeptical that the GOP primaries will actually be head-to-head races. Plenty of other candidates have shown interest in running, and it’s kind of a self-fulfilling prophecy: If Trump looks weak enough to beat, that will encourage more candidates to jump into the race, which in turn increases the odds that Trump wins. Because when you look at polls between Trump, DeSantis, and a handful of other Republicans, Trump is usually ahead.
As Geoffrey alluded to, I also don’t think DeSantis is fully vetted yet. I think he’s become a bit of an avatar for folks who want to move beyond Trump, but what if he’s not a good debater, or has skeletons in the closet?
Finally, although I’m like 90 percent sure that DeSantis will run, he’s not actually in the race yet. Trump is. That counts for something.
alex: If only you had the No. 2 pick, Nathaniel! 😛
geoffrey.skelley: Nathaniel, I do think that’s right, in the sense that people don’t think about the actual rules of the GOP primary. Most primaries and caucuses on the Republican side are “winner-take-all” — or at least “winner-take-most” — meaning that all a candidate has to do is finish first in a state in order to win all or most of its delegates. Trump won in 2016 in part because he won pluralities in those races against a crowded field and captured most of the delegates.
nrakich: Exactly. We could see a repeat of 2016 where a divided field allows Trump to rack up delegates with like 40 percent of the vote in each state.
We know a solid chunk of the Republican electorate is loyal to him. And they don’t have to constitute a majority of the party for him to win.
What’s more, I’m not sure DeSantis’s lead in head-to-head polls will last. I feel like we’re in a particular moment where Republicans are unhappy with Trump because candidates aligned with him did so poorly in the midterms. But there have been past moments where it seemed like the GOP could be poised to abandon Trump — e.g., a lot of Republican politicians criticized him after the Jan. 6 riot — but then they closed ranks around him again. What do you guys think?
alex: I personally don’t think this will last. Trump isn’t really in the public eye right now, and we’re still a ways away from 2024. I think there’s plenty of time for current members of the party who aren’t over the moon about his presidential announcement to warm to him. Plus, as Nathaniel said before, DeSantis could struggle and Trump could become the GOP’s only viable option. Or, DeSantis could sit this one out because Trump already threw his hat in the ring.
geoffrey.skelley: Eh, I think DeSantis running is all but certain. He’s just likely going to wait until the end of Florida’s legislative session in the spring before officially launching his campaign.
alex: I personally disagree, but that’s what chats are for!
santul.nerkar: Man, I’m already feeling buyer’s remorse for my pick!
nrakich: Alex, it sounds like you have a name in mind for pick No. 2, then??
alex: I do, Nathaniel! I’d be a fool if I didn’t pick Trump No. 2! In short, the GOP currently is still largely the party of Trump. Yes, there were a few grumbles from fellow Republicans about his 2024 run, but most prominent leaders in the party have been largely silent over some of his most recent controversies. This all suggests to me that Republican lawmakers continue to feel uneasy challenging the former president because they know they still need his base to win elections.
Moreover, even though our average of Trump’s favorability rating among all Americans is at an all-time low, another poll from Quinnipiac University, which was released in November, found that when offered a choice between Trump, DeSantis or “someone else,” Republican voters were evenly split over who they prefer win the GOP presidential nomination (44 percent preferred DeSantis; 44 percent backed Trump; 11 percent didn’t offer an opinion). And, as we’ve discussed before, there are plenty of examples of Republicans appearing to break with Trump — only to fall back in line later.
nrakich: Yeah, I think you got good value with Trump at No. 2, Alex (obviously, considering my DeSantis skepticism).
geoffrey.skelley: Trump could still definitely win the nomination. It’s been easy to say “DeSantis this, DeSantis that,” but he’s untested. A lot of Republicans still falsely believe Trump lost illegitimately in 2020, and his favorability among Republicans remains high, although it has gone down a little since the 2022 elections. But there’s no question the opportunity is there for Trump to win a comeback campaign.
nrakich: One thing that Trump has this cycle that he didn’t have in 2016 is a lot of elite support. Alabama Sen. Tommy Tuberville has endorsed him, along with several House members. There’s been a lot of talk about how many Republican members of Congress haven’t endorsed him yet (probably because they are worried he’s electoral poison), but not as much about all the support that he does have. And elite support can matter.
santul.nerkar: To play devil’s advocate to my own DeSantis pick, it’s also still very early. Around this time eight years ago — during the cycle Trump would eventually run in and win — none other than Jeb! Bush was leading in GOP polls. So while the field appears to be more clearly defined this time around, at this point in the cycle, the fact that DeSantis leads Trump in some early polls isn’t a guarantee of anything.
alex: As I alluded to earlier, I do think Trump’s candidacy will clear the field of all other serious candidates (other than, perhaps, an anti-Trump candidate or two). But it seems pretty clear to me that Republicans are scared to go up against Trump lest his loyal followers turn on them.
geoffrey.skelley: It is true, however, that DeSantis gives Republicans who don’t want Trump a better opportunity to coordinate and rally to one candidate. Anti-Trump Republicans faced a coordination problem in 2016, as there were a bunch of GOP alternatives, no one was sure how seriously to take Trump at first, and they couldn’t coalesce around one candidate when it became abundantly clear Trump was the front-runner for the nomination. Once the voting got going, the alternatives eventually became Sen. Ted Cruz or Ohio Gov. John Kasich, which also worked out well for Trump because there were parts of each candidate’s constituency who might’ve backed Trump before the other non-Trump candidate.
santul.nerkar: Republicans have also either lost ground or underperformed in three consecutive election cycles, and Trump’s favorability seems to be slipping relative to DeSantis’s. So I think voters could view DeSantis as a fresher, more “electable” face than they view Trump.
nrakich: Yeah, there was a Suffolk University/USA Today poll the other day that asked about two hypothetical general elections: In one, President Biden beat Trump 47 percent to 40 percent among all voters, but in the other, DeSantis beat Biden 47 percent to 43 percent. Of course, it’s way too early to put much stock in general-election polls, but polls like that may nevertheless create a narrative.
geoffrey.skelley: Yeah, DeSantis would be wise to push the electability argument along with his Trump-ish approach on issues. “Look, I just won the swing state of Florida by almost 20 points, I’m polling better than Trump against Biden and I’m pushing the issues you care about, GOP primary voters.” That’s a pretty lethal combination — potentially anyway.
nrakich: I’m just not convinced that Republicans care as much about electability, though. Poll after poll in the 2020 presidential primaries showed that Democrats really prioritized it when picking their nominee, but if recent GOP primaries are any indication, Republicans care more about ideological purity.
geoffrey.skelley: Sure, Nathaniel, but I don’t think it’s a coincidence that DeSantis seems to be doing better in polls that have narrower sample populations — his margins versus Trump are superior in surveys of registered voters compared with ones of adults, or among likely voters compared with registered voters. This suggests that more engaged voters, who tend to also be more ideological, are more likely to prefer him. That could be due to both electability (“Trump might lose, let’s find someone else”) and ideology.
alex: I must ask … What is the difference between a DeSantis voter and a Trump voter? I don’t think they’d push vastly different policies if elected, so what’s really differentiating the two besides maybe personality? I also don’t get the vibe that anti-Trump Republicans would suddenly be gung-ho about returning to the party with DeSantis at the helm.
santul.nerkar: It’s interesting you mention that, Alex. I’ll emphasize again that we should take these early polls with a gigantic helping of salt, but the Suffolk University/USA Today poll Nathaniel mentioned found that DeSantis actually leads Trump among voters who identified as “conservative” or “very conservative.” It’s pretty remarkable that DeSantis has emerged as the most viable potential Trump challenger, not by positioning himself as a never-Trumper, but rather by leaning into a lot of the rhetoric and policy positions that made Trump who he is.
geoffrey.skelley: Alex, that they would attract many of the same voters seems like a feature, not a bug, for DeSantis. As Santul said, he’s a fresh face who can bring much of the same approach but in a more electorally appealing form. I’m not sure it’s so much about electability on its own, but DeSantis can offer a combination of electoral success with policy successes as Florida’s governor that conservatives find appealing.
alex: I guess, since they’re very similar, it’s possible that Republican elites end up unhappy with both candidates.
But if Trump is truly a weakened candidate — so much so that DeSantis decides to challenge him — then I don’t think the Florida governor will be the only Republican taking on the former president.
nrakich: Speaking of other potential candidates … With the third pick of the draft, I’m going to choose Ted Cruz. This is a bit of a bank shot: In those polls of Trump, DeSantis, and several other Republicans, Cruz isn’t polling in third; he usually clocks only 2-3 percent nationally. But in a world where DeSantis doesn’t run for some reason, I think Cruz is the most natural not-Trump Trumpist candidate. He’s well known in the party thanks to his 2016 presidential campaign, in which he finished second — and, historically, Republicans like to nominate the “next candidate in line.” Think John McCain in 2008 after he finished second to George W. Bush in 2000.
geoffrey.skelley: Whoa, hello.
alex: Nathaniel, you REALLY want a Cruz 2024 run, don’t you?
Readers, this is not the first time Nathaniel has selected Cruz as his first-round pick! 👀
nrakich: I’m nothing if not consistent!
geoffrey.skelley: This pick is certainly reasonable to me if the goal is to pick someone who is most likely to be the GOP nominee. Cruz wants the job and essentially finished second in 2016, which to Nathaniel’s point has historically been a pathway to future success in Republican nomination contests. Besides McCain, there are Ronald Reagan (ran in 1976, won in 1980), George H.W. Bush (ran in 1980, won in 1988) and Bob Dole (ran in 1988, won in 1996).
But after initially pushing back against Trump — remember his 2016 convention speech? — Cruz caught a lot of flak and then became strongly supportive of Trump. So I think Cruz is less likely to run if Trump remains in the field.
nrakich: Yeah, he’s in a tricky spot. He was kind of outflanked by DeSantis in the “position yourself to run against Trump but don’t be anti-Trump” invisible primary. Now his best bet might be rooting for Trump in this primary, then running himself in 2028.
alex: Nathaniel, I’ll ask you now what I asked you back in March 2021: How can Cruz win considering how disliked he is in GOP circles?
nrakich: Haha, Alex, I’ll tell you what I told you then too: Among GOP voters, Cruz isn’t disliked! According to a recent Morning Consult poll, 61 percent of potential Republican primary voters had a favorable opinion of him, while only 20 percent had an unfavorable opinion.
alex: But he barely won his own Senate race in 2018 against former Rep. Beto O’Rourke! In fact, his approval rating is still underwater in his home state.
santul.nerkar: I’m surprised by this pick because — like you said, Nathaniel — Cruz probably isn’t entering a race that Trump is already in, he’s not a more moderate alternative to Trump, and there’s already a strong conservative challenger to Trump right now in DeSantis. So Cruz doesn’t check the box of a never-Trumper, nor is he the most obvious right-wing alternative to the former president.
nrakich: I mean, look. Like we said at the beginning, I’m not sure anyone other than Trump or DeSantis has more than, like, a 10 percent chance of winning the nomination. But I think Cruz is more likely than a certain former vice president.
Speaking of which … Geoffrey, your turn.
geoffrey.skelley: I get not one but two picks here back to back. So with the first one, I’m going to take the straightforward pick of former Vice President Mike Pence. No, I don’t think it’s especially likely that he wins the nomination, but he’s a former vice president, and that’s been a pretty surefire way to get yourself close to winning in past primaries. He maintains at least some support among the donor class and has been making moves that portend a presidential bid.
nrakich: Yes, he is the candidate I alluded to earlier who’s consistently polling in third place.
Albeit usually around 7-8 percent of the vote.
alex: Hm, I wonder if he’s consistently polling third due largely to name recognition?
nrakich: Yeah, I think that’s part of it, Alex. And as Geoffrey wrote back in 2019, having high name recognition but low polling numbers is not a good place to be.
santul.nerkar: Mike Pence is the De’Andre Hunter of this two-player draft.
But yeah, I think that’s decent value for a No. 4 pick. In the unlikely scenario that Trump drops out — perhaps because of the host of legal troubles he’s facing right now — I think Pence’s chances go up significantly, especially next to a comparatively untested figure like DeSantis.
geoffrey.skelley: Hey, the Virginia grad here says respect De’Andre. But comparisons aside, that’s my attitude, too, Santul. Pence is there, he’s going to be able to put together a credible campaign, and who knows how DeSantis and Trump work out.
Anyway, to kick off the second round with my next pick, I’m going to go with Texas Gov. Greg Abbott.
santul.nerkar: Strong Texan representation here!
alex: … Do you and Nathaniel know something about Texas that I don’t?
nrakich: It’s a great factory for Republican politicians! It has produced two recent(ish) GOP presidents, and it’s obviously the largest red state. In other words, there’s a deep bench of Republican candidates there, and the ones who rise to the top are inevitably talented politicians.
alex: I do think this poll — in which Republican voters in the Lone Star State said they preferred DeSantis over Trump by more than 10 percentage points — is telling, though. And, perhaps most notably, the survey didn’t ask about either Cruz or Abbott.
geoffrey.skelley: I don’t know that Abbott will run (in fact, Cruz is probably more likely to run than Abbott). But what I do know is that the man can raise a ton of money and that he has a conservative track record that would surely appeal in a primary. If we’re talking about people who could actually win a long primary campaign, Abbott has much more potential than many of the other names on my list.
Simply put, a lot of names out there are VP material. And Abbott is not one of them.
nrakich: Wait, he’s not VP material? Why?
geoffrey.skelley: I don’t think he’d take it. Dude is the governor of Texas. President or bust.
What I’m saying is that some other potential candidates we could name are people who would happily take the VP job and would be running for president with an eye on that in the first place.
nrakich: OK, I’m up next, and I’m going with South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott. He’s a rising star within the party (he had a prime speaking slot at the 2020 Republican National Convention), and he’s managed the extremely impressive feat of staying on the good side of both the Trumpist and non-Trumpist wings of the party. That might be difficult to maintain if he, uh, runs for president against Trump, but I think he might be a better politician than DeSantis and could fill that “fresh face” role nicely if DeSantis stumbles.
alex: Smart pick! I was semi-surprised his win on Election Day wasn’t more of a conversation-starter. It seemed like all eyes were on DeSantis’s performance, but Scott racked up an even more decisive win — defeating his opponent by 26 points. Yes, I know South Carolina is redder than Florida and Democrats never seriously targeted it, but still!
alex: For all the chatter about Republicans wanting a more diverse voting base, I wonder if Scott offers a broader appeal as a Black man?
nrakich: Yeah, Alex, I think nominating a Black man would be appealing to a lot of Republican voters who want to defuse Democratic attacks that the party is racist.
OK, we’re starting to run out of time, so we’re going to have to make this the last round! Alex, who’s your second and final pick?
alex: I appreciate you all for not stealing my No. 7 pick: Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin!
In his 2021 campaign, Youngkin ran with the image of an inoffensive suburban dad and businessman. He kept Trump out of the state and didn’t appear with him at the tele-town hall event Trump hosted right before the election — but Youngkin was smart in that he also played into some of the same issues Trump voters care about. (He even falsely claimed that the Department of Justice was trying to “silence parents.”) So Youngkin did everything he could to walk that line — not to look or sound like Trump, while also not offending his base and still accepting Trump’s endorsement.
And, at least so far, tying Youngkin to Trump hasn’t been a death knell for his candidacy and political aspirations. According to a Washington Post-Schar School poll that came out a few days before the election, a majority of voters (roughly 7 in 10) thought Youngkin’s ideas and policies were similar to Trump. He won anyway.
geoffrey.skelley: Youngkin might want to do what former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie didn’t do in 2012 and start running for president roughly a year and a half into his gubernatorial term. When the iron is hot, you gotta strike. If you wait, you might find yourself suddenly more unpopular or facing a scandal or something that weakens your chances in a presidential primary, as happened with Christie.
nrakich: Yeah, Alex, he could make an electability argument too: He won the governorship of Virginia by 2 points just one year after Biden carried the state by 10.
santul.nerkar: Youngkin also made key inroads with groups like Latino voters in that 2021 gubernatorial election, suggesting he could put together a relatively more diverse coalition than other contenders.
nrakich: At the same time, though, I feel like Youngkin could be too boring/establishment for GOP primary voters. They want a fighter, not sweater vests.
alex: I, personally, want to see more politicians in sweater vests, Nathaniel.
All right, Santul, bring us home with the last pick!
geoffrey.skelley: Mike Pompeo is asking for your vote.
santul.nerkar: And he shall not get it!
nrakich: No one has picked the only Republican (other than Trump) who is actually running for president so far: former Montana Secretary of State Corey Stapleton.
santul.nerkar: I think Chris Stapleton might have better odds than Corey.
For my second and final pick, I’m going with another South Carolinian: former Gov. and Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley. FiveThirtyEight editor-in-chief Nate Silver made the point when we did our last GOP primary draft, all the way back in 2021, that Republicans might very well be tempted to back a “safer” candidate like Haley if the party suffered a worse-than-expected 2022 midterm performance because Trumpy candidates lost winnable races.
Well, that scenario has now come to pass, and Republicans might find themselves having to make such a decision. If voters are too turned off by Trump’s baggage and DeSantis has a bad debate or two in the early going, I could see the GOP rank and file potentially coalescing around a different candidate. And Haley has the conservative bona fides, name recognition and favorability among her own party to give her a fighting chance in such an environment. (Also, how many times is she going to be named as a potential candidate before actually running?)
nrakich: Haley did recently backtrack on her previous promise not to run if Trump did. She’s reportedly going to take the holidays to consider.
geoffrey.skelley: Everything Haley has done points toward a run. After criticizing Trump in 2016, she joined his administration as U.N. Ambassador to amp up her foreign affairs profile on top of her governing experience. So she certainly has the resume.
alex: Interesting choice! Haley campaigned with Trump-backed U.S. Senate candidate Herschel Walker in Georgia ahead of the December runoff election, so I’m wondering if that says anything about her being team Trump?
nrakich: I actually think she is the opposite of Scott in that she has managed to get on the bad side of both the Trumpist and non-Trumpist wings of the party. As you said, Alex, she has mostly aligned herself with Trump since joining his administration, but she was one of the Republicans who criticized him after Jan. 6 only to walk it back later. But I’m not sure voters — or Trump — have forgotten.
I also think sexism will hold her back. Research shows that female Republican candidates are perceived as more moderate, and moderate historically hasn’t been what GOP primary voters are looking for.
santul.nerkar: That perception has played out in really ugly ways, too, Nathaniel. Haley faced backlash from her own party in 2015 for signing a bill to remove the Confederate flag from the South Carolina State House after a white supremacist murdered nine people at a Black church in Charleston, and she’s since walked that back, saying that the perpetrator “hijacked” the Confederate flag.
alex: Interesting that Haley was the only woman we selected in this draft. I think our draft back in 2021 was slightly more diverse (though that one also went to four rounds).
Then again, GOP primary voters might not either.