Trump is Not as Strong as He Looks
With just a few months before the first votes are cast in the Republican primary, Donald Trump commands a 41-point lead according to the polling average calculated by Real Clear Politics. Even more impressive, his lead appears to have grown in recent months. But Trump’s position is more tenuous than it appears.
More than anything, Republican primary voters want to win back the presidency in 2024. One of Donald Trump’s most glaring weaknesses is how deeply unpopular he is among the general voting public—six in ten Americans view Trump unfavorably, including nearly half who have a very unfavorable view of him. During the recent GOP debate, Trump’s own former UN ambassador Nikki Haley called him “the most disliked politician in America.”
But so far these criticisms have failed to resonate. New York Times reporter Shane Goldmacher argued that polls showing a tight race between Trump and Biden, aided by conservative media portrayals of Biden as ineffectual and feeble, have undermined the electability argument. Most Republicans believe that Trump is among the most electable GOP candidates in the field.
Looking beyond horse race polls reveals how challenging Trump’s current position is, however. A new Associated Press-NORC poll finds that a majority (53 percent) of voters say they would never, under any circumstances, vote for Trump. Of course, it’s not necessary to win the most votes to become president in the United States—as Trump showed in 2016—but starting with such a low ceiling of support is a significant liability.
Not only is Trump’s support capped at perilously low levels, but conflicted voters overwhelmingly reject his candidacy. Journalist David Leonhardt analyzed the roughly one in five voters who support neither Trump nor Biden. While most are politically moderate, they still have a strong aversion to Trump. This pattern is reminiscent of the 2020 election, in which late-deciding voters broke strongly for Biden. There are no indications that Trump can expand his electoral coalition.
Horse race polls may not always be so bullish on Trump’s chances either. Biden is not a strong candidate. His job approval ratings are abysmal, and many more Americans have an unfavorable than favorable opinion of him. But a weak incumbent overseeing a surging economy still makes for a formidable opponent. If polling begins to show Biden expanding his lead over Trump, the debate over electability will become much more salient in the primary.
Finally, even if GOP primary voters are unconvinced of Trump’s electability issues, donors and conservative media organizations may not see things the same way. If these important constituencies start to believe Trump can’t win, they may search with increasing urgency for a more electable alternative, complicating his march to the nomination.
One of Trump’s chief assets in the GOP primary is the hesitancy of his opponents to attack him. Trump's leading opponent, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, has studiously avoided going after him directly. Still, despite mostly avoiding criticism, polling immediately following the first Republican debate found that support for Trump’s candidacy dropped five points. As the authors note, the decline came about, "despite the fact that most debaters chose not to attack Trump in his absence, opting instead to criticize one another.”
One reason Trump has escaped widespread criticism from other Republicans vying for the nomination is due to the perception that doing so will inevitably alienate GOP voters. Trump benefits from an aura of inevitability and invincibility. If his polling lead begins to falter it will change voter perceptions about his candidacy and may embolden his opponents to launch more pointed attacks at his leadership and record.
It’s oft-mentioned that Trump’s growing legal problems—91 state and federal indictments across four different criminal cases—will do little to change voter perceptions or priorities in the GOP primary. But the ongoing legal peril poses at least two significant challenges for Trump. First, they will require him to spend more of his time and attention responding to various legal filings and court appearances navigating a tangled legal thicket. That these legal matters preoccupy Trump is evident in his recent social media posts.
Second, his campaign is already being forced to divert funds to cover legal expenses, depriving his campaign of a critical resource. The New York Times reports that Trump spent $27 million on legal fees in the first six months of 2023 alone, noting that his campaign “is already spending more than it is taking in, and tapping into money it raised years ago—an unusual trajectory this far out from an election.” Trump has complained on several occasions that the impending court cases will keep him off the campaign trail. In his last campaign trip to New Hampshire, Trump said: “I won’t be able to go to New Hampshire today because I’m sitting in a courtroom.” Political campaigns are complex and expensive operations. If Trump lacks the financial resources to compete, he will be more reliant on earned media to respond to attacks and change the narrative.
Trump’s decision to skip the first and maybe all Republican debates is logical given his current lead. But doing so deprives him of the opportunity to receive free media attention that was critical to his success in the 2016 primary campaign. Indeed, no candidate in 2016 benefitted more from than Trump from free media attention. He dominated the airwaves while significantly underspending his primary opponents. Former Florida governor Jeb Bush outspent Trump by more than eight to one in February 2016, for instance, but he was still swamped by Trump’s free media. One study found that Trump received nearly $5 billion in free media exposure over the course of the election. His rallies received prime-time coverage and nearly every public utterance was treated as newsworthy and regularly aired on cable media. It’s unlikely that Trump will receive the same treatment this year. What’s more, even if he still receives outsized coverage, much of it will likely focus on his legal challenges rather than his stump speeches, social media rants, and campaign rallies.
Trump nonetheless remains the strong favorite for the Republican Party’s nominee for president in 2024—the third time running. But he’s a far weaker candidate than current horse-race polling suggests. Despite leading in primary polls, his standing among Republican voters looks shakier than it once did. A recent Pew poll shows that positive feelings toward Trump have fallen nearly ten points over the last two years. Nearly one in three Republicans do not like Trump.
At this stage, Trump is dominating the primary—but not because he is indomitable or invincible. He has real vulnerabilities that his primary opponents could exploit if they choose to do so. If Trump does wind up being the Republican nominee, it will say much more about the decisions and capabilities of his opponents than it does about him.
Daniel A. Cox is the director of the Survey Center on American Life and a senior fellow in polling and public opinion at the American Enterprise Institute. He is a contributor to 538 and Insider and writes the newsletter American Storylines.