A New 2024 Poll Shows a Potentially Decisive Turn in the Campaign

The survey of GOP county chairs is part of an ongoing effort to track the so-called “invisible primary” for the Republican presidential nomination, which is being featured in POLITICO Magazine over the course of this year. What takes place during the invisible primary is the crucial coordination and jockeying that occurs before anyone starts voting or caucusing, but which will do much to determine the eventual winner. County chairs are figures who play a key role in shaping the race. They are highly attentive to the party’s internal dynamics and are influential in local GOP circles; they offer the kind of endorsements that candidates are eager to collect. They’re also still close to the rank-and-file grassroots, and their shifts are likely to signal where the rest of the party is going.

As director of the Center on American Politics at the University of Denver, I sent this survey to roughly 2,600 GOP chairs, one for every county in the country; 104 Republican chairs responded during the first three weeks of October, about the same number who responded for the last survey in August.

The first question asked was simply whether the county chairs had committed to supporting a candidate, and if so, whom that might be. When I launched the initial in February, Trump was looking vulnerable. He was roughly tied with Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis among those who had committed to a candidate, and both had support in the upper teens. In the following months though, Trump and DeSantis’ numbers diverged, and the trend is now accelerating. The most recent survey shows a 10-point jump in support for Trump — up to 37 percent — while DeSantis dropped four points to 9 percent. Perhaps just as importantly, the percent of uncommitted county chairs, which had remained around 50 percent for much of this year, fell to 39 percent. The pool of chairs up for grabs is shrinking, with the first contest of 2024 just a couple months away.

Some of the chairs who had committed to Trump concede that they haven’t been strong fans of his up until recently, but now consider him the best candidate. “We would not be buddies,” said James Ayers, chair of the Republican Party of Piatt County, Illinois, but “I admire his willingness to dish it out to the swamp.”

Another GOP chair said she was mobilized to support Trump by recent world events. “Earlier, I decided that I would vote for other Republican[s] on the ticket besides Trump. However, the recent attacks on Trump and now the attack on Israel, I’m convinced to vote for Trump despite the baggage,” said the chair, who requested anonymity to speak candidly. “The world has turned upside down, and I feel if conservatives fail to get a ‘draw the line in the sand’ president we will lose our country, our democracy, and our republic.”

The second measure of candidate support asks chairs which candidates they are considering, and they can name as many as they want. DeSantis was at the top of this measure for the first four surveys, even as his numbers declined. Now, for the first time, DeSantis has lost the number one position to Trump.

DeSantis’ support on this question dropped only modestly, from 57 to 55 percent, but Trump’s shot upward, jumping from 52 to 64 percent of chairs now considering him. Both Tim Scott and Vivek Ramaswamy saw their impressive August numbers soften significantly in October, while Nikki Haley has continued to improve her position.

The former UN ambassador rose from 31 percent in June to 35 percent in August and 39 percent in October. Haley’s strong performances in two successive debates seem to be buoying her support among county chairs. Mike Pence, who ended his campaign shortly after I closed the survey, saw his numbers drop significantly, further suggesting that his campaign just wasn’t connecting. The bottom tier continues to be held by Chris Christie and Asa Hutchinson, the only two candidates with an explicitly anti-Trump message.

For another angle at this line of questioning, I asked the county chairs whom they do not want to see become their party’s nominee. Christie continues to be at the top of this measure, and actually saw more chairs turn against him in the most recent survey; now 65 percent of chairs have ruled him out, up from 58 percent in August. He is followed closely by Pence and Hutchinson.

Trump, meanwhile, continues to improve his position. Only 29 percent of chairs ruled him out in October, down from 44 percent in August. So Trump has not only gained some fans, he has lost some opponents. Indeed, he was the only candidate to see his negatives drop between August and October.

Taking these two measures — the percent of chairs considering a candidate and the percent of chairs actively opposed to a candidate — in combination, we can get some sense of how perceptions about the 2024 contenders are changing.

Trump has stood out in previous surveys for having both high positives and high negatives. That is, he has been a polarizing figure within his own party, just as he is in the United States at large. But my most recent survey shows him moving substantially toward consolidating GOP support. He has gained people interested in him while losing detractors. And not only did he maintain his leading position, but he made greater gains than any other candidate over the past two months.

The campaign isn’t over. DeSantis is still in a solid position in the sense that many chairs remain interested in him and — despite substantial criticism from other candidates and negative media coverage — very few chairs are opposed to him. Haley also saw some improvement in her standing and seems like she’d be in a good position should Trump unexpectedly withdraw from the race.

But it’s difficult to ignore the overall flavor of this survey. A key segment of the Republican Party — the middle management — is closing ranks behind Trump. They are turning against other candidates while increasingly finding a way to back him, even those who admit they have not been strong supporters of his in the past.

The next wave of this survey will be conducted in December, just weeks prior to the Iowa caucuses. That may yet prove to be a competitive contest, and as we’ve seen this year, a lot can happen in a few months. But it’s increasingly difficult to see what events could unlock this contest for a candidate other than Trump.

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