Well, there’s no debate about this: Right now, the Republican Party would easily re-nominate Donald Trump for 2024. And it’s not close.
The former president now holds his largest lead over his rivals in our polling amid his recent legal troubles. In fact, most of his voters cite those troubles as yet one more reason to show him support.
His nearest — but not too near — rival Ron DeSantis has fallen even further back. Everyone else is in single digits.
Trump voters’ affinity for him seems to insulate the former president from attacks whether or not he debates this week, because voters basically say they aren’t receptive to such criticism.
Instead, a whopping nine in 10 GOP primary voters want the other candidates to focus on making the case for themselves, but not against Trump.
(In interviews conducted before there were reports that Trump has decided to skip the debate, his voters were likelier than others to both say he should participate in the event and that they intend to watch.)
Explaining Trump’s dominance post-indictments
First, as was the case with Trump’s previous indictments, Republican primary voters’ overwhelming concern about the Georgia charges is that they’re politically motivated.
They dismiss the premise of the charges: the bulk of them do think Trump tried to stay in office, but to them, it was legal and constitutional because these Republican primary voters overwhelmingly think Joe Biden didn’t win legitimately.
There may be a rally effect: a sizable three-quarters of Trump’s voters include those who “show support for his legal troubles” as one rationale, among others, for considering him in the first place.
Second, information in the indictments doesn’t have an impact, in part, because they generally believe it’s Trump who tells them the truth.
Trump far and away leads the GOP field among voters who place top importance on a candidate being “honest and trustworthy.”
The context here is that Republican primary voters believe the political system is corrupt at an even higher rate than Americans overall do. That could mean perceiving Trump as railing against — or prosecuted by — that system might well make him seem, from their perspective, like the one telling a larger truth.
More generally, Trump’s voters hold him as a source of true information, even more so than other sources, including conservative media figures, religious leaders, and even their own friends and family.
Third, Trump is seen as getting all the political oxygen in the campaign.
Half the primary electorate says there’s been too much coverage of Trump. Clearly, much of that is related to the negative stories about his indictments.
GOP primary voters say they’ve been hearing Republican candidates talk about Trump-related topics as much as, if not more than, either economic issues more generally or social and cultural issues.
Fourth, Trump “checks the boxes” across all the ways voters generally make choices.
His track record shows that those considering him almost all think things were better in the country under his presidency. And the vast majority say they’ve “always been a supporter.” Together, these appear to contribute to a powerful “incumbency advantage” for Trump.
It could be strategic: Republican voters think Trump has the best shot to beat Biden — remember, many think he already did. And that’s really important to them, outweighing even some disagreements on policy. (Of note: Ron DeSantis has fallen on this electability measure since earlier in the summer, along with his support.)
There’s also Trump’s personal connection: Almost all his voters say he “fights for people like me.”
And then, in particular, a large majority of primary voters would want a candidate similar to Trump, if it were not him. So, they’re picking the original, as it were.
So, what can happen at a debate: Is there a way forward for others?
If there is, that path looks pretty narrow. But here’s what we see:
Time may help the field. It’s early. And voters know it.
For the voters at least actively considering someone else along with Trump, their rationale most often is that they’re just keeping their options open. About half of them also say they are “waiting to see the debate.” That might be the most hopeful news for those candidates going into the week.
(It is also a reminder that it’s another six or seven months before the bulk of voters get to cast ballots.)
A sizable four in 10 of these voters do cite Trump being “controversial” as another reason for considering others, perhaps reflecting uncertainty about what his future holds, and that it’s a talking point for other candidates. Comparably few currently say it’s because they think Trump could lose to Biden.
Will anyone tackle issues voters actually want to hear about? (Trump isn’t one of those issues .)
Pocketbook items matter across the electorate.
Republican primary voters and debate watchers want to hear candidate plans for lowering inflation, among other policy goals — especially since most of them think the economy will be in recession next year. (However, partisan lenses deeply color those views.)
But desire to hear about inflation far outranks items like stopping abortions, or putting limits on diversity programs.
And in that vein, strictly anti-Trump sentiment isn’t enough to win right now.
Looking at what we can learn from the people not voting for Trump, for them, it’s that the party “should consider someone new” and for this much smaller segment of voters, there is concern about his electability, and what his legal fights might bring. The question is whether that sentiment can be expanded.
And what about Mike Pence, whom Trump reportedly called “too honest?”
Primary voters tend to think, on balance, that it’s positive about Mike Pence if he was labeled “too honest,” but this isn’t an overwhelming sentiment. And a lot aren’t sure.
And with regard to Jan. 6, 2021, specifically, by two to one, MAGA identifiers say Pence did the wrong thing by counting the electoral votes on that day, rather than the right thing (though many are unsure). Non-MAGA Republicans are comparably more likely to think Pence did the right thing.