Polls show the 2024 Republican primary is a contest between former President Donald Trump, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and everybody else. The “everybody else” group includes candidates such as former UN Ambassador Nikki Haley, who look like they’re itching to get into the race despite only polling in the single digits.
But if Trump and DeSantis are the front-runners, what is the chance one of these single-digits candidates (e.g., Haley or former Vice President Mike Pence) can actually win the nomination?
It’s not nothing, but the odds clearly favor either Trump or DeSantis becoming the 2024 GOP nominee.
Trump (polling in the low 40s) and DeSantis (in the low 30s) are each above 30% nationally on average, while no other candidate reaches double digits.
Historically, only a few candidates have polled above 35%, on average, in early polling (i.e., January to June in the year before the primary) in the modern primary era (i.e., since 1972). Most of them have gone on to win the nomination.
The two who didn’t are familiar to most political junkies: Democrats Ted Kennedy in 1980 and Hillary Clinton in 2008. The other six (not counting mostly unopposed incumbents) each ended up as their party’s nominee, meaning that 75% of candidates who were at 35% or above in early polling went on to win their primary.
Importantly for this year, Kennedy and Clinton didn’t lose to candidates who were polling poorly in the early going. The eventual nominees (President Jimmy Carter in 1980 and Barack Obama in 2008) were both polling above 20% over the January to June period in the year before the primary.
Hope for ‘everybody else’
Now, does this mean that anybody in this “everybody else” group (i.e., those polling in the single digits) is doomed from the start? Not exactly.
For one thing, history doesn’t necessarily tell us what is going to happen in the future.
Moreover, there have been single-digit candidates in the early polling who ended up winning the nomination. Trump was one of them. Remember, he struggled to reach 5% in early 2015 before gaining a national polling lead that he rarely relinquished over the rest of the primary season.
Trump wasn’t the only candidate polling in the single digits early on to later win his party’s nod. George McGovern in 1972, Carter in 1976, Michael Dukakis in 1988 and Bill Clinton in 1992 all barely registered in the national polls in the January to June period before the primaries began.
All told, five of the 17 candidates to win nominations without an incumbent running in the primary (i.e., 30% of them) were polling under 10% in the early polls.
A two-fold problem
Nevertheless, single-digit candidates face a two-fold problem this cycle.
The first is that most candidates poll below 10% in the early polls. So while it wouldn’t necessarily be shocking for a candidate from this group to ultimately win the nomination, the probability of any single candidate doing so is low. Historically, less than 5% of candidates polling in the single digits at this point actually win the nomination.
The second is that it’s worth examining the years in which early single-digit candidates emerged as the eventual winners.
Carter, Dukakis, Bill Clinton and Trump were all running in years in which there wasn’t a polling front-runner (or front-runners). The leading candidates in the national primary polls in each of those cycles were at 20% or less. The early polling leader in 1992 was New York Gov. Mario Cuomo (at 20%), and he ended up not running.
There has been an exception, of course.
McGovern won the Democratic nomination in 1972 when there were two candidates polling in the 20s and one in the low 30s in the early surveys of that primary. I’m not exactly sure how applicable the 1972 cycle is to 2024 given that was the first year of the modern primary era, when it wasn’t clear exactly how early-state momentum could dictate the nomination process. Even so, McGovern’s win is notable.
Another notable polling ascent happened during the 1984 Democratic primary. Gary Hart didn’t get above 5% in the national polls in either the first or second half of 1983. The Colorado senator was far behind the eventual nominee (former Vice President Walter Mondale) who was polling in the 30s in the first half of 1983 and in the 40s in the second half of the year.
While Mondale eventually emerged victorious, Hart finished close behind. The 1984 race (like potentially 2024, with DeSantis) featured another much-hyped candidate (Ohio Sen. John Glenn) who was polling above 20% in early polling. Glenn, of course, flamed out.
Again, I’m not saying DeSantis is like Glenn. My belief is that the 2024 GOP nominee is likely going to be either DeSantis or Trump.
But what I am saying is that while Trump or DeSantis are the odds-on favorites for the nomination, there is enough history of low-polling candidates later gaining traction to at least be open to the idea that a Haley, Pence or somebody else could, if nothing else, make things interesting come voting time.