One Year Until Iowa: Checking in On Trump’s “Heap”

On November 14, I summarized the ancient “Sorites paradox,” which wonders when a heap of sand, subjected to the steady removal of singular grains, no longer qualifies as a “heap.” I used this analogy as a way to reframe the support for former President Trump, which seemed to be shrinking as a result of the 2022 midterms, but I ultimately speculated it hadn’t dwindled enough to displace him as the favorite for the 2024 Republican nomination.

Now just one year out from the Iowa caucuses (which remains Republicans’ first contest despite Democratic efforts to remove the primacy of the Hawkeye State), it’s a good time to re-examine Trump’s heap. Has it dwindled further? Are oddsmakers and pundits correct that Trump’s magic is gone and Florida Governor Ron DeSantis is truly the new favorite for the 2024 Republican Primary?

I’m not so sure.

We’ll start with the polls. Here are all the national 2024 Republican Presidential Nomination polls charted by Real Clear Politics since October, which will capture a sense of things before and after November 8’s midterm elections.

I’m going to split these polls into three groups. Group A contains the three October polls from before the midterms, Group B has the six post-midterms polls that closed out 2022, and Group C has the three polls conducted in 2023. Here’s what we find:

  • Group A average: Trump 51, DeSantis 22.33 (Trump average lead: 28.67)
  • Group B average: Trump 46.83, DeSantis 29.33 (Trump average lead: 17.5)
  • Group C average: Trump 49, DeSantis 29.67 (Trump average lead: 19.33)

What do we learn? Primarily, the data suggests exactly what I speculated in November: that the reports of Trump’s demise have been greatly exaggerated.

Fair enough, his rough midterm result is surely the reason he dipped from majority approval to strong plurality approval — from 51 to about 47 — in the weeks after the midterms. Yet, that dip isn’t all that significant. Further, in 2023, he’s recouped half his losses.

As for DeSantis, his tremendous midterm result certainly helped him jump in numbers. To move from about 22 to 30 is a big pop. However, that pop occurred in what might be the best news cycle he will see for the next year, and it wasn’t nearly enough to erase Trump’s lead. Perhaps worse is that it was a short-lived surge. Nothing about his January plateau suggest an ongoing surge.

It’s evident to me that Trump survived his midterms disappointment, and punditry suggesting otherwise remains at best premature, and at worst dead wrong.

Of course, as will be said by me and hundreds of others who lay claim, to varying degrees of truthfulness, that they know what they’re talking about, it’s early. Things can change. And with Donald Trump involved, a controversy or scandal always looms. That said, it’s hard to imagine the kind of controversy it would take to finally kill Trump’s political career. He’s been forced to create so many antibodies that any new virus doesn’t stand a chance.

No, to take Trump down it’ll take legitimate political defeats, not defeats as framed by the media. His 2020 and 2022 losses did indeed cause some damage, but the numbers say he weathered those storms. What’s the next looming political contest that could cause damage? Not a debate, surely. His generally uninformed and batty 2016 debates did nothing to slow his path toward the nomination. What else then?

Frankly, nothing until Iowa. Truth be told, there he does indeed look more vulnerable than he does nationally. FiveThirtyEight charts a handful of Iowa 2024 polls, and they show that whereas Trump had leads of 21 and 15 last summer, since the midterms it’s DeSantis who holds leads of 11 and 3. That’s promising for him.

So let’s say DeSantis runs. I still think that’s the wrong decision for his career (and the possibility that he recognizes that fact and delays his run four years is yet another reason why Trump should be considered the favorite), but he might not be able to resist, so we’ll grant the premise for the sake of argument. His playbook is probably:

  • 1) Be the clear alternative. Stay close nationally. Being down 15 to 20 points nationally is fine if third place is nonviable, which is a word that describes Mike Pence as well as any other.
  • 2) Win in Iowa. Historically that can shake the snow globe.
  • 3) As a result of 2, Trump becomes a loser yet again, costing him support and sending him spiraling.
  • 4) Win on Super Tuesday to end Trump’s political career.

That’s a completely reasonable playbook, and it would have a great shot at winning against any presidential candidate in modern history . . . except this one.

Trust me, that playbook was supposed to work back in 2016. My biggest mistake that cycle was thinking Iowa mattered. I had successfully predicted that Ted Cruz would beat Trump in Iowa, and that Marco Rubio would surge into a strong third place finish there. However, I erred in saying that Trump’s loss in Iowa would finally derail his campaign, and people would rush to Rubio as the alternative. Trump ended up winning in New Hampshire, South Carolina, Nevada, and most other states too. His supporters were too devoted to let Iowa or the establishment tell them who to vote for. Though DeSantis might also be leading in New Hampshire, we need only go back to 2020, when Joe Biden lost the first three contests but still won in South Carolina and almost everywhere else, to know that presidential politics don’t work the way they used to.

In the seven years since the 2016 Iowa caucuses, Trump’s fanbase has grown, both in number and in passion. The establishment desperately wants to turn the page. So might Iowans. It won’t matter. Or at least it hasn’t yet.

The oddsmakers are wrong. Still king of his heap, Donald Trump remains the true favorite for the Republican nomination in 2024.

Today’s featured image of Donald Trump can be found here at Wikimedia Commons courtesy of the unfortunately named Gage Skidmore, whereas the heap of sand comes from Simon A. Eugster. Putting the images together? That’s all me. Please hold your applause.


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