Scenarios for the 2024 Republican Primary, Ranked

Since I started writing about politics 15 years ago, part of my success in divining the results of every primary save one (you won’t believe who the Republicans nominated in 2016) has stemmed from an approach of mapping out possible scenarios. In 2019 and 2020, for example, I thought more scenarios funneled to Joe Biden than to any other candidate. I don’t know how many times I said he was the “least unlikely” nominee, but I know I started saying it in November of 2018 and was still saying it in February of 2020, even as Bernie Sanders led polling and betting markets. It’s not a fool-proof system — after all, in the months leading up to the 2016 Iowa Caucuses, this fool thought most scenarios funneled to Marco Rubio[1] — but it has usually served me well.

One way to organize the various scenarios of a primary is through an inverted bracket. (There’s probably a mathematical term for an inverted bracket, but for some reason it was never covered in my American Studies master’s program.) Unlike a traditional bracket, like those for the upcoming March Madness, my inverted bracket doesn’t pit first-round competitors who eliminate each other before moving to subsequent rounds and more knockouts. While these do have value later in primary contests (example here), I think in earlier stages we want to identify the most important variables in a contest, then pursue their possible permutations. In a way, it’s like those Choose Your Own Adventure books that my son loves so much, only without the possibility of a shocking death that’s probably inappropriate for an eight-year-old to read about.

Since it looks like President Biden is running for re-election, that primary has few realistic permutations. The nascent 2024 Republican Primary, however, is looking pretty juicy. It also has a couple dominant two-result variables that can help us organize the primary’s possible paths.

The first of these variables is whether Ron DeSantis declares his candidacy. I call it the DeSantis DeCision©. Every national and state poll shows that he and former President Trump, who has already entered the race, are the only two competitive candidates. It’s frankly impossible to picture a plausible scenario where both men run and both men collapse independently of each other. It would require some mutual scandal on the scale of discovering they both helped Hillary Clinton set up her private email server.

So if they’re both in, one of them is almost certainly winning, and it’s just a matter of figuring out which one. If DeSantis doesn’t run, however, that could lead to a much different race. Therefore, the DeSantis DeCision© is the first divergence in our possible paths toward the nomination.

The second major variable, perhaps equally important, is the size of the Republican field. Conventional wisdom, which I co-sign, is that a larger field benefits Donald Trump, who would like nothing more than to recreate the conditions of the 2016 primary — that is, a large field of more mainstream Republicans who divide support among more traditional Republican voters while Trump waltzes to the nomination with just a plurality of support. (Recall that in 2016 he secured 58.2% of delegates despite winning just 44.9% of the vote.) In contrast, a small field increases the chances that DeSantis (if he runs) or someone else (if he doesn’t) can consolidate the anti-Trump wing of the party.

Are there more variables than just the two? Of course! But I don’t think any of them rival the importance of the pair I identified. Regardless, these “unknown unknowns” will probably come later in the process. What gusts of wind can happen after the dye is cast but before it splatters against the canvas? It’s impossible to know, but we can speculate.

All that being so, we have a pretty clear inverted bracket to work with. Here are the possible broad paths that — depending on the DeSantis DeCision©, the size of the field, and the unknown unknowns — the 2024 Republican Primary can take:

In the spirit of Choose Your Own Adventure, you’d start from the left, pick a path, pick a path that branches off of that initial path, and eventually arrive at some destination.

Of course, the far right of this bracket, much like the far right of the Republican Party, is dangerously unpredictable. There are many nuances, details, and developments that we can’t possibly predict nearly a year before Iowa and New Hampshire. What matters more, however, is the general direction toward which each path takes us.

I’ll eventually replace those question marks with predictions, but there’s one last thing to address before I do. Each of those big two variables are not the equivalent of coin tosses. In other words, there’s not exactly a 50% chance that DeSantis runs and a 50% chance that he doesn’t, nor is there a 50% chance that it’s a big field and a 50% chance that it’s a small one. Further, that latter variable doesn’t take into account the colossally annoying chance that it’s a midsized field, nor what the threshold for a midsized or big field even is.

That being so, rather than just outlining the potential scenarios as if they’re equally likely, I’ll be ranking them in order of likelihood, and I’ll massage the second variable in a way that makes sense.

Ready? Let’s do it.

Scenario 1 (most likely): DeSantis runs in a small field (or a midsized field that whittles before Iowa).

One gets the impression that DeSantis will have a hard time resisting a run for the presidency. After Trump lost the 2016 popular vote, then got shellacked in the 2018 midterms when his party lost 41 House seats, then lost the 2020 election while his party also lost control of the Senate, then his endorsed nominees failed to win back the Senate in a 2022 midterm that was supposed to be a Republican triumph, there are almost certainly many people in the GOP begging DeSantis to deny Trump a third consecutive nomination so that the party can signal to the American people that it’s moving on. DeSantis is many pundits’ and some oddsmakers’ favorite for the nomination, and he may reason that he shouldn’t squander such an opportunity.

It also makes sense that Republicans, learning from 2016 and from the poisonous effects Trump has had on the party, would mostly clear the field to give DeSantis a better chance of winning. That may mean few people declare their candidacy, or that eight to ten people run but half drop out before Iowa and New Hampshire so as not to divide the vote. In either case, it would essentially come down to a one-on-one situation with both Trump and DeSantis in good fighting shape.

Of course, Trump can absolutely still win in this scenario. It wouldn’t take more than a few candidates to keep DeSantis a few points back. Perhaps more relevant, we should never underestimate Trump’s ability to define his opponent in a way that derails their reputation. No Republican has ever more effectively and relentlessly broken Reagan’s Eleventh Commandment. I think a lot of Republicans who used to enjoy Trump’s personal brand of pugilism will soon get frustrated by it when he punches down on the well-liked DeSantis (Trump has already test-driven “Ron DeSanctimonious” and “Meatball Ron“). Perhaps they’ll finally understand what’s annoyed the rest of us about Trump’s political approach.

Still, with DeSantis already leading in the early states despite having a little less name recognition than Trump, I think that in Scenario 1 it’s more likely he overtakes Trump by Super Tuesday and wins the nomination. It’s hard to see a scenario where anyone other than these two get nominated; it really is just a matter of whether the extra variables push forward DeSantis or Trump.

Result of Scenario 1: DeSantis likely wins, but third-stage variables might go to Trump.

Scenario 2: DeSantis runs in a mid-to-large-sized field that doesn’t whittle.

Again, DeSantis seems likely to run. As for the second variable, the last scenario leaned heavily on three words: “it makes sense” that Republicans, fearing a Trump renomination, won’t overload the field. But since when do ambitious politicians think about anyone other than themselves? It was clear in late 2015 and early 2016 that Trump was headed toward a healthy plurality unless the establishment guys (Marco Rubio, Jeb Bush, John Kasich, Chris Christie, and to a lesser extent Ted Cruz) consolidated around a single candidate. It didn’t happen.

History, which tends to rhyme if not repeat, might be the only lesson we need about how this primary will evolve. Nikki Haley is already in. The Mikes Pence and Pompeo, with their memoirs freshly published, seem like sure bets. So does Asa Hutchinson. I think Chris Christie has fight in him. Tim Scott is clearly thinking about it, as is Chris Sununu. Some “maybe”s include John Bolton, Liz Cheney, Tom Cotton, Larry Hogan, Brian Kemp, Kristi Noem, and Glenn Youngkin. (Other often bandied-about names that show up in polling are Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, but with Trump in the field I think they stay out this time. PTSD is a powerful deterrent.) It would only take a few of those maybes to jump in, and then we’re approaching ten or so candidates. There are already signs that Republican hopefuls have some knives out, ready to slice DeSantis at the ankles to cut him down to size.

And if that happens, and if they don’t clear the field by Iowa, the best DeSantis or any of them can do is a strong second. With Trump’s dedicated floor of support, he’ll rack up early primary wins. With rules that convert plurality wins into majority delegate hauls, he’ll be off to the races.

Result of Scenario 2: Trump wins, and third-level variable likely don’t matter.

Scenario 3: DeSantis doesn’t run, and many candidates run to be the new DeSantis.

Now, because Trump so effectively breaks the Eleventh Commandment — in other words, because Trump so thoroughly demolishes the careers of Republicans who oppose him — DeSantis might take my oftrepeated advice and simply not run yet.

He’s just 44. In 2028, he’ll be 49 going on 50 — a prime age for a presidential run. (This is in contrast to Nikki Haley, who’s 51 and therefore, according to CNN’s Don Lemon, “past her prime.” Because sexism.) At that point, he’ll have completed two terms as Florida governor and can focus all his energy on running for president. More importantly, he’ll have neither challenged Trump in 2024 nor alienated his voters as a result of that challenge. It also means Trump will not have dragged DeSantis for a year. If anything, Trump’s voters will recognize that he didn’t challenge Trump and respect him more for it. The bequeathment of Trump’s movement from one culture warrior to the next would be smooth.

Simply put, DeSantis might beat Trump, but if he doesn’t his presidential ambitions are over. Conversely, if he passes on a candidacy this cycle, he’s a heavy favorite four years from now, whether or not Trump wins a second term. Waiting seems like the better bet.

If DeSantis sees it that way, he doesn’t run. And if he doesn’t run, it seems to me that a whole bunch of those “maybe”s from above see their chance to replace him, leading to a large field, none of whom are a clear establishment pick nor do they rival DeSantis’s juice with the base. It’s 2016 all over again.

Result of Scenario 3: Trump wins easily no matter realistic third-level variables.

Scenario 4. DeSantis doesn’t run, but the field stays small.

The least likely scenario of the four is that DeSantis doesn’t run and it’s a small field. Would the party really be able to sort out a replacement for DeSantis in a way that wouldn’t raise suspicions of everyone MAGA or MAGAdjacent? (Yeah, let’s slap a © on that one, too.) Wouldn’t they surely smell something fishy and further legitimize Trump’s narrative of a rigged system and undemocratic establishment?

I don’t see the establishment pulling it off. The touch required would be too heavy, and a heavy touch backfires. Therefore, a handcuffed Republican central command would mean disorder, which leads me to believe many candidates would rush to fill the vacuum left behind by DeSantis. That results in a midsized-to-large field, as described in Scenario 3.

But let’s just say DeSantis declaring he’s not running doesn’t lead to the Republican equivalent of a gold rush. Maybe it’s just Trump, Haley, Pence, Hutchinson, and Sununu, or something like that. Would that stop Trump? I still don’t think so. According to Morning Consult, by far the most popular “second choice” of DeSantis voters is Trump.

Even if Trump absorbs just a fraction of DeSantis’s support, he’d move from a plurality-backed candidate to a majority-backed candidate. (And for the record, the number is even more pronounced in the other direction. Trump voters’ second choice is DeSantis at a clip of 46%, lending more credence to the prediction that the nominee will almost certainly be one of these two candidates.)

I just can’t avoid the conclusion that a DeSantis-less primary almost certainly leads to a big field, which Trump would dominate, but even if it doesn’t lead to a large field, Trump would still probably triumph in a small one.

Result of Scenario 4: Trump wins unless the party gets its act together behind someone else.

The results of this exercise are interesting. Although DeSantis is the favorite in what I consider the most likely scenario, he’s not a sure thing in that scenario. Meanwhile, all other scenarios point to Trump. Put another way:

It’s just a matter of figuring out how likely Scenario 1 is — which, remember, could just as easily lead to a Trump win. I’d guess it’s well under 50%. In other words, the probability of all other scenarios combined outweigh the probability of the most likely scenario.

One final thought. What if I’m wrong about Trump and DeSantis being the only possible nominees? Can anyone else win? If so, how?

Bonus Scenario 5: Chaos

  • Scenario 5a: DeSantis doesn’t run, Trump falls apart.
  • Scenario 5b: DeSantis does run and turns out to be a paper tiger, AND Trump falls apart.

In Scenario 5a, Trump’s negative press coverage would have to reach a critical mass large enough that his base of voters turn on him, a development that seems nearly impossible. (Alternatively, he’d have to be indicted or thrown in jail something, which some Democrats always seem to think is any day now, a thought they’ve had for the last six years running.) Scenario 5a would also require that he fall apart in a specific window of time — late enough that it’s too late for DeSantis to jump in, but early enough where someone else actually has time to overcome Trump’s lead. That window is probably only a couple months long, from early January to early March, 2024. Any earlier and DeSantis rides in to dominate the primary; any later and Trump will have already dominated Super Tuesday and won’t be denied the nomination.

In the even less likely Scenario 5b, we have the same initial challenge from 5a — Trump needs to somehow turn unpopular with his base — AND DeSantis would need to fall apart for almost certainly unrelated reasons, the most likely being that once he’s nationally vetted Republican voters sour on him for whatever reason. That’s a pretty unlikely combo. Likely the only person with the power to take down DeSantis is Trump, and if Trump is doing the taking down that means Trump is winning.

Word to the wise: keep it simple. In all your political conversations moving forward, stick to PPFA’s presented scenarios.

[1]And I STILL think Rubio is nominated if Chris Christie doesn’t charge at him with a suicide vest at the ensuing New Hampshire debate. No, I will never stop bringing this up.


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