The First 2024 Republican Primary Rankings: Rooks & Royalty

Welcome back to “Power Rankings week” here at Presidential Politics For America. On Monday, I debuted this cycle’s theme (chess!) and ranked the Democratic candidates. On Wednesday, I began the Republican ranking that I will conclude today. Here’s who we had so far:

Tier 5: Pawns

  • 28. Former Wyoming Congresswoman Liz Cheney
  • 27. Former Ambassador to UN John Bolton
  • 26. Talk radio host and former GOP candidate for governor of California Larry Elder
  • 25. Former Montana Secretary of State Corey Stapleton
  • 24. Former Texas Congressman Will Hurd
  • 23. Former Michigan Congressman Mike Rogers

Tier 4: Mid-pieces (knights and bishops)

  • Tier for 14th (or 14-22 in some order): Tom Cotton, Ted Cruz, Joni Ernst, Josh Hawley, Brian Kemp, Mike Pompeo, Mitt Romney, Marco Rubio, Glenn Youngkin
  • 13. North Dakota Governor Doug Burgum
  • 12. Former Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson
  • 11. Miami Mayor Francis X. Suarez
  • 10. Entrepreneur and author Vivek Ramaswamy

Today, we get to the chessboard’s rooks and royalty. Here we go!

Tier 3: Rooks

9. FORMER Fox News host Tucker Carlson: The biggest news of the week was Fox News parting ways with Tucker Carlson. (On the same day, the far less talented talking head, Don Lemon, was fired from CNN, which, in case you were wondering, ranked as the week’s 9842727th biggest story.) That development very much impacted these Power Rankings. In my initial draft, Carlson was lumped in with that big tie at the bottom of Tier 4. As I wrote on Wednesday, those were people who had announced they weren’t running, which describes Carlson, but could potentially make a strong run if something catastrophic were to happen to the Trump campaign.

But that was back when Carlson had a job. And that was back when he wasn’t highly motivated to show that he has more power than the network that fired him.

Do I think he runs? No, I don’t. On Wednesday he tweeted a video that suggested he’ll either start or join a supposedly free-thinking media company (that will undoubtedly be nakedly partisan). That’s why I have him ranked as the lowest rook whereas everyone in the top 8 is either in the race or more likely to run. I think Carlson instead takes millions of viewers to another outlet, one that could ultimately use the Tucker Cult to pass Fox as conservative media’s standard bearer.

But if he DID run… holy smokes. He’s the most talented critical theorist on TV, one that bested all other Fox hosts in the ratings. In many ways he controlled what viewers believed. If he were in the race, he’d be part of a Big Three with Trump and DeSantis, and frankly he probably elbows out DeSantis. I just don’t think he runs if Trump is in the race. Although Tucker has split from Trump once in a while (and in private texts noted he hates Trump “passionately” and couldn’t wait until he went away forever), their essence –their je ne sais quoi — pulls from the same group of voters. No one is more enraged about Tucker’s exit than MAGA.

8. Former Vice President Mike Pence: Here’s a guy who was hoping to be part of that Big Three. If someone wanted to make the case that he belongs there, they could point to the polls, where he’s third in the polling average and, accordingly, finishes third place in individual polls more than any other candidate.

Of course, at the same time, even in third place he’s polling at only about 5%, and that’s as an almost universally known quantity. He now has to lie down in a bed entirely of his own making: he spent 3 years and 10 months as a sycophantic Vice President to Donald Trump, alienating all Americans who were opposed to the administration, some Republicans included. And then he spent the last two months of his vice presidency as, according to Trump, the only roadblock between the President and four more years, which alienated the MAGAholics.

There’s no one left. And with universal name ID, there’s no chance to grow. His stature makes him a rook, but he’s far from Republican royalty.

7. New Hampshire Governor Chris Sununu: I won’t say this about any other candidate on this list, so pay attention: if the Republicans nominated Sununu, they would win about 40 states.

Sununu has won four consecutive biannual gubernatorial elections in New Hampshire, a swing state, and he gets more popular the more his constituents get to know him. In his first run for governor in 2016, he escaped with a 49-47 initial win. That margin increased to to 53-46 in 2018, then 65-33 in 2020. In that 2020 election, he outpaced fellow-Republican Trump by 20 points on the same ballot.

Morning Consult just measured him as the third most popular governor in the country, a 66% approval rating balanced against just 29% disapproval. Perhaps more remarkable is that of the ten most popular governors, he’s the only one from a swing state; all the others are popular probably because their states are so solidly blue or red. And if anything, New Hampshire tinges more blue than red these days, as evidenced by its two incumbent Democratic senators and two incumbent Democratic US House members, to say nothing of voting Democrat for the last five presidential elections. And yet, the Republican Sununu has approval from two-thirds of this blue-tinged state, and his coattails have dragged along a Republican legislature with him. Before Sununu, the last time Republicans held the trifecta in New Hampshire (governor, state Senate, state House) was a two-year stretch in 2003 and 2004 when post-9/11 Republicans were all the rage. Before that it was the mid-90s.

This is the guy a party should want to nominate. He’s charismatic, has executive experience, comes from a battleground state, and Democrats and Independents generally call him a “sane” Republican. I honestly think if the GOP nominates him, he’d be the Ronald Reagan to Biden’s Jimmy Carter, leaving the President with only the true blue states.

Meanwhile, as the governor of New Hampshire, one would think he has a great chance to do well early in the primary process, potentially using the Granite State to give him some national momentum.

And yet…

In his home state, a state of which he’s Governor, he trails Donald Trump by 30 to 50 points. And if he’s 30 to 50 points back of Trump there, he’s probably hopeless everywhere else.

I guess Republicans don’t want to win 40 states.

6. Former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie: Speaking of hopeless, I’m starting to again believe that my sleeping giant, Chris Christie, might become a contender again. To be clear, there is nothing in the data that suggests he’s a viable candidate. Absolutely nothing.

But what he does have is chutzpah and charm. He has the chutzpah to stand toe to toe with Trump and the charm to pull it off. It may take a bully to beat a bully, and I’m not sure anyone else on this list has more bully qualifications than Chris Christie.

Republican officials are fearful of alienating Trump’s voters by standing up to him. Chris Christie’s not in office anymore. Stay tuned.

5. Former South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley: My thoughts on Haley’s candidacy haven’t changed. Still, she’s actually declared her candidacy (unlike most others on this list), and she’s on Pence’s level with the polling but with more room to grow and has a unique pitch to throw. I guess she’s top five (he said lukewarmly).

Interestingly, she seemed to start going after DeSantis this week. The Florida governor has been for some time embroiled in a rivalry with Disney, which has now sued him on First Amendment grounds. Haley said that her home state of South Carolina would be more than willing to accept the conglomerate were it to leave Orlando, tweeting, “SC’s not woke, but we’re not sanctimonious about it either.”

Shots fired at Ron DeSanctimonious! It’s an interesting play which, in theory, I agree is probably necessary, but in practice was poorly executed. The theory of the case for every candidate outside the top two is to be the last person standing against Trump. That means taking taking out DeSantis as the obvious Trump alternative.

The choice of topic, however, left a lot to be desired, and it provides further evidence of Haley’s challenges in this primary. Haley is positioning herself as an old school Republican, the kind of Republican who doesn’t think the government should interfere all that much in business. But that’s not where the GOP is now. Now the GOP wants someone who will lead a culture war against woke companies. Trump and DeSantis are clearly willing to wear a general’s stars, which is why they are out in front of a national primary. Haley, just like with the Confederate flag controversy during her day’s as governor, backed down. She doesn’t seem to think this kind of divisiveness is a presidential quality. I agree with her.

Republican voters do not.

4. South Carolina Senator Tim Scott: Haley’s fellow South Carolinian dampens her upside, and she his. One would think they’d have gotten into a room to sort this out. It’s so obvious that they harm each other’s candidacy that I think they actually did get into a room, and what they came up with is that they’d both run, hope that one of them catches on, and the other then drops out ahead of the Iowa caucuses, or perhaps just before their home state South Carolina Primary, the cycle’s third contest.

Senator Scott isn’t yet an official candidate. There’s only six of those in these rankings (Trump, Haley, Ramaswamy, Hutchinson, Stapleton, and Elder). However, he has formed an exploratory committee, generally a sign that a candidacy is forthcoming. I think he has a leg up on Haley and others in that he’s rather deftly walked a narrow tightrope these last eight years, neither alienating Trump supporters nor alienating Never Trumpers. In contrast, I worry that candidates like Pence, Haley, and Christie may have alienated both. And, like Haley, he has a unique pitch to throw. He’ll likely remain the only African American contender ranked stronger than a pawn. (Apologies to Larry Elder and Will Hurd.)

3. South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem: From where I sit, Governor Noem is the candidate with the highest variance. She may not run at all, but if she does run she’s highly, highly compelling. She has legislative experience as a four-term member of the House of Representatives, and she’s now earning executive experience in her second term as South Dakota’s governor. After winning her initial gubernatorial election with just 52% of the vote in 2018, last year she was re-elected with 62%.

Helping her jump in popularity was how she handled the Covid-19 pandemic, which was as hands-off as any governor in the country. She’s essentially the Ron DeSantis of the heartland, but with added bonuses. She calls herself stronger than DeSantis on the pandemic response and on abortion, which may explain why DeSantis pursued the recent six-week Florida ban. Meanwhile, Noem is better positioned to make inroads with a demographic that has increasingly left the Republican Party during the Trump era. I’m not sure DeSantis would be perceived by women as all that different than Trump.

She’s an experienced, highly regarded conservative in America today, ranking behind only DeSantis in a no-Trump straw poll at 2021’s CPAC. She’s popular with MAGA, but she’d also win loyalty from Never Trumpers because she is, quite obviously, Not Trump. Even better, unlike DeSantis, she hasn’t been painted as a rival of Trump. If Trump falls apart, and MAGA has written off the disloyal Ron DeSanctimonious, Kristi Noem is my guess as their preferred alternative.

But we’re probably stuck with Trump for a while, so she’s just a rook. Still, for what it’s worth, I’d rank her number one on a Republican Vice Presidential Candidate Power Ranking.

Tier 2: The Queen

2. Florida Governor Ron DeSantis: Do I love calling DeSantis, a high-profile opponent of drag shows, a “queen”? Yes. Yes, I do. But let’s focus here, people.

I’m proud to stand by my record on DeSantis. In February 2021, just two years into DeSantis’s governorship and less than a month after Trump left office, I tweeted the following:

As you can see by my one like, I’m kind of a big deal on Twitter, and it’s because of hot takes like that. DeSantis gained momentum for the next couple years, culminating in a resounding 2022 re-election when he won a once-battleground state by 20 points. Indeed, he may have turned the largest purple state into a red one.

But then people got a little ahead of themselves. One week after the election, when the media and Republican establishment was throwing dirt on Trump’s political grave and coronating DeSantis, I told everyone to pump the breaks. Trump’s “heap” of voters, as I described it, wasn’t going anywhere. Time has since proven me right. With the media and Republican insiders scrambling to figure out how Trump is rising and DeSantis is flat, I seem to be one of few saying that those descriptors are only in contrast to the exaggerated descriptors of the post-midterms political climate.

In other words, nothing in the last two years has changed the fundamentals of this race. Not the midterms, not the indictment, and not DeSantis’s funny boots. The major possible scenarios of the Republican Primary that I carefully Microsoft Painted remain unchanged:

If DeSantis declares and the field is small, he’s got a decent shot. In such a field, there’s a strong historical precedent that DeSantis can be Obama 2008: someone who consistently polls a distant but clear second place until they emerge as the clear alternative to a divisive favorite (Hillary Clinton in 2008, Donald Trump in 2024) by the time the primary reaches Iowa. It can happen here, too.

But in most scenarios, it’s Trump.

Which brings us to…

Tier 1: The King

1. Former President Donald Trump: Regal to the end. We can only hope the end is nigh.


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