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Why Trump's patchy election endorsement record could help him in 2024

An increasing number of Republican 2024 hopefuls seem to be smelling blood in the water. That could be their undoing.
Image: Donald Trump wearing a red hat that reads, \"Make America Great Again\".
Former President Donald Trump speaks to supporters at a rally May 1 in Greenwood, Neb.Scott Olson / Getty Images file

Former President Donald Trump’s increasingly patchy GOP endorsement record in this year’s primaries has reportedly made him nervous about a potential third presidential campaign, and emboldened potential 2024 hopefuls who see his influence waning. But in reality the more crowded the field gets, the better his chances at winning the party nomination may be.

Bent on revenge against Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp, who refused to be pressured into tilting the scales for Trump in 2020, the former president aggressively campaigned on behalf of Kemp's challenger, former Sen. David Perdue. Trump reportedly spent more than $2.5 million to boost Perdue and punish Kemp. But it didn’t work: Kemp won the primary — by an enormous margin. Trump’s favored GOP candidates for Georgia’s attorney general and secretary of state didn’t work out either. The bruising Georgia losses came after several weeks of misses across the country, with some of his endorsed candidates losing in Nebraska, North Carolina, Idaho and elsewhere.

Ironically, the fact that 2024 is looking more competitive than expected may be to Trump’s advantage.

Now Trump appears to be feeling rattled. According to a new Washington Post report, he is now “quizzing advisers and visitors” about his potential 2024 rivals, and seems increasingly eager to use the announcement of a White House bid to ward off future challengers. “Among his questions, according to several advisers, who like others spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe private conversations: Who will actually run against him? What do the polls show? Who are his potential foes meeting with?” the Post reported.

It’s not baseless paranoia. According to the Post report, some Republicans have decided Trump’s grip on the party isn’t as tight as it used to be, and that there are increasingly visible opportunities to dethrone him in the run-up to the 2024 election. Potential contenders include Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, former Vice President Mike Pence, former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan and former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.

Yet ironically, the fact that 2024 is looking more competitive than expected may be to Trump’s advantage. Trump remains the most popular politician in the party by a big margin and a majority of Republicans still approve of the direction in which he wants to take the party. He also remains a fundraising juggernaut. Assuming he runs in 2024, Trump will likely enter the race as the presumed nominee.

That means other candidates need to find ways to distinguish themselves from the former president. What do they offer in ideology, experience or personal style that Trump doesn’t? The greater the number of candidates, the harder it is to stand out. Moreover, more competition will incentivize more aggressive infighting.

In 2016’s crowded presidential Republican primary, Trump’s competitors fought against one another mercilessly — and helped to clear a lane for Trump. For a huge chunk of the primary season, they were afraid to criticize him directly because they noticed that he had a unique ability to tap into the party base’s deepest and most reactionary instincts. (The 2020 Democratic primary also showed how a crowded field can split the vote, which ultimately helped front-runner Joe Biden.)

If Trump’s apparent vulnerabilities encourage more of his rivals to throw their hats into the ring, the exact same dynamic could play out. And again, it seems likely that many candidates will be reluctant to adopt a highly adversarial position toward the primary front-runner, who recently single-handedly changed the direction and political culture of the GOP. It's difficult to envision what qualities of his they could take aim at that wouldn't in a way be taking aim at the party ethos he himself has reshaped.

All this is to say, Trump’s mediocre primary showing may be giving the notoriously arrogant billionaire a reality check. But it’s not a death knell for his potential 2024 candidacy. Trump doesn’t need to command total support — only a majority of it. If enough Republicans believe they smell blood in the water and the primary becomes crowded, Trump may ultimately have a stronger hand than if it’s just him against one or two serious rivals.