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Forecasting a Potential 2020 Rematch

Image via Shealah Craighead/Flickr

When Trump handed Ron DeSantis the moniker of “Meatball Ron” last month, it offered a taste of the nasty Republican primary for the 2024 presidential nomination that is sure to ensue. How the former president chooses his childish nicknames remains a mystery, but his intentions are clear: Trump views DeSantis as a possible primary challenger in 2024 and is trying to stop him at any cost. However, signs point to the fact that Trump is stronger than he is given credit for, and DeSantis is conversely weaker than anticipated; as such, a Biden-Trump rematch is the most likely matchup for 2024. 

First, to address the Democratic side: While there has been much talk about Biden’s possible replacement for 2024, it looks as though Biden will announce his candidacy for president soon and successfully attain the renomination. The lack of immediately qualified successors along with the fact that a sitting president has not lost a party primary since Franklin Pierce both lend credence to his likely candidacy. In the past months, Biden has remained relatively strong in polling among Democrats, and having overseen a historically good performance for the incumbent party in Congress in the 2022 midterms, he appeared to use the State of the Union address to springboard the start of his possible candidacy by highlighting several legislative successes that he oversaw during his first two years in office. All things considered, Biden has positioned himself well to withstand any primary challenge, however unlikely one is to materialize. Short of an incapacitating incident, it seems that Biden will take a straightforward path to the Democratic nomination, but the path to the Republican nomination features a few more bumps in the road. 

In US history, there has only ever been one president to serve two nonconsecutive terms: Stephen Grover Cleveland. Former President Trump now looks to change this by seeking the nomination for a third time. He is in a fundamentally different place now than he was when he launched his first presidential run. In 2016, then-real estate mogul and reality TV star Donald Trump was viewed as an aggressive political outsider who distinguished himself through his blunt lack of political correctness, unbridled use of Twitter, and dominant debate performances. Now, Trump is arguably the closest thing the new GOP has to an establishment figure if you understand his position within the party as that of kingmaker to varying degrees of success. After Trump attempted to rebuild the GOP in his own image through his myriad of endorsements during the 2022 midterms (once again, with varying degrees of success) and his consistent denial of the 2020 election results, Republicans have been forced to yet again reckon with their relationship with Trump. 

Trump, being the only figure to command national allegiance within the party, is already well positioned to take on his biggest potential primary challenger, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis. Even though DeSantis has publicly stated that he doesn’t intend to run for president, it is widely expected that he is merely biding his time and gathering strength for what is sure to be a brutal primary battle. In the meantime, Trump has kickstarted all the machinations of a typical presidential campaign, effectively daring DeSantis and others, such as conservative politician Nikki Haley, to declare their intention to run against him. In doing so, Trump has launched a myriad of attacks, such as calling DeSantis a pedophile, in an attempt to head him off for the nomination. 

Trump’s ability to attack DeSantis before the latter has even entered the race reflects the strength that the former president believes he holds within the party. Up until this point, despite multiple opportunities to do so, Republicans have refused to break with the former president en masse. They have continued to protect and defend Trump from investigations and inquiries at the federal level and have even assisted him in laying the groundwork for another attempt at election denialism in 2024. While Trump’s strength as a candidate more generally has suffered in the wake of the 2022 midterms, underestimating him has proven in the past to be a dangerous mistake.

On the other hand, it is important not to overstate the strength of former President Trump. In head-to-head polling against DeSantis, Trump trails by a nontrivial margin, which is a result that cannot be ignored. This lead is likely attributable to DeSantis’ rising star in the media and Trump’s recent fumbles in the midterms. Other polls show a closer race between the two, with results within the margin of error. However, DeSantis’ advantage narrows even further when the question is widened to all potential candidates for the Republican nomination, with Trump and DeSantis standing as clear frontrunners. Due to the structure of the GOP primary system, a wider field favors the candidate who can win the most states, no matter how small the margin; this is, after all, how Trump won in 2016. Despite potential challenges from a GOP ensemble cast of Nikki Haley, John Bolton, Liz Cheney, Governor Larry Hogan, and Governor Asa Hutchinson, to name a few, Trump and DeSantis retain their combined hold over the field. 

While it seems that Trump is better positioned to run from a semi-establishment position, it is also important not to understate DeSantis’ potential strength. First and foremost is the wide margin with which DeSantis carried the race for governor this past fall—nearly 19 percentage points. Additionally, the Florida governor has a long list of far-right policies that he has implemented across the state that could appeal to Republican voters, including flying migrants to blue states, restricting freedom of speech in public universities, and threatening the status of AP courses statewide. As DeSantis nears a decision on his candidacy, he has begun sparring with President Biden while sidestepping former President Trump (probably in an attempt to avoid conflict for as long as possible), teasing his long-awaited announcement. A Trump-DeSantis primary battle over the next few years looks to be in store. No matter who wins, it appears that the nation will lose. 

Despite the relative distance between today and the 2024 primaries, it appears that the nation is set to see a rematch of the 2020 presidential election. In a GOP primary that has great potential for chaos, it seems that Trump is best positioned to emerge victorious. Then, with Trump and Biden being the most likely candidates, the nation will have to relive one of the most divisive and turbulent presidential elections in modern history.