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The race to relevance in the 2024 presidential election

With primaries 10 months away, the worst thing is to be ignored

Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., delivers the keynote address at the Charleston County GOP Black History Month Banquet at the Citadel Alumni Center in Charleston, S.C., on Feb. 16.
Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., delivers the keynote address at the Charleston County GOP Black History Month Banquet at the Citadel Alumni Center in Charleston, S.C., on Feb. 16. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

ANALYSIS — With 10 months to go before the first primaries and caucuses, the presidential contest is less about votes and more of a race for relevance. At this early stage, one of the worst fates for a candidate is to be ignored.

Ultimately, winning the nomination comes down to which candidate has the most votes, or more specifically, the most delegates. But right now, the race for attention guides campaign strategy and tactics because candidates need the spotlight to introduce themselves to voters, make their pitches, raise money, and translate that support into votes. 

Visiting early primary and caucus states, giving interviews, writing books, raising big money, running television ads, and going to Israel or the Mexican border are ways for candidates to generate short-term media coverage. But staying in the conversation is what it’s all about. 

The 2024 Republican presidential contenders are clearly not all starting from the same point. Former President Donald Trump led Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis 52-26 percent in the latest Morning Consult GOP Primary Tracker conducted March 24-26. No one in the rest of the field was above 8 percent. 

But even Trump is not immune from the need for attention.

The former president started to feel the sting of irrelevance late last year. That had to be part of the impetus for announcing his 2024 campaign in November of 2022. Out of office and out of the spotlight amid the raging midterm elections, Trump needed to make a splash to get back into the news. Yet his announcement was followed by some of his quietest moments in years, with no campaign-style events for several months. 

Trump has been active as of late, and in the news because of his legal issues, but he also continues to be a ubiquitous force in American politics. The rest of the field is playing catch up. 

Former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley garnered some media coverage for her Feb. 14 announcement, in part because she was the first major candidate to challenge Trump. But her proposal to require mental competency tests for politicians age 75 and older propelled her into the national conversation. 

While the idea sounded new to get attention, running against aging politicians is familiar terrain for Haley. I went back and looked at my interview notes with Haley from June 22, 2009, when she was running for governor. (My former boss Stuart Rothenberg previously wrote about his own memories from our interview in Roll Call.) 

In that interview, Haley talked about her initial run for the state House in 2004, when she challenged and defeated the longest-serving incumbent in the chamber, Larry Koon, who was about twice her age. This time around, the 51-year-old former ambassador to the United Nations is taking on Trump, 76, and potentially President Joe Biden, 80, in the general election.

That competency test conversation has died down, but it extended the time people were talking about Haley as various senators talked about its efficacy. She was at 5 percent in the Morning Consult survey, behind former Vice President Mike Pence (7 percent). 

DeSantis doesn’t need to announce his candidacy to get attention. He’s already relevant because people pay attention to what he does and how he reacts to current events. DeSantis doesn’t have a problem making news and getting attention.

But there’s some risk to a strategy that involves ignoring opponents, particularly because he’s not an incumbent or even the nominee yet. DeSantis is getting some of the scrutiny of a candidate, but he can’t respond as a candidate, and he risked losing out on key campaign advisers as Trump and others staffed up their campaigns. 

As a former vice president, Pence also doesn’t need to officially announce his candidacy to get attention. He doesn’t have a problem getting media interviews. Pence’s problem is that he has high name recognition and little support. Voters know who he is and aren’t supporting him. You could probably say the same about former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie. 

Sen. Tim Scott has potential. Last year, he spoke before me at a couple of different associations’ big annual meetings, and folks were still in the afterglow of the South Carolina Republican’s remarks, even a day later.

“It looks like he is as close to making a decision as DeSantis is,” Sen. Cynthia Lummis of Wyoming told Politico about Scott last week. But the two men start from a very different position. Scott was at 2 percent in the Morning Consult poll and needs a big announcement or more attention to his $29 million in campaign funds as of Dec. 31 to smash into the relevant category. 

There’s not a secret sauce for relevance. Venture capitalist Vivek Ramaswamy can tell you that it takes more than a campaign announcement to get attention, and former Secretary of State/former Kansas Rep. Mike Pompeo can tell you it takes more than a resume to be relevant. 

Even if it’s hard to quantify at this early stage, relevance is key to surviving the race.

Nathan L. Gonzales is an elections analyst with CQ Roll Call.

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