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Growing GOP presidential field helps Donald Trump

Opposition to the former president could fracture, as it did in 2016

Sen. Tim Scott announces his run for president in North Charleston, S.C., on Monday.
Sen. Tim Scott announces his run for president in North Charleston, S.C., on Monday. (Peter Zay/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

As everyone knows, Donald Trump benefited from a large field in 2016.

While Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and former Ohio Gov. John Kasich split the anti-Trump vote, the former TV celebrity piled up delegates from key primaries. That got him the GOP presidential nomination and, eventually, the White House.

In South Carolina, for example, Trump swept the at-large delegates by finishing first statewide, and he carried each of South Carolina’s congressional districts, which gave him all 50 delegates. He did that even though he drew only 32.5 percent of the statewide vote to Rubio’s 22.5 percent and Cruz’s 22.3 percent.

In the crucial March 15 primaries, Kasich won his state’s winner-take-all primary (47 percent to 36 percent for Trump), while Trump won winner-take-all Florida (46 percent to 27 percent for Rubio and 17 percent for Cruz).

That day, Trump also won Illinois (39 percent to Cruz’s 30 percent), North Carolina (40 percent to 37 percent for Cruz) and Missouri (40.8 percent to 40.6 percent for Cruz).

There has been plenty of early talk that Trump once again could benefit from a fractured field.

There were 17 “major” candidates for the GOP presidential nomination in 2015-16, but only 12 of them remained in the race at the beginning of January 2016, and only four of them were still in the contest on March 10.

This cycle, former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has decided not to run, but six Republicans are either in the 2024 race already or inching toward an announcement: Trump, former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson, South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott, businessman Vivek Ramaswamy and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. (Conservative talk show host Larry Elder is also running but is not serious enough to make the list.)

Talking heads continue to expect former Vice President Mike Pence and former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie to be candidates eventually, although neither one has yet announced his plans.

Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin just released the kind of video that political hopefuls release when they launch a presidential run, though he has not announced he’s decided to run.

Two other Republican governors, North Dakota’s Doug Burgum and the Granite State’s Chris Sununu, are considering bids for the GOP presidential nomination. Burgum, who would be the longest of long shots, would rely on his personal wealth and “outsider” status, according to CBS News.

That’s at least eight Republicans in the field, not counting Youngkin, Sununu or Burgum, and that is enough to fracture the anti-Trump electorate, especially considering the former president’s early strength.

DeSantis certainly starts off being a threat to Trump, but the Florida governor has alienated some Republicans with his threats to one of the state’s largest private employers (The Walt Disney Co.), his support for the culture wars and his bullying style.

He has made so many early blunders that he no longer looks like a scrubbed-clean version of Trump. He simply looks and sounds like a Florida version of Trump. That’s a problem because it undermines what some people thought was his biggest advantage over Trump: his greater general election appeal.

In fact, polling doesn’t show the Florida governor running dramatically stronger than Trump against Biden. For example, a mid-May poll of adults by The Economist and YouGov found Trump leading Biden by 2 points, while Biden and DeSantis were tied.

Another mid-May survey, this one conducted of registered voters by The Harris Poll and HarrisX for Harvard University’s Center for American Political Studies, found Trump leading Biden by 7 points but Biden and DeSantis running even.

A third survey, this one conducted in late April/early May for ABC News and the Washington Post, had both Trump and DeSantis leading Biden by 6 points.

In national polls that test a hypothetical Republican matchup for the party’s nomination, Trump has opened up a considerable lead over DeSantis. Obviously, DeSantis is less well-known than Trump, which explains some of his standing in the polls. But the governor does need to stop Trump’s early momentum.

DeSantis and his strategists apparently have decided that the Florida governor needs to show the bluster, bravado and combativeness that Trump has displayed over the years, rather than a more measured approach to governing that might have greater appeal to suburbanites and swing voters.

That still leaves DeSantis needing to draw a contrast with the former president. With Trump’s vote seemingly locked in, another hopeful, whether DeSantis or someone else, will need to rally the anti-Trump opposition to overtake Trump’s initial advantage. The larger the field, the more difficult that will be to accomplish.

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