A growing number of contenders for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination could clear the way for a Donald Trump victory while throwing up roadblocks for his main rival Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, party members and strategists said.
Republicans who fear Trump is too polarizing a figure to beat Democratic President Joe Biden in 2024 worry that if too many candidates jump into the party's contest, they will splinter the anti-Trump vote. That would allow the former president to clinch the nomination, just as he did in similar circumstances in 2016.
Former Vice President Mike Pence, former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, and North Dakota Governor Doug Burgum are planning to enter the fray this week, bringing the number of challengers to front-runner Trump into the double digits.
Political analysts estimate that Trump can count on a diehard core of supporters, who make up at least a third of Republican voters, to help him secure his party's nomination.
DeSantis has been aggressively courting those voters, but few are expected to defect from Trump. If DeSantis has any hope of becoming the Republican nominee, political analysts said, he has to try to win over a significant chunk of the other roughly 70% of voters who are up for grabs.
DeSantis must compete with a raft of Republican rivals for those votes. To be sure, many are long shots who barely register in opinion polls, but they can still hamper DeSantis' efforts to build the coalition he needs to take on Trump.
"I'm very concerned that we appear to be making the same mistakes that we made in 2016," said Larry Hogan, a popular former Republican governor of Maryland and a fierce critic of Trump.
Hogan seriously considered taking on Trump but decided earlier this year against entering the race because he feared that a large field of contenders would only help the former president to repeat his 2016 victory, when he bested 17 major candidates.
"It's better for us to have a smaller field with a strong candidate or two rather than 10 or more people who are failing to get attention, who are all in single digits," in opinion polls, Hogan said in an interview.
"The only one that benefits from that at this point in time appears to be Donald Trump," said Hogan, a moderate who wants the party to move on from Trump. "It's the definition of insanity continuing to do the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result."
On Monday, New Hampshire Governor Chris Sununu, another moderate who had been considering a White House run, said he decided not to enter the race. He told CNN he wanted to be a more “candid, a little more unleashed voice” outside the confines of a presidential bid, as he seeks to try and move the party beyond Trump.
Right now it's essentially a two-man race.
Trump dominates the field among potential Republican primary voters with 49% support with DeSantis next at 19%. There is a yawning chasm between the front-runners and the rest of the field: Pence has just 5% backing, while former South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley has 4%, according to the latest Reuters/Ipsos opinion poll conducted in May.
Others are barely registering at all. Christie has just 1% backing him, as does U.S. Senator Tim Scott of South Carolina, while former Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson, who declared in April, has 0%.
WHY LONG SHOTS ARE STILL JUMPING IN
A casual observer might ask why candidates with such low poll numbers are jumping into a race that already has a clear front-runner early on.
"Most get in because they truly think they have a chance of winning the nomination," said Oscar Brock, a Republican National Committee member from Tennessee.
Some know they cannot win, said John Feehery, a Republican strategist, but they might be angling for a cabinet position, or hoping to join the ticket of the eventual nominee as the vice presidential candidate, or simply looking for 15 minutes of fame to secure a book deal.
Long shots have also emerged from nowhere to win past nominating fights, Feehery noted, including Democrat Jimmy Carter in 1976 and Trump, who was polling at just 4% when he announced his candidacy in June 2015.
Many may have decided to enter the 2024 race because of the perceived vulnerabilities of the two front runners, Feehery said. Trump faces potential indictments for withholding classified documents and seeking to overturn the results of the 2020 election, while DeSantis is trying to regain his footing after losing ground in opinion polls.
"These candidates who are striving to be the alternative see DeSantis continue to stumble and fumble. And they say, 'Well, why couldn't that be me?'" said Jason Miller, a senior Trump adviser.
Perhaps with an eye on the soon-to-expand field, DeSantis finally began punching back against Trump on the campaign trail last week after weathering an onslaught of attacks from his former ally for months.
(Reporting by Tim Reid in Los Angeles; Additional reporting by Nathan Layne in Laconia, New Hampshire, editing by Ross Colvin, Grant McCool and Bill Berkrot)