The list of candidates in the 2024 Republican presidential primary is steadily growing, much to the delight of former President Trump and his team, carrying echoes of 2016 when Trump exploited the fractured field to win the party’s nomination.
Trump himself has welcomed each new candidate to the race, and his team believes a larger than expected field will weaken any effort to rally around a single alternative to the former president.
But there are reasons to be skeptical that 2024 is setting up as a repeat of 2016.
“I think a whole lot of people are wringing their hands to say ‘it’s 2016,’ when it’s fundamentally different,” said Doug Heye, a former Republican National Committee spokesperson.
Trump entered the 2016 race as a political outsider and relatively unknown quantity in a competitive primary filled with senators, governors and fixtures in GOP politics. The large field allowed Trump to win early states without winning a majority of voters. For example, he won the 2016 South Carolina primary with roughly 33 percent of the vote.
By the time the field condensed to just a few candidates, Trump’s path to the nomination was already fairly clear.
But Trump enters the 2024 primary as the clear frontrunner based on the vast majority of national polls, and some state polling. A Fox News poll conducted May 19-22 showed Trump with the support of 53 percent of primary voters, with Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) running second at 20 percent.
While Trump was spurned by the GOP establishment in 2016, he has already racked up dozens of endorsements from Republican lawmakers in the 2024 cycle and much of the party remains reluctant to directly criticize him or veer from his policy views.
As a result, those seeking to replace Trump as the party’s standard-bearer are entering the 2024 race with no illusions about the need to overcome the former president’s polling lead.
“I think if there’s the one thing we know, it’s we know who the frontrunner is, and he has a whole lot of baggage,” Heye said.
Still, Trump and his team have been heartened by the steadily expanding field of candidates, which will make it harder for a single challenger to overtake the former president once voting begins.
Nikki Haley, Asa Hutchinson and Vivek Ramaswamy have already been in the race for several weeks. Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) and DeSantis joined the field this week. Former Vice President Mike Pence, Chris Christie and New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu (R) are all openly contemplating getting into the race soon, and Virginia Glenn Youngkin (R) has reportedly left the door open to joining the fray later this year.
There are also lesser-known candidates, like conservative radio host Larry Elder, who is already in the race, and North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgrum (R), who is weighing a 2024 bid.
“There’s a reason Trump tweeted welcoming Tim Scott into the race,” former Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) said. “From Trump’s perspective, the more the merrier.”
A large field heading into the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary would be a boon for Trump, whose deeply loyal base of supporters gives him a solid floor of the vote share that could help him win with a plurality of votes.
“And then the issue is if you don’t stop him early, it’s going to get harder to stop him,” said one GOP operative who is not affiliated with any campaign.
But strategists noted that the first caucus is still roughly eight months away, and a lot can change in the race.
Trump is facing numerous ongoing legal battles that could threaten his position in the race, and the first primary debates are set for August and could shake up the hierarchy.
Ultimately, strategists said, how big the field is now is less relevant than who is on the ballot when it comes time for voters to choose a nominee. And candidates who are serious about turning the page from Trump know that they must coalesce around an alternative.
“I think it is healthy for the party and the campaigns to have a very competitive primary,” said Alex Conant, who worked on Sen. Marco Rubio’s (R-Fla.) 2016 presidential campaign. “But if you’re going to beat Trump, the field needs to winnow faster than it did in 2016. I don’t think it matters how many candidates run, I think it matters when candidates drop out.”