Top 5 Republican presidential contenders, and 2 on the way out

Donald Trump
Greg Nash

At just under three years before the Republican presidential primaries, it’s as good a time as any to start handicapping the GOP field.

#1 Donald Trump: Of course Trump is in the lead. Whether in name recognition, approval rating or ballot test, Trump is far in front of any conceivable competition. And he has signaled his interest in running, although not a firm commitment. But Trump’s star has noticeably dimmed. In spite of high polling numbers and the non-stop Trump lovefest at CPAC, Trump only got 55 percent in the preference poll — that’s a terrible number considering 97 percent of attendees “approved” of Trump.

It’s a similar story in other polls. Trump’s own pollster, Tony Fabrizio, found only 51 percent of Republicans backing Trump for the 2024 nomination — in spite of an 81 percent approval rating for him. Are Republican voters looking at Trump as a loser? Possibly. A recent CNBC poll showed 54 percent of the public wanted Trump “to remove himself entirely from politics.” With that number, Trump likely would not crack 40 percent on a 2024 ballot test against Joe Biden or Kamala Harris.

Trump won’t run if he thinks he will lose.

He can keep his pride claiming to be the victim of a rigged election once, but not twice.

If you get pickpocketed once in a New York subway, you’re a victim. If you get pickpocketed again, you’re the dope who can’t hold on to your wallet.

#2 Marco Rubio: The senator from Florida had a pretty good four years. He mostly stayed out of Trump’s firing line, made no significant gaffes, and kept a solid conservative voting record. By laying low, he is not readily identified with Trump’s various outbursts and the post-election mess. As a first-time presidential candidate in 2016 he acquitted himself well.

GOP voters tend to go with known commodities. Since 1944 Republicans have only nominated a handful of first-timer presidential candidates. And experience counts for a lot in national politics. Should Trump not run, Rubio is in prime position to re-activate his network from 2016 and present himself as a relatively unscathed candidate.

Rubio does have some problems. For one thing the Trump circus has taken up permanent residence in his backyard, with endless opportunities to cause problems during Rubio’s 2022 Senate re-election run. Laying low put him out of the public eye and has allowed more bombastic hopefuls to grab some of the limelight. Rubio will need to excite a newly populist base and sharpen his elbows if he wants the nomination, making Daylight Saving Time permanent might be a nice boost.

#3 Tom Cotton: Like Rubio, the Arkansas senator been cautious about Trump’s post-election antics. Not getting caught up in all the sturm und drang not only helps insulate him from the blowback, he also avoids getting sucked into the mercurial and turbulent activities of the former President. Cotton has figured out Republicans need to get a new economic policy. His proposed trade of a minimum wage hike for tougher enforcement of immigration laws is a smart pivot. Putting it together with Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) helps build a bridge to Trump-skeptical Republicans and independents. And angering the snowflakes at the New York Times can only help.

Being a rookie on that national stage is a problem. Cotton has a lot of work to do to build a sufficient network of support. Avoiding mistakes and stumbles along the way will not be easy.

#4 Josh Hawley: The junior senator from Missouri has made quite a name for himself in a short time. Infuriating liberals, bashing big tech and gaining enough of a profile to be touted as a presidential contender is quite a rise. Like Cotton, Hawley has figured out the gravity of the GOP is more anti-establishment and populist than ever. His early support for helicopter money during the pandemic made that clear. With a newly enhanced profile and rising grassroots popularity, Hawley is as strong as anyone.

But Hawley may have overplayed his hand — as newcomers to the spotlight often do. Hawley’s objections to the Electoral College vote in the immediate aftermath of the absurdist theater of Jan. 6th is classic short-term gain for long-term pain. By identifying himself so closely with Trump’s position he certainly helped himself amongst Trump’s acolytes, but practically all Democrats, most independents and a large chunk or Republicans disagree. They may like Hawley, but if GOP voters think he’s a loser, he won’t get far.

#5 Ted Cruz: The Texas senator should be second on the list. He gave Trump the toughest run in 2016. He doesn’t have to run for re-election in 2022, allowing him to devote full energy to a presidential run. And he had a pretty good four years under Trump staying off Trump’s radar, casting good conservative votes and even partnering with progressive darling Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) on an anti-lobbyist bill.

But Cruz has had a couple of bad months.

Tagging along with Hawley on the Electoral College challenge (see above) was a bad bit of “me-too” politics. But even worse was his tropical escape from the Texas freeze and blackout. Yes, it’s overblown when compared to the egregious behavior of New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo — but it’s just the kind of thing that infuriates voters. When voters are suffering, they want their elected officials to suffer too. Don’t count Cruz out, but he has a lot of work to do.

Possible other contenders: Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida, Gov. Kristi Noem of South Dakota, Sen. Rick Scott of Florida, Gov. Greg Abbott of Texas, and Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina.

And two who are out of the running:

First out — Mike Pence: Pence now knows what blind loyalty to Trump gets you: Nothing.

If Pence had been the GOP standard-bearer in 2020, he probably would have won. He campaigned well and was strong in the one debate with Kamala Harris. Pence’s steadiness would have been a strong antidote to the craziness of 2020. Too bad he was stuck as Trump’s number two.

Pence would be a clear frontrunner after Trump if it wasn’t for Trump’s fury that Pence would not utterly ignore the Constitution. If there is one thing that can be sure politically, it’s that Trump will do anything and everything to sabotage Pence.

Second out — Nikki Haley: It’s cruel but true, one mistake is all it takes to wreck presidential dreams. Haley was looking good right up to Jan. 6th. But she didn’t understand that she had to pick a side — and picking both sides is always fatal. After criticizing Trump and feeling the blowback, Haley tried to crawl back into Trumpworld. And that never works.

Keith Naughton, Ph.D. is co-founder of Silent Majority Strategies, a public and regulatory affairs consulting firm. Dr. Naughton is a former Pennsylvania political campaign consultant. Follow him on Twitter @KNaughton711.

Tags 2024 presidential candidates Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez Andrew Cuomo Donald Trump Joe Biden Josh Hawley Kristi Noem Marco Rubio Mike Pence Mitt Romney Nikki Haley Republican Party Right-wing populism in the United States Ron DeSantis Ted Cruz Tim Scott Tom Cotton trumpism

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