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Polls show the 2024 Republican primary is a contest between former President Donald Trump, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and everyone else.
The "everyone else" group includes candidates such as former UN ambassador Nikki Haley, who seem eager to enter the race despite being in single digits in the polls.
But if Trump and DeSantis are favorites, what is the chance that one of these single-digit candidates (for example, Haley or former Vice President Mike Pence) could actually win the nomination?
It's not nil, but the odds clearly favor either Trump or DeSantis becoming the GOP nominee in 2024.
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Trump (under 40) and DeSantis (under 30) top 30% on average nationally, while no other candidate reaches double digits.
Historically, only a few candidates have topped 35% on average in early polls (i.e., from January to June of the year before the primary) in the modern era of primaries (i.e., since 1972).
Most of them have gotten the nomination.
The two that didn't are familiar to most political buffs: Democrats Ted Kennedy in 1980 and Hillary Clinton in 2008. The other six (not counting most of the unopposed incumbents) each finished as their party's candidate, which means that 75% of the candidates who were in the 35% or higher in the first polls ended up winning their primaries.
An important fact for this year is that Kennedy and Clinton did not lose to candidates with poor results in the first polls.
The eventual nominees (President Jimmy Carter in 1980 and Barack Obama in 2008) were both in the top 20% of the polls during the January-June period of the year before the primaries.
In fact, 40% of eventual nominees in competitive primaries since 1972 were in the 20-35% range (a recent example is now-President Joe Biden in 2019).
Hope for "everyone else"
Now, does this mean that anyone in this group of "everyone else" (ie, those in single digits in the polls) is doomed from the start?
For one thing, history does not necessarily tell us what is going to happen in the future.
Also, there have been single-digit candidates in early polls who have gone on to win the nomination.
Trump was one of them.
Recall that he struggled to reach 5% in early 2015 before gaining a lead in the national polls that he rarely relinquished for the rest of the primary season.
Trump has not been the only candidate who, with polls in single digits at first, later won the support of his party.
George McGovern in 1972, Carter in 1976, Michael Dukakis in 1988 and Bill Clinton in 1992 barely appeared in the national polls between January and June, before the primaries.
In total, five of the 17 candidates who have presented themselves to the primaries without a candidate in power (that is, 30% of them) did not reach 10% in the first polls.
However, single-digit candidates face double trouble this cycle.
The first is that most of the candidates rank below 10% in the first polls.
So while it wouldn't necessarily be surprising if a candidate from this group ultimately won the nomination, the likelihood of a single candidate doing so is low.
Historically, less than 5% of candidates who score in single digits at this point win the nomination.
The second is that it is worth examining the years in which the first single-digit candidates won.
Carter, Dukakis, Bill Clinton and Trump ran in years when there was no frontrunner (or frontrunners) in the polls.
The leading candidates in the national primary polls in each of those cycles were in the top 20% or lower.
In 1992, the leader in the polls was the governor of New York, Mario Cuomo (20%), who did not run.
There has been an exception, of course.
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McGovern won the Democratic nomination in 1972, when there were two candidates in the top 20 and one in the 30th in early primary polls.
I'm not sure to what extent the 1972 cycle is applicable to 2024, given that it was the first year of the modern primary era, when it was unclear exactly how early state momentum might dictate the nomination process.
Still, McGovern's victory is remarkable.
Another notable rise in the polls came during the 1984 Democratic primary. Gary Hart failed to exceed 5% in the national polls in either the first or second half of 1983. The senator from Colorado trailed far behind the final candidate ( former Vice President Walter Mondale), who was in his 30s in the first half of 1983 and in his 40s in the second half of the year.
Although Mondale was victorious, Hart finished very close.
The 1984 race (like potentially the 2024 race, with DeSantis) featured another highly publicized candidate (Ohio Senator John Glenn) topping 20% in early polls.
Glenn, of course, failed.
Again, I'm not saying DeSantis is like Glenn.
I think the GOP nominee in 2024 will probably be either DeSantis or Trump.
But what I'm saying is that while either Trump or DeSantis is the favorite for the nomination, there's enough history of low-voting candidates later gaining traction to at least be open to the idea that a Haley, Pence, or someone else could, If nothing else, make things interesting when voting.
Donald TrumpRepublicansRon DeSantis