Dem 51
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GOP 49
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Can Candidates Now Polling in Single Digits Get the GOP Nomination?

Right now, the Republican front runners for 2024 are Donald Trump and Ron DeSantis. But remember that, as late as Nov. 2007, a lot of pundits and pollsters were expecting it to be Hillary vs. Rudy in 2008. How did that work out? In other words: stuff happens.

Trump's applecart could be upset if he is indicted and convicted of one or more felonies in Georgia. If he is ordered to prison and is fighting that in the courts in July 2024, the Republican National Convention might decide that he is not a good bet, no matter what the primary results were. As to DeSantis, he is running a base-only campaign and that will only get worse after he formally jumps in, probably in late spring. What if national polls show him losing independents by 70 points and Democrats by 90 points? Might the Republicans nominate one of the people down in the weeds? CNN's Harry Enten took a look at what history tells us about nobodies becoming somebodies.

But first, note that the early favorites don't always win, with Hillary and Rudy being the poster children for that. There are also many other examples of folks potential polling well a year or more in advance but not getting the nomination. In 1980, then senator Ted Kennedy polled well early on. In 1984, then-senator John Glenn was polling above 20% early on. In 1992, the early leader was then-New York governor Mario Cuomo. In 2004, Howard Dean was the early leader. None of them got the nomination.

What about the flip side—that is, unknowns grabbing the brass ring? Here is a poll from the University of Texas taken in Feb. 2015. They didn't even bother to list Trump as a potential candidate, but John Bolton and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) made the list. Being less likely than Graham doesn't scream "inevitable":

Univ. of Texas presidential poll from Feb. 2015

The clear leaders were Sen Ted Cruz (R-TX) and then-governor Scott Walker. Oops. Candidates who were down in the weeds in early polls but ended up getting the nomination include George McGovern in 1972, Michael Dukakis in 1988 Jimmy Carter in 1975, and Bill Clinton in 1991. For example, below on the left is the average of all polls from Jan. 1975 to June 1975 for the Democratic nomination. On the right is the average of polls from Jan. 1991 to June 1991, also for the Democratic nomination.

Average polling results Jan-June 1975 and Jan-June 1991 Democratic primaries

As you can see, Jimmy Carter averaged 1%, in 12th place, during the first half of 1975, behind the clear leaders George Wallace, Hubert Humphrey, and Scoop Jackson. In the first half of 1991, Bill Clinton was in 13th place with 1.7%, way behind the obvious favorite, Mario Cuomo. You know what happened.

Consequently, if Trump is convicted this year and DeSantis moves so far to the right that Republicans don't think he could win the general election, there is hope for the candidates now down in the weeds, especially the Mikes (Pence and Pompeo). The former is sort of "next in line" by dint of having been vice president and the latter might pull in a few hundred million dollars from Charles Koch. Stuff happens. (V)

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