Does Trump want a crowded Republican primary field in 2024?

AP Photo/John Raoux

Seems counterintuitive, right? A figure as obsessed with dominance as Trump should feel insulted if he’s challenged for the nomination of the party he owns. Why, it’d be like barging into his home and demanding to sit at the head of the table during dinner time.

I’m sure he will feel insulted if he’s challenged. Ed flagged this quote from a new interview earlier but it’s worth repeating here:

Other Republicans, such as Pence, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and former secretary of state Mike Pompeo, would not want to run against him in a 2024 Republican presidential primary season, he said. None of them have ruled out challenging him.

“If I ran, I can’t imagine they’d want to run. Some out of loyalty would have had a hard time running. I think that most of those people, and almost every name you mentioned, is there because of me. In some cases, because I backed them and endorsed them. You know Ron was at 3 percent, and the day I endorsed him, he won the race,” he said. Asked if he thought he “made” DeSantis, Trump said he knew he did. “As soon as I endorsed him, the race was over,” Trump claimed…

“I have a good relationship with Ron, I have a good relationship with all the names you mentioned. Would they run against me? I doubt they would run against me. I doubt it,” Trump reiterated.

Some Republicans like Nikki Haley have ruled out running in 2024 if Trump runs. DeSantis notably has shown no such deference, dodging the question when he’s asked by stressing that he’s focused on reelection as governor. His refusal to defer has reportedly stuck in Trump’s craw, which may explain why he jabbed at DeSantis a few months ago for declining to say whether he’d received a booster shot yet.

So, yeah, certainly Trump expects to be handed the 2024 nomination by acclamation and will feel aggrieved if anyone jumps in and makes him work for it.

But what if someone — specifically, DeSantis — does jump in? What’s Trump’s preference at that point?

I think he’s fine running one on one against any number of potential challengers. Mike Pence? Not a problem. The “hang Mike Pence” party isn’t going to nominate Pence over the guy who made them want to hang him in the first place. Larry Hogan? C’mon. Token opposition. Liz Cheney? She’d be the harshest critic of Trump among any candidate he might plausibly face but she’d also top out at five percent of the vote. None of these people will make him break a sweat.

DeSantis might. Especially a DeSantis who spends the next two years continuing to pile up culture-war wins and ends up going on to a landslide victory in his gubernatorial race this fall. If DeSantis glides into 2023 with his brand as “Trumpism except way more electable” then Trump has a potential problem in 2024. How does he solve that problem?

Maybe a crowded field solves it for him.

A Trump/DeSantis race is perilous for him. Assume by 2024 that 40 percent of the party is avidly pro-Trump, 25 percent is pro-DeSantis, and the remaining 35 percent is open to a third round of Trump but wants to consider its options. There’ll be a wide range of opinion within that 35 percent, from Trump skeptics to “hate the tweets, love the policies” people to the those who are leaning Trump yet want to hear from the new guy. That’s a risky position for the former president since a primary may be the first time that that 35 percent is getting its first good look at DeSantis. They may like what they see. And if DeSantis were to surge in the polls, that could shake loose a few voters who are nominally with Trump but only because they thought it was impossible that anyone might seriously challenge him from the nomination. If DeSantis proves them wrong by contending, those people might shift, and suddenly there’s a snowball effect. That’s what happened when Obama caught up to Hillary Clinton in 2008.

All of that being so, once DeSantis gets in, Trump should want others in too. In a one-on-one race, DeSantis might consolidate the Never Trump and Trump-skeptical vote. But throw Hogan and Cheney in there and suddenly those voters peel off. DeSantis would also be the choice of many traditional conservatives who don’t like the direction Trump’s taken the party. But throw Pence in there and those voters have another option too. DeSantis’s stature as the non-Trump alternative in the race would be weakened. And so Republican voters who might have broken for him if he looked like a credible threat to win might falter and return to Trump’s camp.

The logic here is based on a simple proposition with which we’re all familiar after seven years: Many Republican voters, although probably not a majority, want Trump and will accept no substitutes. You could give those voters a thousand alternatives in the primary and they’re not going anywhere. The same isn’t true for (most) DeSantis voters. As such, all Trump needs to do is hold DeSantis to a smaller share of the vote than the Trump cultists can supply. A crowded field increases the chances of that.

Frankly, I wonder if he’ll try to recruit a stalking horse into the race to attack DeSantis on his behalf. Matt Gaetz is a DeSantis buddy so I doubt he’d do it, but imagine Marjorie Taylor Greene running and spending all of her time ripping on DeSantis as a sellout and poseur. That would keep Trump’s hands clean while signaling to the Trump leaners among the undecideds that you’re not a real populist if you prefer DeSantis to Trump.

I’ll leave you with this, a nightmare in the making for a Never Trumper. Imagine a bunch of candidates jumping into the race in 2024 and then spending most of their time … attacking each other rather than him. We saw that movie once before, in 2016. Remember how it turned out?