Trump's rivals let GOP voters believe he's a winner — and it's coming back to bite them

Donald Trump’s primary rivals have had a hard time convincing GOP voters that they’d be more electable than the indicted former president — but they may, at least in part, have themselves to blame for it.

Most of the 2024 candidate field has spent the past two and half years validating or turning a blind eye to Trump’s false claims that he won the 2020 election, priming the Republican base to believe that Trump is a proven winner against President Joe Biden. Now they have only a few months to try to undo that perception but appear reluctant to press the case.

“A lot of these GOP primary contenders are paying the price of enabling Trump throughout the course of the last three years,” said former Florida Republican Rep. Carlos Curbelo, a Trump critic. “The best way to beat him is by … showing that Trump and his movement have been rejected in general elections three times in a row. But you don’t hear [Florida Gov. Ron] DeSantis or the other candidates speaking to voters in this way. It’s impossible to defeat someone by following them.”

Trump, of course, has obsessively promoted conspiracy theories that the 2020 election was stolen from him — a falsity that crystalized into fact among many Republican voters after it went mostly unchallenged for years by most of the party’s leaders.

Numerous polls show a majority or large plurality of Republican voters believe Biden won in 2020 only through cheating. And if those voters believe that Trump effectively beat Biden once, they may be more likely to believe he’s the best candidate to do it again.

“If Trump didn’t really lose then why should GOP voters look for someone else who is a winner?” Tim Miller, a former Republican strategist who has since broken with the party over Trump, said. “Trump set this trap for his opponents and they all have walked right into it.” 

A new Monmouth University poll released Tuesday found that 69% of GOP voters said Trump is either “definitely” (45%) or “probably” (24%) the strongest candidate against Biden in next November’s general election. Fewer than one third said another candidate would be stronger. And only 13% said another candidate would “definitely” be stronger.

Polls of key early voting states paint a similar picture.

In Iowa, 45% of GOP respondents to a Fox Business poll released this week said Trump would be the most likely candidate to defeat Biden, compared with 23% who picked DeSantis. In South Carolina, 51% picked Trump as the strongest candidate against Biden, while 17% chose DeSantis. 

That sentiment is a major hurdle for candidates like DeSantis, who premised their campaigns on the expectation that even Republicans who like Trump would be looking for a fresher face with less baggage to have a better chance of winning in 2024. 

“There is no substitute for victory,” DeSantis said during his first visit to New Hampshire in April, decrying a “culture of losing” that he said had taken hold of the GOP in recent years, referring — without mentioning Trump — to Republicans’ disappointing performances in the 2018, 2020 and 2022 elections.

Quietly, Trump’s rivals have hoped that the front-runner’s mounting legal challenges would help convince primary voters he’s a liability who should be replaced.

Few, though, have been willing to actually make that case directly, aside from lower-polling candidates like former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson.

DeSantis, for instance, has repeatedly refused to say if he believes the 2020 election was rigged against Trump. He bristles at reporters whenever he’s asked about it and typically dodges by saying he’s focused on issues he sees as more important. 

“I’ve been asked that a hundred different times. Anyone have a question on the topic of the day?” the governor said at a June press conference in Florida.

And last year, DeSantis and other Republican candidates stumped for candidates who made Trump’s election denialism a centerpiece of their message, such as former Pennsylvania gubernatorial candidate Doug Mastriano. 

Most of the other GOP 2024 candidates have also dodged the question, or only glancingly acknowledged that Biden won, and even then have bolstered the idea that voter fraud cost Trump significant votes. 

“I think we all know there were irregularities in there and there were some issues that happened,” former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley said this week during an Iowa forum moderated by former Fox News host Tucker Carlson when asked about 2020. “We know there was mail-out balloting that shouldn’t have happened. Do I think that changed the results of the election? No.”

Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina, who is also a contender for the GOP 2024 nomination, has previously dismissed Trump’s claims about the 2020 election, but it took until this month for him to directly say that it wasn’t stolen from the former president.

“There was cheating, but was the election stolen? There’s a difference. I think [in] every election there’s cheating,” Scott said in Iowa on July 14.

Still, it’s impossible to know if calling out Trump’s loss would have changed the minds of many GOP voters.

And even some of Trump’s fiercest critics on the right say he may have a point about electability. He commands tremendously loyal support, turns out low-propensity voters (those who vote mainly in presidential elections only), and polls of hypothetical matchups against Biden show the former president performing about as well or better than his main rivals.

“It makes it harder to sell the ‘Trump is a loser’ argument — though, to be honest, that was always more of an argument for donors and elites than voters,” said Bill Kristol, the longtime conservative commentator who now runs Defending Democracy Together, an advocacy organization made up of conservatives who oppose rising authoritarian inclinations. “Republican voters know Trump is the one winner they’ve voted for since 2004. I also think if the polls consistently showed Trump losing to Biden while DeSantis was beating him, that might have had an effect on voters. But they don’t.”