It’s the number 2024 election watchers are talking about this week, with the latest Wall Street Journal poll showing former president Trump’s lead as the preferred candidate in the Republican primary race is growing among the party’s primary voters. Fifty-nine per cent of Republican primary voters cite Donald Trump as their preferred candidate.

The results reveal Trump has nearly doubled his lead over the next closest challenger for the Republican nomination. Forty-six points behind, Ron DeSantis has snatched up only 13 per cent of the preferred first-choice candidate, and is now much closer to the ‘rest’ of the Republican field with Nikki Haley coming in behind him with eight per cent support.

If the Republican primary were held today, for which candidate would you vote? | Data source: Wall Street Journal Poll, 2 September 2023Source: Getty

Many may rightly ask how, despite such significant political scandal and so many alternatives in the race, Trump has managed to maintain such a formidable edge over the rest of the Republican field. The Wall Street Journal poll offers a few key insights:

  1. Trump’s indictments are seen as politically motivated | More than 60 per cent of Republican primary voters said each of the indictments against Donald Trump were politically motivated and without merit. The two criminal cases (one federal, one state) relating to Trump’s alleged efforts to overturn the 2020 election result also appear to not matter to the former president’s standing, with 78 per cent saying Trump’s actions after the 2020 election were legitimate efforts to ensure an accurate vote.
  2. Trump appears competitive to beat Biden | Ultimately, Republican voters want a candidate who will beat the Democrat nominee to win office. In a hypothetical head-to-head match up between President Biden and President Trump, the poll finds both candidates came in even at 46 per cent of voter support each, and only eight per cent undecided. At this stage, it seems unlikely any other challenger can beat those odds.
  3. Messaging around Trump is difficult | For the other Republican contenders to beat Trump, they have to toe a careful line that distinguishes themselves as better than Trump without alienating his base of supporters by overtly criticising his campaign. The approach of Chris Christie, the candidate who has criticised Trump more than any other, and Mike Pence, the candidate who ‘crossed’ and increasingly criticises Trump, shows the consequence of throwing off that balance, with both having unfavourability ratings double that of their favourability among GOP primary voters. Candidates who have supported Trump or stayed predominately silent on the matter had the highest ‘favourability’ rating.

Importantly, the WSJ poll is a nationwide poll which often shows Trump’s favourability and preferred candidacy to be inflated above state-by-state polling averages, especially in early states like Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina. In Iowa, for example, the first state to go to polls in 2024 on 15 January, Trump’s lead is still significant yet averages around 40–45 per cent, rather than the WSJ finding of nearly 60 per cent. That contest, which Trump lost to Ted Cruz in 2015, could change the field and see another challenger consolidate the ‘persuadable’ cohort of Republican voters open to a non-Trump candidate.

This article was originally featured in the USSC's weekly newsletter, the 46th. Subscribe to the newsletter here.