November 29, 2022 1:49 PM EST

This article is part of The D.C. Brief, TIME’s politics newsletter. Sign up here to get stories like this sent to your inbox.

If you look at the top-line numbers in public polling, it would seem impossible to fathom anyone but Donald Trump emerging in 2024 as his Republican Party’s nominee. After all, a robust 95% of Republican voters in this month’s midterm elections held a favorable view of the ex-President, according to exit polls.

Still, look a little deeper at the numbers—and their trendlines—and there emerges a potential vulnerability, especially after Trump’s meddling helped lead the GOP to yet another disappointing election. In the wake of this month’s midterms, 75% of Republicans told Quinnipiac pollsters that they still held a favorable view of Trump, steady with his job approval numbers as President and his favorability numbers after leaving office. But Republicans appear less certain when it comes to their choice for nominee for 2024. CNN’s tracking analysis shows GOP support for Trump as the nominee slid from 53% in the second half of 2021—his first year back out of power—to 44% support since Election Day just a few weeks ago.

Put another way: Republicans may be tiring of their Trump-Curious phase and may return to a more traditional footing that opts for, say, scions of the establishment over TV docs and Q-Anon celebs. And the former President’s recent sit-down with a white supremacist and an antisemitic, conspiracy-theory-touting rapper could lead his softening numbers to further crumble.

Trump remains the figure to defeat, for sure. His closest threat is Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who has slowly built a brand among Republicans and rose over the same period in CNN’s calculations as Trump’s slump. DeSantis has rocketed from 12% support for his nomination to a fulsome 32% since winning a second term. If history is any guide, DeSantis is about to draw the kind of scrutiny that often tanks political newcomers on the national stage.

Since Trump ostensibly took over the Republican Party in 2016, the GOP has lost its majority in the House, control of the Senate, and the White House. This year, Republicans missed a very real opportunity to reclaim the Senate; their House majority will be far narrower than expected and could prove impossible to wrangle into something approximating a governing coalition. Trump continues to hoover up small-dollar donations from the activist types while doing relatively little to help candidates beyond ego-inflating rallies where Trump is the star. Just maybe the party is realizing its bargain with Trumpism may not be a durable way to build victories.

Republican insiders have been reluctant to engage in any real criticism of Trump or to block his problematic candidates. The conventional wisdom is that Trump is a tractor-trailer-sized shipping container to any single challenger’s thimble of potential. Despite deep, deep misgivings about some of Trump’s Senate picks, Washington largely got out of the way and let them move from primaries to general-election ballots. The results were a five-point Republican loss in Pennsylvania and Arizona, plus a one-point squeaker of a defeat in Nevada—basically, the entire Senate map hinged on those races.

Given those results, Republicans are starting to get a bit more antsy about Trump’s future. Talking with voters at Republican events this year, DeSantis’ name repeatedly came up as a Trumpian contender without the baggage. They like Trump, for sure, but want to win, and DeSantis might be a safer bet. That comes through plain as day in Marist/ PBS polling: back in October of 2021, 50% of Republicans said Trump represented the best chance of winning in 2024; a post-Election Day poll from Marist/ PBS has Trump’s support with that same audience dropping to 35%.

Those numbers line up with Trump’s general approval rating. Exit polls conducted two years ago found Trump enjoying a 46% approval rating among all voters. He still lost. That number stood at 39% a few weeks ago. It’s tough to make a comeback from such low ratings. (President Joe Biden knows this, too; his exit poll numbers earlier this month left him at a 41% favorability crouch, down 11 points from his 52% showing in 2020.)

We are more than a year away from any voters having to make real their verdicts on Trump. His would-be rivals are plotting and strategizing their roll-out plans, all while grumbling that they simply have no real way of knowing how Trump would counterpunch. Biden seems to have stemmed his own intra-party crisis based on his better-than-expected midterm showing (although Marist found 54% of Democrats would still prefer a different nominee for 2024).

For his part, Trump may finally be conceding his infallibility exists only at his private clubs. His advisers and party insiders successfully lobbied Trump to mostly steer clear of the Dec. 6 runoff in Georgia’s Senate race. Trump isn’t exactly seen as an asset for Georgia Republicans, who watched him turn the state blue for the first time since 1992 and is still the target of a criminal probe there into his 2020 pressure campaign to overturn the election results. If Trump is proving toxic in a place as reliably red as Georgia, it’s not surprising Republicans are starting to look to inoculate themselves from his drag. Trump may be following the advice of wise counsels for now, but it’s seldom been good money to bet on that lasting—especially if Trump believes his own salesmanship can redeem the brand before anyone notices the snags.

Make sense of what matters in Washington. Sign up for the D.C. Brief newsletter.

More Must-Reads From TIME

Write to Philip Elliott at philip.elliott@time.com.

You May Also Like
EDIT POST