Ignore the Polls. The 2024 GOP Race Remains Wide Open

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OXON HILL, Md.—Sarah Palin was gabbing with Kimberly Guilfoyle over my right shoulder in a makeshift TV studio. Rep. Matt Gaetz and his entourage barreled through the conference center’s shoulder-to-shoulder hallway, prompting many around me to crane in every direction at what passes for political celebrities these days. And, seemingly everywhere at last week’s CPAC, the chatter kept returning to two men who appear to be on a crash course in their chase of the GOP presidential nomination: Donald Trump and Ron DeSantis.

Yet neither of those names were offered when I ran into one of the Republican Party’s sharpest minds, one who is still in the market for a patron in the 2024 race. A veteran of hard-fought campaigns, he asked to go unnamed to be blunt about the fungible nature of the field ahead of his party.

“You take the top five. I’ll take the rest of the field,” he said with a laugh.

I joined the chuckle, knowing he was probably taking the smarter bet. Still almost a year before any votes are actually cast, the GOP cast of contenders remains incredibly fluid. The disclosure that former Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan was going to sit-out 2024 culled one name from my legal pad with more than two dozen other potential candidates in the hunt, but it does little to make sense of a party that still isn’t quite sure what it’s chasing.

For those who are convinced the primary race has already winnowed down to a two-way grudge match between the former President and the Governor of Florida, consider the 2008 cycle, when early polling would have predicted easy nominations for the likes of Rudy Giuliani and Hillary Clinton, based on little else but name ID.

Trump is a brand with global awareness, but his politics here at home leave plenty of true conservatives bewildered if not nauseous. And as DeSantis tries to outflank Trump on the culture wars, it’s not clear his feud with the likes of Disney is actually winning him supporters.

When you talk with the teams actually trying to win elections for rank-and-file Republicans, MAGA isn’t the playbook. In fact, the campaign arm of Senate Republicans is treading very, very carefully, hoping to hold onto Trump voters without pleading fealty to Trumpism. Former Speaker Paul Ryan is on a quiet quest to reboot the GOP as one of policy and ideas—not of identity and celebrity. And Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, one of his party’s shrewdest strategists, has consistently dismissed Trump as a “diminished” figure and is doing everything he can behind the scenes to save the GOP from a repeat of the Trump era.

Still, while CPAC may be an imperfect proxy for the modern Republican Party, it does serve as a reminder that Trump has subsumed at least part of the GOP identity. His brash brand of MAGA trolling works in some corners of the activist space, but not all. Looking around CPAC last week, it was easy to forget for a moment that some of its most celebrated speakers were, in fact, electoral losers in recent cycles. Kari Lake, for instance, was the keynote speaker at the Reagan Dinner despite clinging to the Big Lie in defense of losing the Arizona governorship.

That dynamic gave some hope back across the river in Washington, where the hazy remnants of the #NeverTrump movement were plotting their own second acts this weekend. To be sure, it was hardly a consistently upbeat affair and the small-dollar donors aren’t with them as strong as they once were. It’s highly unlikely that former Reps. Adam Kinzinger or Liz Cheney can emerge as credible counterpunches to Trumpism, but that doesn’t mean the majority of Republicans are ready to re-up for a third presidential cycle with Trump atop the GOP ticket. History tells these activists it’s almost impossible for Trump to have another act, but history simply doesn’t apply to Trump.

Richard Nixon was the last failed nominee to stage a proper comeback, recovering from his 1960 loss to John F. Kennedy in time to win the White House in 1968 over Democratic VP Hubert Humphrey. There’s a certain grace in Trump looking to emulate Nixon here, especially given their shared affinity for political tricksters and common histories of tutoring a nation on impeachment procedures. Trump may well succeed in becoming a twenty first-century Nixon and staging one of the most dramatic comebacks for the ages. “I am your retribution,” Trump bellowed this weekend, after all.

Even so, as Trump has cast his comeback as a revenge tour and his supporters see it as justice to right the wrongs of a stolen election, many Republicans are already weary of this drama. Trump felt compelled to tell his audience Saturday night that he would keep running even if indicted—a statement that, on its own, should give traditionalists pause. It’s entirely possible for Trump to capture the nomination with less than 50% support of Republicans. He did so in 2016 with about 45% in a crowded field that never settled on a chief anti-Trump figure. A nascent but unruly field of 2024 contenders could yield a similar dynamic.

Still, it doesn’t stretch the imagination too far to buy the premise that perhaps someone still polling in single digits can be the person who emerges atop the field by this time next year. Trump has done himself few favors as he is starting anew in his climb to the White House, DeSantis is chasing cultural grievance and social division, and many Republican voters watching from afar simply want a party leader who pledges to cut taxes and regulation rather than pick fights with causes that boost their social-media following.

Trump remains the loudest voice in the Republican Party, for sure. But loud is seldom a proxy for right, and it isn’t a stand-in for where the Republican Party’s actual voters are. So while there are glitzy names hovering atop the crowded list of would-be contenders, it’s an entirely rational argument to say those gold-plated names mightn’t be the ones on the general-election ballot next year. At least that’s what plenty of Trump-skeptical Republican strategists are counting on.

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