Polls show Donald Trump leading Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, his nearest rival for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination, by about 40 points. You might think this would cause the former president’s GOP rivals to attack him in an attempt to eat into that support, which stands at north of 50% of the primary vote.
Yet, most of his opponents seem hesitant, if not totally unwilling, to do so.
A look at the numbers reveals why. Those who have gone after him have seen their popularity among Republican voters suffer, while those who have risen in primary polling are either mostly not mentioning Trump or are praising him.
You needn’t look further than former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie to understand what happens when a Republican candidate is highly critical of the former president. Christie is setting records for intraparty unpopularity.
His net favorability rating in the latest Quinnipiac University poll stands at minus-44 points among Republicans. An astounding 61% of Republican voters hold an unfavorable view of him.
Indeed, Christie has, if anything, become more unpopular as the presidential campaign has gone on.
From what I can tell, he appears to have the lowest net favorability rating at this point in the cycle of any Republican running for president since at least 1980.
This doesn’t mean that Christie does not have a base of support within the GOP. A New York Times/Siena College poll from July illustrates the point well.
The former New Jersey governor led the Republican field (with 22%) among likely GOP primary voters who cast ballots for Joe Biden in 2020. The problem is this group makes up less than 10% of the Republican primary electorate. Christie earned only about 1% support among the remaining 90-something percent.
Christie’s not alone in his poor favorability ratings among Republican presidential candidates seen as anti-Trump.
Former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson – who has called on the GOP to move on from Trump – was the only presidential contender during the first GOP debate last week not to raise his hand when candidates onstage were asked if they would back the former president as the party nominee even if he were convicted in a court of law. (Christie raised his hand but later gestured with a pointed finger, saying that Trump’s conduct should not be normalized. The former president skipped the Milwaukee debate.)
Prior to the debate, most Republicans (65%) hadn’t heard enough about Hutchinson to form an opinion, according to Quinnipiac. Those with an opinion viewed him unfavorably by more than a 3-to-1 ratio (26% unfavorable to 8% favorable, a net favorability rating of minus-18 points).
Former Texas Rep. Will Hurd, another Trump critic, didn’t make the debate stage, and the vast majority of Republicans (83%) haven’t heard enough of him to form an opinion. Among those who have, Hurd has a similar net favorability ratio to Hutchinson’s – 4% viewed him favorably and 11% unfavorably. This isn’t shocking given that Hurd has signaled he wouldn’t back Trump if the former president were the nominee.
Other polling data confirms the dilemma facing Christie, Hutchinson and Hurd. Beyond the fact that Trump is consistently viewed favorably by about 80% of his party – and as “strongly favorable” by more than 50% – most Republicans simply don’t want Republicans making the case against Trump.
A CBS News/YouGov poll taken prior to the GOP debate found that 91% of likely Republican primary voters wanted candidates to make their own case for the GOP nomination onstage. Just 9% wanted them to make the case against Trump.
That 91% figure makes it clear why South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott has been hesitant to attack other Republicans. He’s been seen as a happy warrior of sorts.
As a result, Scott has gone up in the polls and is at a consistent third place in Iowa. His net favorability rating among Republicans in the latest Quinnipiac national poll was plus-41 points, with 49% holding a favorable view of him and 8% an unfavorable one.
Scott has been a rare Republican to break through besides Trump and DeSantis.
The other Republican to do so has been Vivek Ramaswamy. The Ohio businessman has been unrelenting in his praise of Trump, going so far as pledging to pardon the former president if elected to the White House should Trump be convicted of a crime in federal court.
Ramaswamy was a top target at last week’s debate. That makes sense considering he is polling in third place on average nationally.
His net favorability rating was at plus-30 points in the Quinnipiac poll. Thirty-nine percent of Republicans had a favorable view of him, eclipsed only by the 51% who couldn’t even form an opinion.
Of course, the ultimate issue when it comes to going against Trump can perhaps best be seen in the CBS News poll. The former president’s supporters were asked about the truthfulness of what they hear from others. The vast majority of them (71%) felt that what Trump tells them is true – a higher percentage than those who said the same about friends and family (63%).
Given that Trump is commanding a majority of the GOP vote, Republicans seen as too negative toward him aren’t likely to go anywhere in the primary.
This leaves Trump’s GOP rivals with a conundrum that even Harry Houdini would find difficult to solve: how to eat away at Trump’s support without being seen as trying to bring him down.