DANIEL VAUGHAN: Trump vs. DeSantis enters the shadow presidential contest stage

 March 6, 2023

Governor Larry Hogan of Maryland announced he will not run for President in 2024. In an op-ed in the New York Times and an appearance on CBS News's Face the Nation, Hogan said: "he believes his decision to step aside may make it more difficult for [Donald Trump] to win the GOP presidential nomination." It's only the latest confirmation that many have known for a while: the 2024 GOP Primaries are a two-man race.

Hogan's description of the 2024 primaries reveals reality: no one wants a repeat of 2016. If Donald Trump is going to win the Republican primaries in 2024, he will have to form a larger coalition than what he had in 2016. It's certainly possible for Donald Trump to do this - but after losing in 2020 and his candidates failing badly in 2022 - everyone wants better odds at winning in 2024.

Hogan described the race, "I didn't want to have a pile up of a bunch of people fighting ... Right now, you have, you know, Trump and DeSantis at the top of the field, they're soaking up all the oxygen, getting all the attention. And then a whole lot of the rest of us in single digits, and the more of them you have, the less chance you have for somebody rising up."

2024 is upon us.

Donald Trump and Ron DeSantis are the frontrunners. And right now, everyone else is faced with choosing a side between the two. Trump and DeSantis have spent the last several weeks attending events and courting big-money donors.

Notably, a recent DeSantis event hosted 150 people, many former Trump boosters and donors. Everyone is flocking to one of these sides. Republican donors of both candidates and Super-PACs must figure out how to deploy resources for 2024, with two candidates getting all the attention.

The Wall Street Journal summarized things as "Trump vs. DeSantis: A Shadow Presidential Contest Revs Up and Heads to Iowa." That's an accurate statement of where things are and where we're headed for 2023.

It may feel like this is all coming up soon - the 2022 primaries weren't that long ago. But everyone has to jockey for a position on the first debate stages. During the 2016 primaries, the first Republican primary debates happened in August 2015. On the Democratic side, television debates started in June 2019. We're anywhere from four to six months away from Trump, DeSantis, and the rest taking the stage for the first time.

After that, we're under a year away from the Iowa caucuses in 2024. In campaign terms, this is all measured in dog years. A few months feel like a year or longer. Anything can tip one candidate up in the polls for a given week. But in terms of real-time passed, the clock is running short. Days are long, and the years are short.

No room for the single-digit candidates.

Larry Hogan doesn't have a lane in this kind of race. Neither does Nikki Haley, Mike Pence, or anyone else polling in the single digits. Trump has the veneer of the establishment President trying to get back into the White House. DeSantis is the upstart challenger running on a solid record of successful conservative governorship.

The shadow presidency race is about getting everyone to pick a side before voters head into the polling booth. Donald Trump has already announced. DeSantis has not declared and has far more freedom to conduct the secret part of this race.

To wit, DeSantis has started a book tour. Eric Nelson, the editor of DeSantis's book, said, "Ron DeSantis's book may have the biggest first week of sales for any book by a sitting politician or presidential hopeful. It's going to be bigger than the first week of sales for Ben Carson, Donald Trump, Joe Biden, and maybe even Barack Obama." DeSantis's book is near the top of bestseller lists on Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and other bookstores.

From the shadow race into the primaries.

At this stage, national polls only tell you a partial story. DeSantis either has a lead or is within striking distance in several critical primary states. Trump holds the national lead because he's the incumbent.

Larry Hogan is out because he doesn't want a repeat of 2016. As a governor, he took plenty of shots at Donald Trump, which you'd expect from a Republican given the task of winning in a blue state. Whether 2024 will be a repeat of 2016 is another issue, however. Donald Trump isn't the same. The field isn't fractured. And Ron DeSantis is surfing rock star status.

All of these factors could change and flip in the other direction. Or they could heighten, and DeSantis could ride a groundswell of popularity that shoots him to the top of every leaderboard in America. Time will tell.

What is clear is this: it's a two-man race. The clock is running to choose before the television lights turn on bright, and people start making up their minds.

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