Any Republican who challenges Donald Trump in the 2020 primaries will be taking a leap of faith against a president who remains popular with his party. They will be wagering that either (a) Trump will implode because of the Russia investigations or some other reason, or (b) his weak standing with all voters will suddenly convince Republicans to seek an alternative.
What’s clear is that, at this early juncture, the math just doesn’t add up.
A new Monmouth University poll Monday showed both former Massachusetts governor Bill Weld and Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan getting drubbed by Trump in a primary — pulling just single digits apiece. Trump leads Weld, who is a candidate, 74 percent to 8 percent among Republicans and Republican-leaning independents in a one-on-one matchup. He leads Hogan, who is toying with the idea, 75-6.
Neither man is well-known nationally, of course. So, helpfully, Monmouth also asked people how persuadable they were. And against both Weld and Hogan, 20 percent of voters said they favored Trump but could be persuaded to support the challenger. If you add in voters who said they were “unsure” but might vote for the challenger, 38 percent say it’s possible they could support Weld, while 37 percent say they could support Hogan.
In other words, even if those candidates win over every voter who is open to them, Trump still leads Weld 54-38 and still leads Hogan 55-37. (In both cases, 8 percent said they would support neither or didn’t know who they’d support.)
This and other polling suggest that the ceiling for a Trump primary challenger is right around 40 percent. Monmouth shows that’s how many people say they’d prefer that Trump face a primary challenge. A poll released earlier Monday showed that number is also 40 percent among potential Iowa GOP caucus-goers.
But wanting a primary contest is a very low bar. People like options! Back in 2010 and 2011, Pew polling showed that 32 to 38 percent of Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents wanted a primary challenger for Barack Obama — close to the same numbers as Trump today. This number peaked at 66 percent for Bill Clinton in late 1994 — just after Republicans took over Congress. Trump is coming off historic losses in the House in the 2018 midterms, but he has avoided anything amounting to that kind of intraparty backlash.
That’s not to say he’s a shoo-in. Part of the reason a primary challenger has never beaten an incumbent president is because they’ve rarely tried. Nobody of substance stepped forward to challenge either Clinton or Obama, so we can’t say whether those early polls accurately predicted the ceilings for their possible primary challengers. Both men became stronger as their reelection campaign cycles progressed, but perhaps a primary challenger might have changed things or had a window.
We also don’t know what might happen over the next several months with Trump. A Washington Post-ABC News poll recently showed 56 percent of all registered voters said they’d never support him in 2020, for example. If that doesn’t change, will the GOP want a more electable alternative? Any Trump primary challenger has to be thinking there’s a possibility something happens to change the fundamentals of the nominating contest, and they might as well be in place to reap the spoils.
As of right now, though, those fundamentals have Trump sailing to renomination. A sizable but limited universe of voters is open to an alternative, but it’s not close to being a big enough universe yet.