Donald Trump was wounded, and Ron DeSantis was building a juggernaut.
When POLITICO launched its 2024 Republican presidential candidate tracker in March, the GOP was still smarting over a weaker-than-expected midterm election thanks to Trump’s influence. DeSantis had emerged as Trump’s top challenger and was marshaling his resources to launch a giant-killing campaign.
But five months later — a span that’s seen four indictments, three DeSantis layoff sprees and one Trump-less debate — it’s Trump unambiguously on top.
And everyone else, DeSantis included, way behind.
That’s why we’re reshuffling the candidates on the tracker. The biggest move: DeSantis drops down a tier, leaving Trump as the sole candidate in the “Frontrunners” category.
The first votes are still 4 1/2 months away — the Jan. 15 Iowa caucuses — but the field of candidates has already been reordered. In addition to DeSantis’ demotion, both self-funding businessperson Vivek Ramaswamy and former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie have emerged from the “long shots” grouping to vault into “contenders” status.
Public polling is far from the only factor in these rankings. We also consider a candidate’s likely floors and ceilings: What kind of coalition are they hoping to build? On which early nominating states are they banking? What’s their fundraising situation — do they have the cash to execute their plans?
Here’s a data-heavy breakdown of the three tiers of candidates, and how they’ve changed over the past five months:
The Frontrunners: Donald Trump
When the tracker launched on March 20, Trump led DeSantis in RealClearPolitics’ national polling average by just under 16 percentage points.
Today, Trump’s lead is more than double that margin: 42 percentage points.
Over that time, DeSantis’ share of support has been cut in half, from 29 percent on March 20, to 14 percent now.
Polling in the early states is much sparser, but Trump has expanded his advantage there as well. He was ahead of DeSantis by 23 points in this week’s Des Moines Register/Mediacom/NBC News poll, compared with leads in the single-digits and teens in polls conducted in the early spring. (The large gap in first-choice support is despite roughly equal percentages of likely caucusgoers in the new poll saying they are actively considering each candidate.)
It’s a similar story in New Hampshire, where Ramaswamy and Christie are jockeying with DeSantis for second place in some public polls as Trump has a wide lead in the first-in-the-nation primary. And in South Carolina, a Fox Business poll last month showed the former president leading by 34 points over Nikki Haley, the state’s former governor and Trump’s one-time ambassador to the United Nations.
Polling isn’t the only way to measure the increasing distance between Trump and DeSantis over the past five months. Since jumping into the race in May, DeSantis’ campaign has been forced to scale back its ambitious plans because of slower-than-expected fundraising, almost immediately laying off staffers who’d just started and farming out some campaign activities to the chief super PAC supporting his candidacy, Never Back Down.
The Contenders: Chris Christie, Ron DeSantis, Nikki Haley, Mike Pence, Vivek Ramaswamy, Tim Scott
The six candidates who make up our next tier don’t all have equal chances at the nomination. DeSantis is clearly the leading candidate of the “contenders” group, though Ramaswamy, Haley and Sen. Tim Scott (S.C.) are also mounting credible campaigns.
Each is claiming momentum coming out of Wednesday night’s debate: DeSantis’ campaign says it raised around $1 million the day after. Ramaswamy dominated much of the action on the stage. Polls, focus groups and search traffic suggested renewed interest in Haley’s candidacy. Scott’s campaign says he effectively introduced himself and his positive message to millions of new voters.
For Christie and former Vice President Mike Pence, polling shows they’re real factors in the race, though their higher negative ratings among a chunk of the GOP primary electorate — namely Trump supporters and voters who say they’re “very conservative” — make assembling a winning coalition less likely.
The re-rankings represent promotions for Ramaswamy and Christie, who started the race in the “long shots” category. Each has clearly elevated their campaigns since then: Ramaswamy is now third in most national and state polls, and Christie has jumped to third place in New Hampshire and is relishing his role as the field’s loudest Trump antagonist.
We’re still waiting on the tranche of post-debate polling to show if and how things changed for the participants, but the six candidates in this tier almost always range from second to seventh place in the polls, both nationally and in the early states. Nationally, they range from DeSantis at 13.8 percent to Christie at 2.9 percent.
These six, along with Trump, are the only candidates who’ve qualified for the second debate next month. Given the increase in the polling threshold — candidates will need to earn 3 percent in at least one national poll — it’s possible that they’re the only ones who make it, though the deadline is still a month away.
The long shots: Ryan Binkley, Doug Burgum, Larry Elder, Asa Hutchinson, Will Hurd, Perry Johnson, Francis Suarez
North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum and former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson were the only two candidates remaining in this tier to appear at Wednesday night’s debate. But both aren’t on track to make the next one, barring a significant bump in support, with national polling averages of 0.6 percent and 0.7 percent, respectively.
That’s despite Burgum’s stronger standing in the early states. In the latest RealClearPolitics averages, Burgum is at 2.4 percent in Iowa and 4.5 percent in New Hampshire. But he still needs to earn 3 percent in at least one national poll before the Sept. 25 deadline to be at the next debate. That’s a taller task than it sounds: Burgum has never been above 1 percent in any of the national polls in RealClearPolitics’ database, let alone one that meets the Republican National Committee’s criteria for inclusion.
The rest of the “long shots” haven’t broken out at all — and didn’t even make the stage this week. Businessperson Perry Johnson, conservative media personality Larry Elder and Miami Mayor Francis Suarez all protested their exclusion by the RNC. It didn’t work for the first debate, and it seems unlikely to work for the second.