Republicans debate their ability to win the general election — especially with Trump

Election 2024 Debate
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and businessman Vivek Ramaswamy talk at the same time during a Republican presidential primary debate hosted by FOX News Channel Wednesday, Aug. 23, 2023, in Milwaukee. (AP Photo/Morry Gash) Morry Gash/AP

Republicans debate their ability to win the general election — especially with Trump

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Former President Donald Trump‘s mug shot captures a problem for Republicans as they contend with the repercussions of the 2024 primary front-runner’s legal dramas.

But while some party strategists are concerned about Trump’s general election prospects as he polls 40 percentage points ahead of his closest challenger, President Joe Biden is causing Democrats similar political stomach aches.


Trump is in a formidable position before next year’s general election against Biden, according to Monmouth University Polling Institute director Patrick Murray. Murray dismissed speculation about the former president’s electoral weakness as “wishful thinking from some folks.”

“Some observers feel Trump’s legal woes mean he would probably lose in the end, but no one expects a sizable margin,” Murray told the Washington Examiner. “I have not heard the argument that he cannot win. At least, I have not heard it from anyone who has been paying the slightest attention to polling, which has consistently shown a competitive race between him and Biden.”

But Suffolk University Political Research Center director David Paleologos underscored Trump-endorsed 2022 Senate Republican candidates’ lack of success after the Supreme Court overturned abortion access precedent Roe v. Wade last summer, a development for which the former president has sought credit based on his nomination of three serving conservative justices.

“Trump himself is potentially vulnerable in a general election because of independent women who may again break from independent men, who voted overwhelmingly Republican,” Paleologos said. “Trump could be seen as the face of that Supreme Court.”

But Trump’s polling is related to that of Biden, with the president averaging 42% approval and 53% disapproval, Paleologos added. Biden has an average 2-point edge over Trump in hypothetical national head-to-head polling, 45% to 43%, per RealClearPolitics. Biden has a bigger 5-point advantage over Gov. Ron DeSantis (R-FL), 44% to 39%.

“Biden by all measures should be further ahead of legally-entangled Trump, given the government statistics showing a strong and resilient economy, but it is not being felt by the average voter and perception is reality,” the pollster said. “If the economy unravels next year, that perception could move from bad to worse.”

Marist College Institute for Public Opinion director Lee Miringoff also raised Trump’s struggles with women, particularly after Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, and Biden’s with the economy. But Miringoff did describe Biden as the “slight favorite” because Trump’s support is capped “in the mid-40s,” whereas the president’s is not. However, he conceded his prediction may not hold if there is a third-party candidate, including from No Labels or the Green Party, which he says would undermine the incumbent more.

But Miringoff remains mindful that “inevitable” Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton lost to Trump in 2016, there are 15 months before the general election, and “the margins between winning and losing are very narrow right now.” Simultaneously, for Miringoff, there is a “big” difference between indictments and convictions after the former president surrendered himself to an Atlanta jail Thursday with respect to his Fulton County charges.

“You’re talking about a country that’s largely evenly divided and a campaign for the general that the Biden campaign is just beginning to unveil with their latest ads,” the pollster said. “There seems to be a ‘You may not think Biden’s done a lot, but let’s look at the record’ [strategy].”

“Eventually we’re going to be talking in the presidential about five or six states, which belies the notion that the aggregate numbers, the mid-40 to mid-40 kind of things, become less relevant,” he continued. “Every expectation has to be that this is going to be close and then you get into these other factors, perceptions of the economy, third party candidates, the health of the candidates, Trump’s legal status. I don’t know what Trump is going to do if he’s facing prison time.”

University of Massachusetts Lowell Center for Public Opinion associate director John Cluverius disagreed with Paleologos regarding Trump’s endorsement successes and failures, arguing the former president tends to outperform candidates he supports. But Cluverius, too, suggested Trump’s polling could change as his indictments and nomination become more “tangible.”

“Whatever you think of Donald Trump, he understands the power of good television and the possibility of being in Atlanta, Georgia for weeks on end in the middle of the campaign is the biggest image level risk for him,” he said. “The question is what the actual process of the indictments does to his ability to seek the presidency. How much time is he spending in court versus how much time is he at rallies? How much news coverage is there of him in a courtroom on trial, diminished from this larger-than-life presence that people have found so appealing?”


Trump’s surrender came less than a day after eight Republican presidential candidates participated in the primary’s first debate without him. The qualifying hopefuls were pressed by Fox News moderators Bret Baier and Martha MacCallum in Milwaukee on whether they would support the former president should he become their party’s nominee but be convicted of any of the 91 crimes of which he has been accused.

“We’re skating on thin ice, and we cannot set a precedent where the party in power uses police force to indict its political opponents,” biotechnology entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy said. “It is wrong. We have to end the weaponization of justice in this country.”

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