Republicans insiders predict a crowded primary in 2024 if former President Donald Trump doesn't run.
Republicans insiders predict a crowded primary in 2024 if former President Donald Trump doesn't run.Paul Sancya/AP Photo
  • Donald Trump has been teasing another run for president.
  • If Trump bows out, other GOP candidates will rush to fill the void.
  • Republican insiders predict a GOP field of 20 or so contenders — similar to 2016.

Whether Donald Trump will run again is an open question that even people close to him and the most seasoned strategists don't agree on. 

If he does run, the broad consensus is that he'll win the nomination again. But if he doesn't, that means others might actually have a chance. And so voters should buckle up for a crowded Republican primary.  

"If he doesn't run, everybody is running. I mean everybody," said Jeff Roe, who managed Sen. Ted Cruz's 2016 presidential campaign and GOP Gov. Glenn Youngkin's 2021 campaign in Virginia. "It would not surprise me to have 20 legitimate candidates." 

Alex Conant, a founding partner at the public affairs firm Firehouse Strategies, predicted even more Republicans would run for president than when he was communications director for Sen. Marco Rubio's presidential campaign in 2016. At the time, 17 major candidates vied for the title of GOP nominee. 

"You are going to see a very very crowded field and also the most open race that we have seen in a long time on the GOP side," Conant said of a Trumpless 2024. "You'll see people at all levels of government and from the private sector throwing their hat in the ring."  

Plenty of potential first-time presidential candidates have been buzzed about, from former Vice President Mike Pence to Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis to UN Secretary Nikki Haley to former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. 

Then there's the crew that tried, and failed, to beat Trump back in 2016, most notably Cruz, who won 11 presidential primary and caucus contests that year.

When it comes to running for president, "there is just so little downside at this point," said Sarah Isgur, who was deputy campaign manager for businesswoman Carly Fiorina in 2016 and then became a Department of Justice spokeswoman.  

"Even if you don't think you're going to be president ever, you can increase your name recognition and increase your fundraising base," she said. 

Tons of other options would await also-ran 2024 Republican presidential candidates, whether it be a top job in a new administration (think Ben Carson and Rick Perry), a run for US Senate (Mitt Romney, anyone?), or a lucrative gig on TV (Rick Santorum, Newt Gingrich, Mike Huckabee, to name three). 

But while there may be few downsides for running for president, in general, there are numerous and self-evident downsides to running in a primary against Trump, Isgur added.

Trump's relentless, negative attacks can truly stick. He can largely ruin a Republican's standing within his or her own party — just ask Reps. Liz Cheney of Wyoming and Adam Kinzinger of Illinois. For these reasons alone, some potential candidates who'd otherwise pursue the presidency in 2024 would likely decide they'd be better off waiting until 2028 or beyond if Trump tries again.

Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie speaks with former President Donald Trump at a White House event on October 26, 2017.
Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, right, might again run for president in 2024.Jim Watson/AFP via Getty Images

The timing of Trump's announcement matters

Even if Trump decides not to run, the timing of his announcement — whether he's in or out — will be key to determining how many people decide to run for the GOP nomination, said J. Warren Tompkins, who managed Rubio's presidential Super PAC. 

Several other Republicans who want to run — but don't think they'd have a shot at beating Trump — may have to delay their campaigns until the former president announces what he'll do. 

Ideally, Tompkins said, candidates should announce their bid by February 2023 so that candidates can fundraise. 

Trump could easily wait until the middle or even end of 2023 to reveal his intentions and still have plenty of time to qualify for primary ballots and otherwise run a nationwide campaign. 

Since exiting the White House, Trump has maintained a robust political operation, conducting rallies and raising tens of millions of dollars through a collection of political committees that serve as a sort of unofficial campaign effort. And while Trump already is acting and talking like a presidential candidate, federal laws don't require him to officially register as one — at least not yet.

"The longer it goes, and the more delayed the decision is, complicates things for everyone else that might consider it otherwise," Tompkins said.

He warned it would be a "perilous position" to decide before Trump makes his intentions clear, given that candidates would open themselves up to attacks from all directions, including from Trump. 

"Whether he runs or not, he basically will dictate what the field looks like," he said. 

Terry Sullivan, founding partner at Firehouse Strategies and Rubio's 2016 presidential campaign manager, predicted Trump wouldn't announce his decision until right before Republicans begin conducting their first presidential primary contest in what's likely to be January or February 2024.

"He will wait until the last minute of the last day of the last second. You guys are going to be waiting on the tarmac for the plane to take off to New Hampshire," Sullivan said of news reporters. 

In that case, he said, someone such as former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who has said his decision on whether to run won't be contingent on Trump, would be able to have an advantage. 

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, an anti-Trump Republican, also has said he'd consider running for president in 2024. 

"I expect some people will run against him just to make a point," Conant said of Trump. "We have elections to find out who wins; we don't call them in advance. At this point Trump certainly seems like he'd be able to win the nomination again if he wants it." 

GOP and GOP-leaning voters are about evenly split between wanting their party to nominate Trump again or wanting a different candidate, according to a recent CNN poll conducted by SSRS. A total of 54% of Republicans favored Trump, compared with 38% of GOP-leaning independents. 

Donald Trump
Former President Donald Trump.Brandon Bell/Getty Images

Trump will still be involved 

That isn't to say that Trump won't be a formidable figure in 2024 even if he doesn't personally run. GOP strategists fully expect that Trump will stay involved in the 2024 election regardless. 

Sullivan predicted Trump would even hold press conferences of his own at the same time as the debates. 

"He's going to keep playing a role in the party, and it's up to the others how much of a role they are going to let him play," Sullivan said. "It's the difference between being a leader and being a politician." 

Tompkins said he thought Trump had a "winning formula" that Republicans should coalesce behind on policy when it came to immigration, taxes, the economy, and China. 

"There was nothing wrong with his policies," Tompkins said of Trump. "People had issues with his personality. But Biden is doing a good job of reminding people that — even if you don't agree with the way someone does something — what they do really matters." 

Trump's decision to let conservative groups recommend judges was also a plus to his presidency, said Charlie Black, founding member of Prime Policy Group who was a campaign advisor for former Ohio Gov. John Kasich's presidential campaign. 

"I think he did a lot of good things as president, but his personality and dislikeability are there," he said. "You could put someone up that had good policies and not have that baggage." 

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