Set aside the fact that most (probably the vast majority) of 2024 Republican primary voters will have voted for former president Donald Trump at least once in the past. Set aside that Trump has name recognition far beyond most people, much less most candidates for elected office. Set aside that he is viewed very positively by likely primary voters and that it will be all but impossible for his opponents to significantly reshape how the electorate views his candidacy.
Set all that aside and simply consider the numbers. Trump’s near-60 percent support in national primary polling, according to 538’s average, has been topped only one time since 1980 in the year before a contested primary fight. The candidate who beat that mark was George W. Bush in 1999, who went on to win the Republican primary the next year. In fact, no one in the past 43 years has had a lead like Trump’s and not gone on to win the nomination.
We can compare past primary polling with the current average using 538’s historic calculations of daily polling averages. If we aggregate the daily results for the eventual party nominee in each race, as well as the other candidates included in the average, we can get a fascinating picture of how those contests have unfolded. And again, how Trump’s position is unusually strong.
Since 1980 — and including incumbent President Jimmy Carter’s struggles that year — there have been 17 contested primaries. (Incumbent President Biden’s opposition this year does not qualify as putting up a contest.) In many election cycles, polling during the calendar year before voting began shows the eventual nominee with a lead: See the Republican contests in 1980, 1988, 1996, 2000 and 2016 or the Democratic ones in 1984, 2000 and 2016 and the one Biden won, 2020. In other cycles, the eventual nominee is jammed into the rest of the pack.
You can see the difference below.
Four candidates have seen averages at or above 55 percent in the year before the election, including Trump this year. The other three are Al Gore and Bush in 1999 and Hillary Clinton in 2015. All three went on to win their parties’ nominations the following year.
Clinton also had a wide lead in 2008, which she lost to Barack Obama over the first few months of 2008. Her lead over Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) slipped significantly as voting got underway in 2016, but she prevailed relatively easily anyway.
There’s a key difference between Clinton in 2016 and Trump now, despite how close the lower end of Trump’s polling is to the upper end of his opponents’ this year: trajectory. Sanders had already begun closing the gap between himself and Clinton by the end of 2015. Trump’s opponents have not done so; his lead over all-but-erstwhile competitor Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) has grown substantially over the course of the year.
George W. Bush and Clinton both lost primary contests on their way to the nomination; it’s safe to assume that Trump could too. But they also rode the momentum from strong prior-year polling to the general election ballot.
Trump is poised to do the same thing. Even if you set aside all his other advantages.