Much of what is happening in American politics today can be explained by two simple yet seemingly contradictory phenomena: Most partisans believe that the other side is more powerful than their own, while at the same time feeling quite certain that their own team will prevail in the upcoming election.
Just as Democrats view Republicans as wielding outsize influence through dark money, structural advantages in our political system and control of institutions like the Supreme Court, Republicans view themselves as under siege by not just a federal government largely controlled by Democrats but also by the media, the entertainment industry and, increasingly, corporate C-suites.
Republicans in particular hold a fatalistic view of the future of the country. In a recent Times poll, 56 percent said they believe we are “in danger of failing as a nation.” Far from the party of Ronald Reagan’s “Morning in America” ad, the presidential candidate Vivek Ramaswamy countered during last week’s debate: “It’s not morning in America. We live in a dark moment.”
Given that many Republicans have such an apocalyptic view of the future, believing that the future of the country hangs in the balance if their party does not win the 2024 election, you might assume that Republicans would prioritize electability as they choose a nominee and seek a safe, steady standard-bearer to face President Biden next November. And you might assume, as many pundits and commentators do, that Republicans would begin to consider that nominating Donald Trump, with all his troubles and legal peril, would be too great a risk.
But the belief that the other party would be simply disastrous for the nation is feeding the deep confidence that one’s own side is going to prevail in 2024.
What does this mean for Republicans? It means that G.O.P. voters see Mr. Biden as eminently beatable, and they think most Americans see him as they do. Given that, most Republicans aren’t looking to be rescued from Donald Trump. The fact is, they really do like him, and at this point they think he’s their best shot.
Despite losing the 2020 elections and then experiencing a disappointing 2022 midterm, most Republicans seem confident that their candidate — even Donald Trump, especially Donald Trump — would defeat Joe Biden handily in 2024. They have watched as Mr. Biden has increasingly stumbled, as gas prices have remained high and as Americans have continued to doubt the value of “Bidenomics.” Many of them believe the pernicious fantasy pushed by Trump — and indulged by too many Republican leaders who should know better — that the 2020 election was not actually a loss.
Republican voters see the same polls that I do, showing Mr. Trump effectively tied against Mr. Biden even though commentators tell them that Mr. Trump is electoral poison. And they remember that many of those same voices told them in 2016 that Mr. Trump would never set foot in the White House. In light of those facts, Republicans’ skepticism of claims that Mr. Trump is a surefire loser begins to make more sense.
It didn’t have to be this way. In the immediate aftermath of the 2022 midterms, which were disappointing for many Republicans, there was a brief moment where it seemed like the party might take a step back, reflect and decide to pursue a new approach — with new leadership. In my own polling immediately following the election, I found the Florida governor Ron DeSantis running even with Donald Trump in a head-to-head matchup among likely Republican primary voters, a finding that held throughout the winter. Even voters who consider themselves “very conservative” gravitated away from Mr. Trump and toward the prospect of an alternative for a time.
But by the end of the spring 2023, following the Manhattan district attorney Alvin Bragg’s indictment of Mr. Trump and Mr. DeSantis’s rocky entrance into the presidential race, not only had Mr. Trump regained his lead, he had expanded upon it. Quinnipiac’s polling of Republican primary voters showed that Mr. Trump held only a six-point lead over Mr. DeSantis in February, but that lead had grown to a whopping 31 points by May.
Any notion that Republicans ought to turn the page, lest they face another electoral defeat, largely evaporated. And the multitude of criminal indictments against Mr. Trump have not shaken the support of Republicans for him, but have instead seemingly galvanized them.
In our focus group of 11 Republican voters in early primary states this month, Times Opinion recruited a range of likely primary voters and caucusgoers to weigh in on the state of the race. They were not universally smitten with Donald Trump; some described him as “troubled,” “arrogant” or a “train wreck.” About half of our participants said they were interested in seeing a strong competitor to Mr. Trump within the party.
But the argument that Donald Trump won’t be able to defeat Joe Biden? Not a single participant thought that Mr. Trump — or any Republican, really — would lose to Mr. Biden. In polling from CBS News, the ability to beat Joe Biden is one of the top qualities Republican primary voters say they are looking for, and they think Mr. Trump is the best poised to deliver on that result. Only 9 percent of likely Republican primary voters think Mr. Trump is a “long shot” to beat Mr. Biden, and more than six in 10 think Mr. Trump is a sure bet against Mr. Biden. Additionally, only 14 percent of Republican primary voters who are considering a Trump alternative said they were doing so because they worried Mr. Trump couldn’t win.
In an otherwise strong debate performance last week, when Nikki Haley argued that “we have to face the fact that Trump is the most disliked politician in America — we can’t win a general election that way,” the reaction from the crowd was decidedly mixed. This isn’t to say such an argument can’t become more successful as the primary season goes on, as Mr. Trump’s legal woes (and legal bills) continue to mount and as the alternatives to Mr. Trump gain greater exposure.
But for now they think that Mr. Biden is both enormously destructive and eminently beatable. They are undeterred by pleas from party elites who say Mr. Trump is taking the Republican Party to the point of no return.
Republicans both deeply fear a 2024 loss and also can’t fathom it actually happening. Candidates seeking to defeat Mr. Trump in the primary can’t just assume Republican voters will naturally conclude the stakes are too high to bet it all on Trump. For now, many of those voters think Mr. Trump is the safest bet they’ve got.