Trump's Republican rivals say he can't beat Biden. But polls say otherwise.

The electability argument hasn't been in play for months, one consultant said.

December 15, 2023, 11:13 AM

Former President Donald Trump's rivals are insisting that he can't beat President Joe Biden next year. But polling and other anecdotal evidence from voters suggest he can, raising questions over how effective one of his opponents' central attacks will be.

Strategists both involved and neutral in the 2024 race conceded other primary candidates, particularly Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, will face headwinds in trying to convince voters that Trump would fall flat in November while they would handily dispatch Biden, pointing both to continuous polling showing the former president is competitive with his successor and overall perceptions of Biden's age and electoral vulnerability.

"The electability argument has really not been in play for months," said one GOP consultant working for one of Trump's rivals. "Republican primary voters, in particular in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina, have never really bought into the electability argument."

Asked where that leaves DeSantis and Haley given how much they've hammered Trump over supposed electability risks, the person said, "I don't think anybody knows the answer to that. I don't know where that leaves any of the non-Trump candidates in the race."

Both DeSantis and Haley have homed in on worries Trump would lose to Biden next year and tank down-ballot Republicans as reasons for voters to nominate them over the former president.

"I think the Democrats have a playbook that they have run against Donald Trump and against some of his candidates that's proven to be effective, even when things aren't going good, and even amongst voters who disagree with Biden," DeSantis told Fox News last week.

"I beat Joe Biden by 10 to 13 points" Haley also boasted to Fox News last week. "This is about governorships up and down the ticket. This is about House seats, Senate seats. This is about winning again."

But a spate of national polling shows Trump running ahead or narrowly behind Biden, and swing state polls show him with an even wider spread. CNN polls from this week showed Trump with a 10-point lead in Michigan and a 5-point edge in Georgia, two key swing states Biden won in 2020.

And while the polls are coming out almost a year before the election and show Haley in particular with even wider leads over Biden, strategists said the polls showing Trump remaining competitive with the president undercuts the argument that Republicans' chances of flipping the White House drop with the former president topping the ballot.

"The idea that somehow Trump would cost Republicans the White House in 2024 is undercut by a raft of polling that shows him beating Biden in pretty much every state that is expected to be competitive. That certainly makes it harder," said one GOP strategist, who worked on the now-ended campaign of a Trump rival.

"I actually think everyone is surprised by how favorable the data is to Trump over Biden right now," the strategist said. "But I think that there's just an overwhelming number of polls that have come out that showed it."

On top of Biden's poor polling, operatives said Republican voters' diet of conservative news, packed with warnings of Biden's age and fitness, instilled in the electorate the idea that the president is eminently beatable -- regardless of his opponent.

"Everyone is in their own camp, and they consume the news that they want to consume. And so, if I think from their perspective, they probably have a lot of grievances and disagreements with the current administration and the current president's fitness for office, so they probably think that anyone could beat him," said another strategist who worked on a now-ended rival primary campaign.

President Joe Biden speaks during a joint press conference with Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelensky in a in the Indian Treaty Room of the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, Dec. 12, 2023, in Washington.
Mandel Ngan/AFP via Getty Images

Other strategists said sounding the alarm over Trump's chances next year is an inevitable and necessary tactic after disappointing election results for Republicans in 2018, 2020, 2022 and 2023.

"I think electability is always a good argument for Republicans. Republicans are sick of losing elections, which we've done consistently since 2017, for the last five-plus years. The argument is weakened by Trump beating Biden in head-to-head polls, but he still consistently underperforms rival candidates," said Alex Conant, who worked on Sen. Marco Rubio's 2016 presidential bid.

Still, Republicans warned that the electability argument, while helpful in attracting donor support, could pay limited dividends in a quickly narrowing calendar before the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary next month.

"It's a fool's gold in primaries," said New Hampshire-based GOP strategist Dave Carney. "I think that may work with certain elites, certain donors and activists, but it hasn't worked generally with primary voters in either party. There's always a guy with great credentials and great experience, and he or she would be the one to beat, and [voters] go with somebody who's further to the left or right to win the primary."

In lieu of an appeal to electability, both DeSantis and Haley have offered other arguments.

DeSantis spent much of a CNN town hall on Tuesday continuing his attacks on Trump's record from his first term in the White House, including his failure to fire Anthony Fauci during the coronavirus pandemic and push to send stimulus checks, which the Florida governor allowed Biden to "pour gas on the fire" with the economy.

And Haley is fashioning herself as a more establishment conservative, doubling down on her calls to reform Social Security and Medicare, lower the debt and advocate for muscular foreign policy, leaning on her experience as Trump's United Nations ambassador.

Strategists suggested an array of alternative arguments, including promoting what candidates would do as president and touting their own past records while taking on Trump more directly on his policies or ongoing legal troubles. And at least for Haley, they said, electability could be part of a broader mix given her more expansive margins in surveys polling of one-on-one races with Biden -- a calculation she seemed to make at last week's debate.

"Our country is in chaos. We see it on the southern border. We see it on our streets, in our cities, we see it on college campuses. We feel it with our economy, with inflation and with debt. And we feel it around the world with wars in Europe and within the Middle East. We have to stop the chaos, but you can't defeat Democrat chaos with Republican chaos. And that's what Donald Trump gives us," Haley said in her closing remarks.

Yet with such a short runway before voters make decisions and considering Trump's stubbornly expansive polling leads, strategists who spoke to ABC News threw up their hands on what the candidates could run on beyond electability to reverse their fortunes enough to actually win an early state primary.

"This is why I'm glad I'm not involved in the primaries," Carney replied when asked what an effective message could be. "Because to be honest, I don't know."