As Donald Trump weighs whether to open an unusually early White House campaign, a New York Times/Siena College poll shows that his post-presidential quest to consolidate his support within the Republican Party has instead left him weakened, with nearly half the party’s primary voters seeking someone different for president in 2024 and a significant number vowing to abandon him if he wins the nomination.
By focusing on political payback inside his party instead of tending to wounds opened by his alarming attempts to cling to power after his 2020 defeat, Trump appears to have only deepened fault lines among Republicans during his yearlong revenge tour. A clear majority of primary voters younger than 35, 64%, as well as 65% of those with at least a college degree — a leading indicator of political preferences inside the donor class — told pollsters they would vote against Trump in a presidential primary.
Trump’s conduct on Jan. 6, 2021, appears to have contributed to the decline in his standing, including among a small but important segment of Republicans who could form the base of his opposition in a potential primary contest. Although 75% of primary voters said Trump was “just exercising his right to contest the election,” nearly 1 in 5 said he “went so far that he threatened American democracy.”
Overall, Trump maintains his primacy in the party: In a hypothetical matchup against five other potential Republican presidential rivals, 49% of primary voters said they would support him for a third nomination.
The greatest threat to usurp Trump within the party is Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who was the second choice, with 25%, and the only other contender with double-digit support. Among primary voters, DeSantis was the top choice of younger Republicans, those with a college degree and those who said they voted for President Joe Biden in 2020.
Although about one-fourth of Republicans said they didn’t know enough to have an opinion about DeSantis, he was well liked by those who did. Among those who voted for Trump in 2020, 44% said they had a very favorable opinion of DeSantis — similar to the 46% who said the same about Trump.
Should DeSantis and Trump face off in a primary, the poll suggested that support from Fox News could prove crucial: Trump held a 62% to 26% advantage over DeSantis among Fox News viewers, while the gap between the two Floridians was 16 points closer among Republicans who mainly receive their news from another source.
The survey suggests that Trump would not necessarily enter a primary with an insurmountable advantage over rivals such as DeSantis. His share of the Republican primary electorate is less than Hillary Rodham Clinton’s among Democrats was at the outset of the 2016 race, when she was viewed as the inevitable front-runner but ultimately found herself embroiled in a protracted primary against Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt.
Trump’s troubles inside his party leave him hamstrung in a matchup against an unusually vulnerable incumbent.
The Times/Siena poll suggested that the fears of many Republican elites about a Trump candidacy may be well founded: He trailed Biden, 44% to 41%, in a hypothetical rematch of the 2020 contest, despite plummeting support for Biden, with voters nationwide giving him a perilously low 33% job-approval rating.
A growing anyone-but-Trump vote inside the party contributed to Trump’s deficit, with 16% of Republicans saying that if he were the nominee, they would support Biden, would back a third-party candidate, wouldn’t vote at all or remained unsure what they would do. That compared with 8% of Democrats who said they would similarly abandon Biden in a matchup with Trump.
For Trump, bleeding that amount of Republican support would represent a sharp increase compared with the already troubling level of the party’s vote he shed during his last race.
In 2020, 9% of Republicans voted for someone other than Trump, while Biden lost just 4% of Democrats, according to AP VoteCast, a large study of the 2020 electorate by NORC at the University of Chicago for The Associated Press.
Kenneth Abreu, a 62-year-old pharmaceutical executive from Pennsylvania, said he had voted Republican for three decades but would support Biden instead of voting again for Trump.
“Unlike all these other people who believe every word he says, I’m done,” Abreu said. “All the garbage he’s been talking about, the lies, Jan. 6, the whole thing — I just lost all respect for him.”
Still, many Republicans who favor someone else in a primary would nonetheless rally behind Trump if he won the nomination.
Richard Bechtol, a 31-year-old Republican voter in Columbus, Ohio, said he would back either DeSantis or Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, over Trump. Bechtol was disturbed by Trump’s behavior that led to the Capitol riot on Jan. 6, 2021.
“I hope he doesn’t run at all,” Bechtol said of Trump.
Bechtol, a lawyer, said he found Trump’s arrogance off-putting, saw Trump as a divisive figure in the party and believed that he bore responsibility for the violence.
But he said he would support Trump in 2024 in a rematch with Biden.
“Biden is getting bullied by the left wing of his party and I worry about his cognitive function as well — actually, I worry about that with Trump, too,” he said. “It’s really a lesser-of-two-evils situation for me.”
It is too early to tell whether the challenges for Trump inside his party will result in anything more than speed bumps on his path to the Republican nomination. Underscoring his residual strength, he is viewed favorably by 65% of Republicans who said they would vote against him in a primary, compared with 33% who said they had an unfavorable view.
“Trump did a hell of a job on the economy,” said Marie Boyce, a New York Republican in her 70s. “There isn’t anything wrong I could say about him.”
David Beard, a 69-year-old retiree in Liberal, Missouri, who said he mostly relied on Social Security for his income, said he was frustrated with both political parties and all levels of government. He plans to stick with Trump in 2024, betting that was the best chance to improve the economy.
“When Trump was in office, it didn’t seem like prices went haywire,” Beard said.
He said Democrats’ efforts to hold Trump accountable for the Jan. 6 attack had been a pointless distraction. “The government’s whole focus should have been on the people of the United States and the situation we’re in, instead of wasting time and money trying to impeach him,” Beard said. “Nothing is being done to help the people, and I believe that with all my heart.”
About 20% of all registered voters said they didn’t like either Trump or Biden. Trump also trailed his successor among these voters, 18% to 39%. One in 5 volunteered to pollsters that they would sit out such an election, although that option had not been offered to them.
“I never thought I would say this, but it if was Biden and Trump, I don’t think I would vote,” said Gretchen Aultman, a 74-year-old retired lawyer in Colorado who voted for Trump in 2016. “I liked Trump’s policies, but he was so abrasive and unpolished, and having him as president was just tearing the country apart.”
Aultman said she didn’t see Biden as an acceptable alternative. “I can’t in good conscience vote for Biden,” she said. “I recognize the signs of being old, and his mental acuity is not going to last another two years.”
Between the large number of primary voters ready for another nominee and the growing number who say they would not vote for Trump again under any circumstances, the poll suggests Trump’s biggest hurdle to winning a second term isn’t another Republican opponent — it’s himself.
John Heaphy, a 70-year-old retired software engineer in Arizona, said he voted for Trump in 2020 but planned to back Biden in 2024 because of the Capitol riot.
Heaphy said that Trump had incited an insurrection and that he was shaken by the support Trump’s false claims have received from other Republicans. Indeed, according to the poll, 86% of Republicans who said they would support Trump in the 2024 primary said he was the legitimate winner of the 2020 election.
“Trump lost the election,” Heaphy said. “There are too many people out there that just don’t seem like they believe in reality anymore.”
Although Trump has described election integrity as the country’s most pressing concern, just 3% of Republicans named it as the nation’s top problem. But Trump’s response to his 2020 defeat was a significant factor in how Republicans are thinking about 2024.
Among Republicans who said they plan to vote against Trump in a primary, 32% said his actions threatened American democracy.
Paula Hudnall, a 51-year-old nurse in Charleston, West Virginia, said Trump was right to question the results of the election. She said she didn’t blame him for the violence at the Capitol.
“Anytime you have a large gathering, you’re going to have people who get out of hand and are unruly,” said Hudnall, who identified the economy and infrastructure as her top issues.
Hudnall said she was interested in learning about other Republican candidates, but that Trump already had her vote again for 2024.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.