Recent national polls showing Florida Governor Ron DeSantis leading former President Donald Trump in a head-to-head match-up by as much as 60 percent could lead to the mistaken conclusion that Trump’s path to the nomination is up hill. The most recent Vanderbilt Poll, taken in the Republican stronghold of Tennessee and released December 14, suggests caution when interpreting what DeSantis’s lead means politically. Our poll delineated the opinions of those who identify with the MAGA wing of the party from non-MAGA Republicans. It not only shows that MAGA Republicans are very different from the non-MAGA Republicans, but that the MAGA base is still very much enthralled with the former president.
Like the national polls, we too find that Republicans in Tennessee preferred Florida Governor Ron DeSantis 54% to 41% over former President Trump to be their 2024 presidential nominee. But as often is the case, there are important differences underneath this double-digit lead. When asking Republicans whether they considered themselves more “a supporter of the Make America Great Again or MAGA movement” or “a supporter of the Republican Party,” 34% laid claim to the MAGA label.
This self-identification matters for at least two reasons. First, these MAGA supporters are claiming more loyalty to Trump’s cause than to the GOP itself, underscoring why party leaders have given so much ground to Trump and that he retains a non-trivial base. Second, MAGA Republicans hold very different opinions about politics than non-MAGA Republicans, suggesting a growing polarization within the party. Consider that among MAGA Republicans, 76% believe “Democrats are a danger to our country and must be defeated at any cost.” By contrast, 43% of non-MAGA Republicans hold this opinion. Furthermore, 62% of non-MAGA Republicans express support for working with Democrats; only 38% of MAGA Republicans support bi-partisan lawmaking efforts.
The split between MAGA and non-MAGA Republicans also emerges when asked about the legitimacy of recent elections. Only 21% of MAGA Republicans agree that “Joe Biden won the 2020 presidential general election”– compared to 51% for non-MAGA Republicans in Tennessee. Similar splits occur when asked about the fairness and accuracy of the 2022 midterm elections. Only 38% of MAGA Republicans thought that votes were counted fairly and accurately. In contrast, 62% of non-MAGA Republicans expressed confidence in the nationwide results.
These stark differences in opinion between MAGA and non-MAGA Republicans in a solid Republican state has serious implications for 2024.
Consider that 88% of MAGA Republicans wanted Trump to run, but only 50% of non-MAGA Republicans thought he should. This gap has implications for how the two apparent frontrunners in 2024 are evaluated head-to-head. Two thirds (66%) of non-MAGA Republicans prefer DeSantis over Trump, but 60% of MAGA Republicans prefer Trump over DeSantis. Even though Trump’s support is weaker than it was, in general, his support among the MAGA-ites should not be discounted.
Trump’s hearty MAGA support matters because the Republican party uses a “winner-take-all” rule in primaries to elect the delegates to the national convention. Even if DeSantis is preferred to Trump in a head-to-head matchup, Trump may still be able to capture the nomination. In a struggle with multiple candidates, the support that Trump maintains among MAGA Republicans could be enough to win key primaries, as the non-MAGA vote is split among DeSantis and others. We saw this unfold in 2016, and the difference of opinion we find in Tennessee suggests that we could easily see a replay in 2024.
These divisions and disagreements are not likely to fade. How will Republicans manage them? That remains far from clear, but the battle for the next Speaker of the House of Representatives may offer some initial answers. And as we approach the next election, there will be additional tests showing whether party leaders can maintain control. Can they do in 2024 what they could not do in 2016? Or will the man who took the party by storm as he rode down that now famous escalator maintain control? Given that about one third of Republicans show more loyalty to MAGA label than the GOP label, Trump has reasons for optimism despite the decline in his overall support within the party.