Jan 15, 2023 - Politics & Policy

The GOP's 2024 freeze

Elephant in an ice cube

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Questions about Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis' political resilience — and fears of going toe-to-toe with former President Trump — have all but frozen the 2024 Republican field, delaying most of the leading prospects' timelines for entering the race.

Why it matters: Despite dominating polling among Republicans looking for a Trump alternative, DeSantis hasn't been tested in the klieg lights of a presidential election. His Republican detractors see him as a paper tiger who lacks the charisma necessary for a national campaign.

  • "Everyone not named DeSantis is having a hard time figuring out their way around him. So they are waiting for him to screw up or fade," said Republican strategist Scott Jennings. "So far, he's doing neither."
  • "No one wants to take slings and arrows from Trump," said another adviser to a top 2024 contender. "Whether they get in early or late isn't going to matter if they have a built-in network of donors."

State of play: DeSantis himself is unlikely to make a final decision about running for president until at least May, after Florida's legislative session ends.

  • Former Vice President Mike Pence, who spent the holidays with family discussing his future political plans, isn't planning to make any presidential announcement soon. "It's in his interest to wait longer. He's always available as an option later," one top Pence adviser told Axios, calling him "a known commodity."
  • Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin is at the start of a critical legislative session that will determine whether he can secure conservative policy victories with a divided legislature. Any Youngkin presidential decision would come later in the process.
  • Former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley will be one of the first Republicans out of the gate. She's already staffing up her future presidential operation, with top advisers making plans to move to her home base of South Carolina.
  • Former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo's book comes out on Jan. 24, and he's heading on a nationwide tour to promote it over the next couple of months. Any presidential announcement wouldn't come until May at the earliest, according to those familiar with his thinking.

Between the lines: DeSantis is already taking some hits on his right flank from South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem over abortion. Florida currently has a 15-week abortion ban in place, but pro-life activists have been advocating for stricter limits.

  • At the same time, DeSantis has offered more red meat for the MAGA movement lately — including calling for COVID-19 vaccine makers to be investigated for potential wrongdoing.
  • By trying to maneuver to Trump's right, DeSantis could be opening up space for a more pragmatic conservative to gain momentum.

Reality check: Even with a lackluster start to his campaign, Trump is still the Republican front-runner in primary polls.

The bottom line: We're likely to see a historically slow start to a presidential campaign, with many "known unknowns" about the size and nature of the field.

  • The first Republican primary debate for the 2016 presidential election was held in August 2015. Former Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker dropped out that September.
  • By January 2019, nine Democratic presidential candidates had already declared campaigns against Trump.
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