As the 2024 US Presidential Election approaches—with Trump making headlines elsewhere for reasons best left aside—voters and interested observers alike may be asking themselves if it’s a foregone conclusion.
Maybe it is. But maybe not.
Thomas Jefferson once said that “Whenever the people are well-informed, they can be trusted with their own government.” It’s critical in a democracy that voters understand the information on offer, and what it really means.
On the surface, national polls paint a pretty clear picture of the upcoming race. But, without a more nuanced understanding of the US electoral system, those numbers can misinform.
For the sake of this conversation, let’s focus on the Republicans.
Yes, Trump hold a commanding, and perhaps insurmountable, 45-point lead nationally over his closest competitor, Florida Governor Ron Desantis. But Trump’s national numbers don’t tell the whole story. That’s because the US system, like all democracies, has its own characteristics and quirks. The same is true of the nomination process.
In the US, Party nominees aren’t selected through a nationwide vote. Rather, they are selected through a series of contests—called primaries or caucuses—conducted state by state. All 50 contests are run differently depending on state laws and conventions. And they take place in staggered succession, sometimes as standalones, sometimes in bunches.
In practice, each primary or caucus is influenced in no small measure by the results of the previous contests, as candidates build momentum and support (and fundraising coffers) or succumb to attrition.
As is tradition, Iowa—a State of 3.2-million people, 0.9% of the US population— will hold the first Republican caucus on January 15th. This gives the state an outsized influence as candidates must earn a sizable amount of support to move forward or risk having to call it quits.
In Iowa, Trump holds a 30-point lead over Desantis. Experts argue that someone must put a dent into the front runner’s advantage in hopes of further shaving into his lead in New Hampshire.
And then there’s New Hampshire, a state of 1.4-million people that will hold the country’s first primary on January 23rd (likely). There too, Trump holds a 30-point lead. But this time, former South Carolina Governor and UN Ambassador, Nikki Haley, runs second.
Can a modest surge from Haley help distinguish her as the main contender to Trump? Is the end near for a somewhat flagging Desantis campaign? Will the rest of the field disappear and free their supporters to rally behind a clear Trump alternative? Or is it all for not?
This is why national poll numbers, while taking the pulse of the country, don’t offer the same arithmetic certainty as statewide data. And even then, localized data sets must be contextualized to factor in timing and preceding events.
As primary season approaches and the numbers in these two small states help frame the Republican race, informed observers will be paying special attention.
Before we know it, Republicans will be gathered in Milwaukee in July to officially nominate their standard bearer for an election that takes place on the Tuesday after the first Monday in November, next year.