Donald Trump remains the overwhelming favorite of GOP primary voters. But that hasn’t stopped more than a dozen candidates from staying in the race for the Republican nomination in the hopes that they can dethrone him — or at least vie for a position in a potential second Trump administration.
The former president, who announced his candidacy in November, has been increasingly dominant in polling. His closest competitor, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, is trailing him by nearly 50 percentage points on average as of November.
Everyone else is currently polling in single digits, and all seem to have failed in their attempts to use the first three GOP debates to eat into Trump’s lead. And after running behind other top contenders, South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott became the sixth candidate to end their bid for president on November 12.
It’s becoming increasingly doubtful that anyone can become a viable challenge to Trump, despite some Republicans seeing him as a liability in a general election. Not only is Trump the subject of several ongoing civil and criminal investigations, but he’s broadly unpopular among Americans. He lost his reelection bid in 2020, and his chosen candidates underperformed in the 2022 midterms. But, far from turning off the base, all of that has only further entrenched Trump’s support among Republican voters.
Here’s everything you need to know about the GOP contenders.
The GOP leaderboard
So far, the primary has shaped up to be a triumphant return to national politics for Trump, and a contest for second place between his rivals. It’s not clear that DeSantis has what it takes to best Trump, his former mentor who remains beloved by the base despite the criminal charges against him. And despite her best efforts, former ambassador and Gov. Nikki Haley, who’s polling third, has also yet to emerge as a credible challenger to Trump.
Former President Trump
The GOP primary has been overshadowed by the criminal charges against Trump in the four cases over his involvement in the January 6, 2021, Capitol insurrection, his retention of classified documents after he left office, and hush money payments made during his 2016 campaign. He now faces a total of 91 counts and potential prison time. That’s aside from the civil cases he faces, including one that could strip him of his New York businesses.
Fighting the charges has in some respects weighed down Trump’s campaign: He has used more than $59.2 million of his campaign funds to pay his legal bills, and his court dates will continue to interfere with his busy campaign schedule. But the court cases have also seemed to boost Trump’s popularity among the Republican base, as he has only expanded his polling lead following each indictment. That would suggest that his supporters believe the cases are indeed the product of a “political witch hunt,” as Trump has often spuriously claimed.
That may help Trump win the primary. However, it remains to be seen whether these indictments will cause moderates and independents to turn away from the former president. If Trump were to lose those voters, that could cause serious problems for him. In head-to-head matchups versus President Joe Biden over the last month, some polls have Trump winning key states by as much as 9 percentage points, while others have him narrowly losing. Much could change before November 2024, but should Trump be his party’s nominee, those numbers suggest a tight race in which losing moderates and independents could be the difference between victory and defeat.
Despite this, Trump isn’t facing much criticism from his right flank, with his Republican opponents treading lightly in using the investigations against him to attack him as unfit for another term. Recognizing his continued grip on the Republican primary voters and the risk of alienating them, the candidates have largely refrained from criticizing Trump directly. But in so doing, they have also struggled to carve out distinct lanes and present a clear argument for why the party should dump Trump.
A second Trump term would likely be more radical than the first. He came into office in 2016 surrounding himself with members of the conservative establishment who tempered his worst impulses. The next time around, he would likely replace those people with loyalists who would advance his own interests, including making his legal problems go away.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis
DeSantis was once seen as the most viable challenger to Trump. He won reelection by nearly 20 points in 2022, helping usher a red wave into the once-swing state of Florida even though Republican candidates underperformed practically everywhere else in the midterms. But he’s running far behind Trump in the polls, and has struggled to run a campaign that feels distinct from MAGA but still has enough general appeal to be successful.
DeSantis has been carefully cultivating a national profile for years by making Florida a locus of conservative policymaking that has inspired copycat legislation across the US. He’s promoted popular conservative stances on nearly every culture war issue, including attacking LGBTQ rights, minimizing the risks of Covid-19, curtailing abortion access, and eliminating parts of school curriculums deemed too liberal. He worked with the state legislature this session to enact that agenda in Florida, which he is touting as his “blueprint” for America.
Beyond just legislating to the right, DeSantis has ensured that Florida will likely stay red for the foreseeable future. In the 2022 redistricting cycle, he pushed for a new, gerrymandered congressional map that ultimately heavily benefited Republicans; the party flipped three House seats in the midterms. He expanded the base, winning counties like Miami-Dade that Republicans haven’t carried in decades, while appearing to make more headway with Latino voters. He raised more than $200 million last cycle, breaking the record for gubernatorial races.
Still, he has had a tough few months. He signed an ultra-restrictive six-week abortion ban in Florida that some GOP donors worry will be unpalatable to general election voters. He’s locked in a high-stakes fight with Disney in which he’s suffered loss after loss after loss, neutralizing his ability to claim victory over “woke” corporations. He has left Trump’s attacks largely unanswered for fear of alienating the base. His campaign began with gaffes on subjects from Ukraine to chocolate pudding (allegedly), and has recently gone through a few rounds of restructuring. And there are questions about his likability, and whether his campaign has enough money to survive the primaries.
He’s trying to carve out his own lane in the primary by running to the right of Trump on issues like Covid-19 and abortion and attempting to draw a contrast with Trump’s bombastic leadership style. But in many ways, his candidacy doesn’t mark a departure from Trumpism. And that means if DeSantis were to be the GOP candidate for president, he’d really have to contort himself to look like a moderate in a general election against Biden.
Former UN Ambassador Nikki Haley
Trump’s US ambassador to the United Nations and former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley has framed herself as a younger, more moderate candidate than Trump, who can win in a general election. “Republicans have lost the popular vote in seven of the last eight presidential elections. That has to change,” Haley said in her announcement video. “It’s time for a new generation of leadership.”
The daughter of Indian immigrants, Haley is centering her pitch for the presidency on foreign policy and bridging the gap between MAGA and more traditional GOP politics.
She’s suggested that she would take a hardline stance against America’s foes abroad. She had one of the highest approval ratings of anyone in the Trump administration and was well-respected by her peers on the UN Security Council even when espousing controversial policy decisions, such as Trump’s withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal, the Paris climate accords, and the UN Human Rights Council.
In an environment where most Americans cite government and inflation as the top issues facing the US, it’s not clear whether that foreign policy experience will resonate with voters. But Haley has conservative credentials, too.
She won the South Carolina governorship in 2011 with the support of the conservative Tea Party wing of the Republican Party and former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin. She went on to tighten voter ID laws, oppose Syrian refugee resettlement in the state, and earn bipartisan praise for signing a bill to take down the Confederate flag from the state capitol after a gunman killed nine Black churchgoers in Charleston in 2015. In her announcement video, she hit typical conservative priorities, railing against the “socialist left” while calling for securing the border and fiscal responsibility.
But she’s also waded into culture war battles. At a campaign event in May, she went on a rant against a trans influencer who partnered with Bud Light, a collaboration that resulted in a widespread conservative boycott of the brand. She also declared herself to be “unapologetically pro-life” while advising the GOP find a “consensus” on abortion that meets Americans where they are (and that keeps her party winning elections).
If Haley prevails, she would be the first woman and first Asian American to win the GOP nomination for president, adding to the list of firsts she has already achieved: South Carolina’s first woman governor and the first Indian American to serve in a statewide office there. She’s currently third, regularly polling about 50 percentage points behind Trump.
Right-wing activist Vivek Ramaswamy
Ramaswamy may not be seen as a serious contender by some of his Republican rivals, but he is undeniably the breakout candidate of 2024 who is using his frequent media appearances to boost his profile. Though he’s sliding in the polls, his combative debate performances and nonstop media appearances have helped him gain some measure of (relative) popularity. He’s running in fourth place, behind Haley.
The son of Indian immigrants, a former biotech founder, and author of the New York Times bestseller Woke, Inc., Ramaswamy made his name railing against socially responsible investing on cable news shows. Over the past few years, he’s been dubbed “the CEO of Anti-Woke, Inc.” by the New Yorker and has come out with a second book, Nation of Victims: Identity Politics, the Death of Merit and the Path Back to Excellence. Throughout his campaign, he’s promoted a pledge to pardon Trump if he’s elected president.
In his announcement video, he staked his candidacy on combating the “woke left” and what he referred to as “new secular religions like Covidism, climatism, and gender ideology.”
“This is psychological slavery, and that has created a new culture of fear in our country that has completely replaced our culture of free speech in America,” he said in the video.
His campaign has so far centered on culture wars: He told former Fox News host Tucker Carlson after jumping into the race that his top priorities include ending affirmative action, achieving “complete decoupling” from China, reenvisioning US immigration policy based on “merit,” and using the American military to combat drug cartels in Central America. He’s also railed against the administrative state on the trail, promising to shrink the federal government’s civilian workforce by 75 percent — getting rid of 2.2 million federal jobs — by the end of his first term, if elected.
While well-known in conservative circles, Ramaswamy would need to find a way to pivot his message to make it more appealing to independents and moderates in a general election.
First, though, he faces rivals with far greater platforms, name recognition, donor networks, and war chests — many of whom arguably pioneered his brand of politics. Even if Trump were to somehow implode, Ramaswamy would still face an uphill climb to the nomination.
The prominent Trump critics
There’s little to be won in campaigning against Trump when most Republican voters still approve of the former president. But that hasn’t stopped several GOP contenders from trying to take an ideological stand and offer Republican voters an off-ramp from MAGA policies — one that most voters don’t particularly appear to want.
Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie
Christie, once a Trump defender, has become one of the former president’s most outspoken critics. Christie has decried Trump’s reluctance to debate and his unwillingness to accept the results of the 2020 election, as well as called the former president a “coward” and “puppet of Putin.” He’s committed not to support Trump even if the former president wins the Republican nomination.
“Beware of the leader in this country, who you have handed leadership to, who has never made a mistake, who has never done anything wrong, who when something goes wrong it’s always someone else’s fault. And who has never lost,” Christie said of Trump shortly after announcing his campaign in June.
It’s a remarkable 180-degree turn for someone who was previously a close ally of Trump, briefly headed his White House transition team, and helped him prepare for debates in 2020. But it’s not clear how that turn will win him support among the many Republican voters who have rallied behind him since his four indictments.
If anything, Christie’s attacks on Trump seem to have helped spare other GOP candidates from having to go on offense against the former president, who has been known to eviscerate his opponents with mud-slinging and name-calling. Christie has been on the receiving end of Trump’s attacks before, when they weakened his bid in the 2016 presidential primary. The former governor finished sixth before ultimately endorsing Trump for the nomination.
Christie has highlighted his record as a moderate governor, though his tenure as New Jersey’s executive was marred by the “Bridgegate” scandal. His aides allegedly orchestrated a plot to close lanes at a bridge that serves as a main artery to New York City in retaliation against a local mayor who did not back his reelection campaign. He continues to deny any knowledge of the plot, despite witnesses in the criminal trial of his aides testifying to the contrary. By the end of his second term, his approval rating had fallen to 15 percent. As of November, his polling average in the 2024 race hovered just above 3 percent.
Former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson
Hutchinson is a longtime Trump critic and has previously told ABC that he thought Trump should withdraw from the race in light of the criminal charges he’s facing. But as a former federal prosecutor who worked on President Bill Clinton’s impeachment, Hutchinson has also acknowledged that Trump probably won’t do that and there’s nothing stopping him from carrying on.
“I mean, first of all, the office is more important than any individual person. And so for the sake of the office of the presidency, I do think that’s too much of a sideshow and distraction, and he needs to be able to concentrate on his due process,” Hutchinson said.
Hutchinson served eight years as Arkansas governor before stepping down in January because he was term-limited. While in office, he pushed a conservative agenda centered on a near-total ban on abortion without exceptions for cases involving rape and incest, a law banning trans women from participating in school sports teams, and bans on Covid-19 vaccine mandates and state and local mask mandates.
He later expressed regret at the lack of exceptions to the abortion ban and that he wanted to reverse the ban on mask mandates amid an August 2021 surge in coronavirus cases. That hasn’t been enough for Hutchinson to make much of a mark on the 2024 race; throughout the contest he’s struggled to crack even the single digits.
The random Republicans without much of a fighting chance
There’s no telling how much longer these candidates — with their lack of national name recognition and seeming inability to carve out a distinct lane relative to their rivals— will remain in the race for the nomination. All routinely poll at the bottom of the pack, and show few signs of reversing that trend.
North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum
North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum announced his bid in a June Wall Street Journal op-ed, promising to make the economy his top priority without mentioning thornier culture war issues: “We need to get inflation under control, cut taxes, lower gas prices and reduce the cost of living,” he wrote.
The two-term governor and tech entrepreneur touted his experience leading Great Plains Software, which went public in 1997 and was sold to Microsoft in 2001 for $1.1 billion in stock. His proceeds from that deal mean he’ll likely be able to self-fund his campaign. He’s highlighted how he “achieved pension reform, helped pass term limits, and enacted the biggest tax cut in state history” this year. He has also set a goal of making North Dakota carbon-neutral by 2030, implementing carbon capture and storage technology while still maintaining fossil fuel production, which is a major industry in the state.
Burgum is well-liked in North Dakota but doesn’t have the national name recognition of some of his GOP rivals, nor is he cast from the Trumpian mold, which has made it difficult for him to break through to primary voters who still love the former president. While he qualified for the first debate, he’s consistently struggled to poll above 1 percentage point, despite offering potential donors gift cards in exchange for their support.
Texas pastor and entrepreneur Ryan Binkley
Binkley has never before sought political office and is probably the least-known candidate. He founded Generational Group, which advises mergers and acquisitions, as well as Create Church in Richardson, Texas, alongside his wife. The proceeds from his business have allowed him to self-fund his campaign.
He’s running on a Christian message but has also advocated for lowering the national debt, immigration reform, education investment in urban areas, and reining in big drug companies.
South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott
Like Nikki Haley, Sen. Tim Scott has establishment credentials, is seen as a rising star in the party, and was able to score the support of some major Republican donors. On paper, Scott was exactly the type of candidate who would have once been a shoo-in for the nomination. But Scott struggled to gain popular support, hovering below 3 percent in polling averages in recent months.
That led him to suddenly “suspend” his campaign in a November interview with Fox News’ Trey Gowdy. “I think the voters who are the most remarkable people on the planet have been really clear that they’re telling me, ‘Not now, Tim,’” Scott said on Sunday Night in America.
Scott, a three-term South Carolina senator and the only Black Republican in the chamber, framed much of his candidacy around pushing back against Democrats’ views on systemic racism and other disparities in the US. Over the past few years, he’s repeatedly cited his own success as negating the idea that Black Americans are disadvantaged by systematic racism and as proof that anyone can pull themselves up by their bootstraps.
“They know the truth of my life disproves their lies,” Scott said of Democrats in his April launch video. “I know America is a land of opportunity, not a land of oppression. I know it because I’ve lived it.”
As a senator, Scott has struck a similar tone on race, acknowledging its role in American life while arguing that racism is largely something that infects individuals rather than being something for society to grapple with. He has previously called out discrimination he’s faced by police, including being pulled over at traffic stops, for example, while calling law enforcement a “noble” profession. Scott touched on these themes during a listening tour in Iowa and South Carolina earlier this year, urging audiences to acknowledge the progress that the US has made.
As an evangelical, Scott made abortion restrictions a pillar of his campaign, voicing support for a six-week abortion ban in his home state. He has also said that he would enact a 15-week national ban on abortion or “the most conservative pro-life legislation Congress can pass” if elected president.
He’s echoed standard Republican talking points criticizing “Biden liberals” and touting conservative positions on issues like immigration and crime. Legislatively, Scott is known for serving as the GOP’s lead negotiator on police reform and as the sponsor of bipartisan legislation to establish “opportunity zones” that intend to drive investment to low-income areas via tax incentives.
Former Vice President Mike Pence
Former Vice President Mike Pence attacked Trump as a matter of necessity, given his pivotal decision to certify the results of the 2020 election against Trump’s wishes. But he was never able to successfully step out from the shadow of Trump, his onetime running mate with whom he has severed ties.
When he announced that he was dropping out at the Republican Jewish Coalition’s annual gathering in Las Vegas, he urged fellow Republicans to resist the “siren song of populism.”
“It’s become clear to me that this is not my time,” Pence said at the event.
Pence was ultimately unable to pull off a balancing act between criticizing Trump and touting Trump’s policy record and his role in it. He previously told CNBC that the GOP is “going to have better choices” than the former president. In an interview with NPR last November, he said he thought Trump was “wrong” in insisting that he won the 2020 election, and that Trump was “reckless” with his words and actions on the day of the January 6 insurrection at the US Capitol.
Pence’s decision to drop out before the first primaries seems to be a bid to preserve his capital as a leader in the conservative movement, and an acknowledgement that his platform was out of step with his party at large. His candidacy tried to appeal to religious conservatives’ views on abortion, religious liberty, and education. Though the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade dampened GOP gains in the midterms, Pence, a prominent evangelical Christian, only doubled-down on his anti-abortion rhetoric. He has called for a national abortion ban and has thrown his weight behind a proposal by Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) that would ban abortion after 15 weeks of pregnancy, and a ban on abortion pills.
Beyond abortion, Pence’s policy group, Advancing American Freedom, had laid out a platform that includes an expansion of 529 college savings plans so they can be used for K-12 schools, promoting the rights of health care providers to decline to perform certain services on the basis of moral or religious objections, and rolling back climate change-related regulations.
Miami Mayor Francis Suarez
Suarez was the only Latino candidate in the race and has previously called on candidates who don’t make the debate stage to drop out. He ultimately followed his own advice, dropping out of the race on August 29, becoming the first candidate to end their campaign.
Suarez staked his longshot candidacy on his “tough on crime” platform. A video released by a pro-Suarez super PAC touts his support for law enforcement and points to his own policies as the source of decreasing violent crime rates in Miami in 2023. He also took shots at DeSantis on issues from his lack of Covid-19 mitigation measures to how he’s handling his ongoing feud with Disney.
Suarez still faces questions about possible corruption. He is under investigation by the Miami-Dade ethics commission for his work for Miami real estate developer Rishi Kapoor, who is being investigated by the FBI and Securities and Exchange Commission. Kapoor allegedly paid Suarez $10,000 per month to aid him in securing government permits for an urban real estate project.
Former Texas Rep. Will Hurd
As a representative of a border district and a moderate, Hurd was an outspoken critic of Trump’s immigration policies while serving in Congress. Hurd opted not to seek reelection in 2020 because he felt out of step with the hard right turn his party had taken under Trump. However, he joined his Republican colleagues in voting against Trump’s impeachment in 2019.
In his announcement video, Hurd denounced Trump as a “lawless, selfish, failed politician” whom he blamed for Republicans losing control of the House in 2018, as well as the Senate and the White House in 2020. But he also had sharp words for President Joe Biden’s policies on immigration, crime, and inflation: “President Biden can’t solve these problems or won’t.”
Hurd was known as a bipartisan dealmaker during his time in Congress, breaking with his party on issues such as LGBTQ rights, gun control, and its push to repeal the Affordable Care Act. But given that the Republican Party has only further dug in its heels on MAGA politics since his departure from office, Republican voters haven’t been all that interested in a candidate who reaches across the aisle, and didn’t seem interested this time.
Hurd struggled to stand out in a field already filled with big names — not to mention all the other lesser-known candidates fighting to increase single-digit poll numbers — and ultimately retired from the race in October. He endorsed Nikki Haley.
Radio host Larry Elder
Elder, a conservative radio host and frequent talking head on Fox News, has never held political office but led the race to replace California Gov. Gavin Newsom, a Democrat, in an unsuccessful recall campaign in 2021. He dropped out of the GOP primary and endorsed Trump in late October after failing to make the debate stage.
“America is in decline, but this decline is not inevitable. We can enter a new American Golden Age, but we must choose a leader who can bring us there,” he tweeted of his decision to run for president.
Elder, a vocal Trump supporter, has espoused conservative stances on issues from abortion rights to pandemic restrictions, including mask mandates. And as a Black man, he has critiqued the Black Lives Matter movement and called the idea of systemic racism a “lie,” though he framed his policies in the recall election as benefiting Black people.
He also attributed rising crime in 2021 to a policing pullback spurred by Democratic policies. “When you reduce the possibility of a bad guy getting caught, getting convicted and getting incarcerated, guess what? Crime goes up,” he told the Los Angeles Times.
He and Michigan business leader Perry Johnson, who has also since dropped out of the race, have said that they will sue the Republican National Committee for excluding them from the debate stage.
Michigan business leader Perry Johnson
Johnson dropped out of the race in mid-October after failing to qualify for the debate stage.
“With no opportunity to share my vision on the debate stage, I have decided at this time suspending my campaign is the right thing to do,” Johnson wrote to his supporters.
Johnson funded his campaign with nearly $8 million of his own money. In an attempt to meet the 40,000-donor threshold required to make it on the debate stage, he offered people a $10 gift card for gas in exchange for a $1 donation. The RNC determined, however, that he still didn’t qualify, and for that, he’s joined Elder’s lawsuit against the organization.
He made his fortune as the founder of Perry Johnson Registrars, which audits and certifies firms that meet international standards for quality management systems.
Johnson’s platform centered on his “two-cents plan,” which he argued would reduce the federal deficit and inflation by curbing two cents of federal discretionary spending for every dollar.
Johnson previously sought the 2022 Republican gubernatorial nomination in Michigan but was disqualified from the primary after submitting too many fake signatures endorsing his candidacy.
Update, November 13, 11 am ET: This story was originally published on February 23 and has been updated multiple times, most recently to include that Sen. Tim Scott has withdrawn from the race.