The South Made Trump the Nominee in 2016, but It’s Produced His Biggest Rivals in 2024

  • As Trump looks to 2024, he could face a presidential field with multiple candidates from the South.
  • Southern conservatives were a key part of Trump’s electoral coalition during his 2016 campaign.
  • Potential WH contenders like DeSantis and Haley could significantly erode Trump’s Southern support.

After Donald Trump launched his 2016 presidential campaign at Trump Tower in Manhattan, few would have predicted the reach he’d eventually have across the American South.

Headed into the race, many saw former Gov. Jeb Bush of Florida, Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, and Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas as the likeliest candidates to win over Southern voters. But as Trump made the case for why he was best suited for the Oval Office, his message — emphasizing his background as a political outsider who would disrupt the status quo on issues like immigration and trade — resonated among Republican primary voters across the country.

But his message had particular traction in the South, where the Queens native found a deeply receptive audience among evangelical voters, driven by his promise to nominate candidates for the Supreme Court who would overturn Roe v. Wade, the 1973 decision that legalized abortion in the United States.

Marco Rubio Donald Trump Ted Cruz Debate

Republican U.S. presidential candidate businessman Donald Trump gestures towards rivals Senator Marco Rubio (L) and Senator Ted Cruz (R) during the Fox Business Network Republican presidential candidates debate in North Charleston, South Carolina, January 14, 2016.

REUTERS/Randall Hill

In the pivotal 2016 South Carolina primary, Trump won the contest — beating Bush, Rubio, and Cruz in their own Southern backyard. And on Super Tuesday that year, Trump completed a near-sweep of the region — winning Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Mississippi, Oklahoma, Tennessee, and Virginia — while only coming up short in Texas.

Trump rallied GOP voters in the South in both 2016 and 2020, which helped him carry states like Kentucky and West Virginia in electoral landslides while also winning politically-competitive states like Florida and North Carolina.

But a lot has changed in the nearly eight years since Trump first announced his campaign.

After leaving the White House in January 2021, Trump’s political sphere of influence shifted from New York to Florida. And Ron DeSantis, who for years had been a staunch Trump ally, was elected governor of Florida in 2018 and soon forged his own conservative political identity — which has made him a major threat to Trump’s quest to win the GOP presidential nomination next year.

However, DeSantis isn’t alone. A contingent of Southern GOP politicians — from Gov. Greg Abbott of Texas and Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina to Gov. Glenn Youngkin of Virginia and former Gov. Nikki Haley of South Carolina — have the potential to block the former president from winning the nomination should they launch their own candidacies. Cruz may also run for the White House again in 2024.

Looking to 2024, in what ways could the South — which was instrumental in sending Trump to the White House in 2016 — fail to deliver the GOP nomination for the former president?

Donald Trump

Donald Trump announces that he will run for the US presidency, in the lobby of Trump Tower in Manhattan, on June 16, 2015.

AP Photo/Richard Drew, File

Trump is no longer a Washington outsider

In 2016, Trump was a novelty to many Republican voters. He lacked government experience, which many saw as a net positive in selecting a nominee to take on former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

Trump also benefited from GOP enthusiasm over his experience in the private sector, along with a fervent desire to see conservative jurists placed on the Supreme Court — an achievement he was able to fulfill with the  successful nominations of Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh, and Amy Coney Barrett.

But in 2020, Trump would face then-Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden, who had served in the Senate for 36 years before an eight-year stint as vice president under President Barack Obama. And as October arrived, many voters were frustrated by Trump’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic, which pushed them to cast ballots for Biden.

After the Capitol riot on January 6, 2021, and the middling performance of the GOP in the 2022 midterm elections, some Republicans have also begun to question the former president’s electoral appeal. And the Southern electorate represents the best chance for a GOP candidate to blunt Trump’s comeback, given its plethora of delegate-rich states.

Potential entrants who could point to their strength with conservatives and suburban moderates include Govs. Brian Kemp of Georgia and Glenn Youngkin of Virginia. Also, if Gov. Greg Abbott of Texas or former Gov. Asa Hutchinson of Arkansas were to run, they could both tout their stints leading conservative states far from the nation’s capital.

Ron DeSantis

Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida arrives to speak to supporters at an Election night party in Tampa, Fla., after winning reelection to a second term on November 8, 2022.

AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell

All eyes are on Ron DeSantis

DeSantis — who in 2018 cut a GOP primary campaign ad where he read a passage from “Trump: The Art of the Deal” to his young son and presented a MAGA lawn sign to one of his daughters — was reelected to a second term as governor last November in a 19-point landslide over former Gov. Charlie Crist.

Over the course of his first term in Tallahassee, DeSantis morphed from reliable Trump booster to a national political figure in his own right.

Within the last two years, DeSantis has become a favored speaker at Republican functions across the country. And in recent months, DeSantis has increasingly eclipsed Trump as the top presidential choice among GOP primary voters.

While Republicans continue to laud the policies that Trump pursued while in office, many simply see DeSantis as the future of the party.

But DeSantis has not yet announced his intentions for 2024.

DeSantis Trump

Then-President Donald Trump, center, walks with (from left to right) Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida, Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, and Sen. Rick Scott of Florida during a visit to Lake Okeechobee and Herbert Hoover Dike at Canal Point, Fla., on March 29, 2019.

AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta

Multiple Floridians could be on the GOP ballot

Trump may be a Florida resident these days, but DeSantis is the face of efforts to turn the state into a laboratory for conservatism.

Last year, the state’s voting laws were overhauled, with an election police unit now empowered to probe suspected cases of voting fraud. The state Department of Education is blocking a pilot Advanced Placement (AP) African American Studies course from being offered to students, arguing that the course would violate state law in its current form. And just this week, the governor announced that he wants to permanently bar COVID-19 vaccine and mask mandates in the state.

But Rubio and Republican Sen. Rick Scott could also potentially be in the mix for 2024, which could create a scenario where four Floridians are vying for the White House.

Could Trump win Florida in such a situation? Yes. But if there are multiple Floridians on the GOP primary ballot in addition to other strong conservatives in the race, it would be tougher for the former president to sweep the state like he did in the 2016 Republican primary when he swamped Rubio statewide — winning in 66 out of 67 counties.

Tim Scott Nikki Haley

Then-Gov. Nikki Haley of South Carolina announced that she was appointing then-Rep. Tim Scott to the Senate seat being vacated by then-Sen. Jim DeMint during an appearance in Columbia, S.C., on December 17, 2012. Haley and Scott could potentially be competitors to win the 2024 GOP presidential nomination.

AP Photo/Rainier Ehrhardt

Trump must contend with the delegate math

In February 2016, Trump gained significant momentum after winning the South Carolina primary, which boosted his performance across the region.

By the time the Florida GOP primary was held, Jeb Bush had already suspended his campaign, humbled by his fourth-place showing in South Carolina.

But the 2024 race could have much different dynamics, especially if Haley or Tim Scott decide enter the presidential contest.

Such a showdown in the Palmetto State would be sight to behold, with an ex-governor and former United States Ambassador to the United Nations potentially going up against the first Black senator from the state — whom she appointed to the seat.

Trump has not held any major public campaign events since he announced his 2024 campaign at Mar-a-Lago in November.

But on Saturday, he’ll jumpstart the race and hold a rally in Columbia, S.C., alongside Gov. Henry McMaster and Sen. Lindsey Graham — amid speculation about Haley’s potential candidacy and Trump’s overall standing within the Republican Party.

In 2016, Trump locked up the nomination by racking up wins in states like South Carolina and Florida — which employed a winner-take-all system in allocating their delegates — while also capturing a swath states with more proportional systems. While Trump didn’t earn a majority of the vote in many of the primary races that year, he benefited from a divided GOP field, allowing him to amass delegates to the point where candidates including Cruz, Rubio, and then-Gov. John Kasich of Ohio were simply unable to keep up with his performance.

Only time will tell if Trump can recreate that same electoral magic next year.

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