I conducted dozens of focus groups of Trump 2020 voters in the 17 months between the storming of the Capitol on January 6 and when the hearings began in June. One measure was consistent: At least half of the respondents in each group wanted Trump to run again in 2024. The prevailing belief was that the 2020 election was stolen—or at least unfair in some way—and Trump should get another shot.
But since June, I’ve observed a shift. I’ve conducted nine focus groups during this period, and found that only 14 percent of Trump 2020 voters wanted him to run in 2024, with a few others on the fence. In four of the groups, zero people wanted Trump to run again. Their reasoning is clear: They’re now uncertain that Trump can win again.
“He’s just too divisive and controversial,” a participant in Washington State said about Trump. “There are good candidates out there waiting to shine.”
A participant in Wyoming said, “I feel like there’s too many people against him right now. He’s never gonna make it … So I feel like somebody else needs to step in that has similar views, but not as big of an ego—who people like, I guess.”
“At first I thought I would” want him to run again, an Arizona participant said. “I think it’s time to move on.”
In a focus group the very next day, a participant in Georgia said, “They keep talking about the results of the election. And I feel like even when he’s doing his road show, he keeps bringing that up … I just feel like we’ve moved past that.”
One of the reasons some Trump voters want to “move on” from Trump is that they find him—and the resulting chaotic media environment—exhausting. In a focus group with Ohio voters, one participant said, “I do not want four more years of ‘orange man bad’ and everybody screaming about every time he tweets—and believe me, he did some really bad tweets. I don’t want four more years of that.”
This comment prompted another participant to say, “After hearing what you said, it makes more sense to maybe not want Trump there for certain reasons. When you bring back all of that, it makes me think again.”
These voters have roughly the same attitude toward the January 6 hearings that they did to both impeachments (during which I also regularly conducted focus groups). They believe they’re a witch hunt and a “dog and pony show.” They believe they are designed to make Trump and Republicans look bad. Only a few had watched some of the hearings before turning them off in disgust.
But unlike the impeachment hearings, which in some ways made GOP voters more defensive of Trump, the accumulating drama of the January 6 hearings—which they can’t avoid in social-media feeds—seems to be facilitating not a wholesale collapse of support, but a soft permission to move on.
And it helps that these GOP voters are enthusiastic about other candidates they could move on to. Florida Governor Ron DeSantis is the most popular alternative cited by voters in these focus groups. But they also like many other politicians who gained prominence during the Trump years, such as South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem, former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and Texas Governor Greg Abbott.
This dynamic could be fluid. If Trump announces his candidacy for 2024 and is able to make other candidates look small by comparison, voters who have been drifting away from the former president could snap back. They still like Trump, after all, and they don’t like Joe Biden. They will certainly vote for Trump if he is the GOP nominee for president.
Still, several voters in the focus groups have made an extremely basic point that could loom large over a contested GOP primary where Republican voters are consumed by one prevailing desire: obtaining political power.
Even if Trump could win, they say, he could be president for only four years. (Or so one hopes.) But if it’s DeSantis or another rising star, Republicans have a better shot at eight years of political dominance. And they like eight better than four.