Donald Trump draws a huge field of 2024 opponents: Here's why that could help and hurt him

WASHINGTON − The Republican primary is getting awfully crowded, and that could be good news for Donald Trump − in theory.

As Chris Christie and Mike Pence prepare to join the field, the theory is that too many other candidates would split up the "anti-Trump vote" and allow the former president to claim the 2024 Republican nomination with less than 40% support from actual voters.

How it plays out is anyone's guess in the unpredictable Age of Trump. Some political professionals said the other candidates may be jumping in because they see legal and political vulnerabilities for Trump, and they could take advantage.

"Bringing Trump down this time seems like it is going to take a village − and with all the candidates in the race, they may be able to do it," said political scientist Lara Brown, author of "Jockeying for the American Presidency: The Political Opportunism of Aspirants."

Combatants Donald Trump and Ron DeSantis

'Loading up'

Trump, of course, is confident regardless of how many other candidates enter the race.

When Tim Scott joined the fray last month, Trump welcomed him to the race by saying, “It is rapidly loading up with lots of people."

Trump also said other candidates could just as easily take votes away from Ron DeSantis, his main challenger so far.

The in-crowd

Christie, who is reportedly set to announce next week, has indicated he will focus his fire on Trump, especially in the early primary state of New Hampshire.

Pence, who was Trump's vice president, also is prepared to announce next week in Iowa, home of caucuses that will select the first delegates in the Republican race.

Those announcements mean Trump will face at least seven known and decently funded candidates, a group that includes Nikki Haley, Asa Hutchinson and Vivek Ramaswamy, as well as Scott and DeSantis.

Others also are thinking of jumping in. That group ranges from North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum to New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu, who could be a big factor in his state's Republican primary.

Shades of 2016

A big field appeared to help Trump in 2016, a race that at one time featured 17 well-known candidates (though five dropped out before any votes were cast).

A question this time around is how many candidates will make it to the starting line in Iowa and on to the New Hampshire primary. The more candidates who stay in after New Hampshire, the better it is for Trump.

"There's 100% of the vote, and Trump's going to get 30 to 35%," said Dave Carney, a New Hampshire-based Republican political consultant.

Winning enough of the remaining 65% to 70% of the vote is "a problem for everybody" and a benefit for "the front-runner," Carney said.

The 2016 split

In 2016, Trump narrowly lost the Iowa caucuses to Ted Cruz, 27.6% to 24.3%, but won the New Hampshire primary with 35.3% of the vote. That put him ahead of a crowd that included John Kasich (15.8%), Cruz (11.7%), Jeb Bush (11.0%), Marco Rubio (10.6%) and Christie (7.4%).

Trump later won the South Carolina primary with 32.5%, with Rubio (22.5%) and Cruz (22.3%) pretty much splitting up anti-Trump votes.

By the time the 2016 field winnowed down, Trump had the nomination sewn up.

The rest of the field

As in 2016, the non-Trump candidates also are competing for donors who oppose the former president, splitting up the money that will be necessary to defeat him.

The 2016 non-Trump candidates spent more time attacking one another than they did the front-runner, fearful of alienating Trump voters.

Though Christie has said he plans to be hard on Trump, others seem more reticent, although DeSantis said he will defend himself against Trump's attacks. The Florida governor also has noted that Trump and his allies have a poor record in the past three national elections.

Ganging up on Trump?

The number of Republicans also could be a sign of weakness for Trump. He is already under indictment in New York City over a hush money case and still faces investigations over his handling of classified documents and efforts to overthrow the 2020 presidential election.

Some campaigns seem to be waiting for the next indictment or the next poll that shows Trump slipping with moderate voters, which would make him a problematic general election candidate.

"They will all soon be arguing that the Trump 'fad' is over and it is time for the party to move past his grievances − and his legal issues − and look to the future and towards the GOP winning again," Brown said.

Republican political strategist Doug Heye said concerns about the size of the 2024 field are "overplayed" − at this point. "This time Trump starts as the favorite," he said, "but is so flawed that a lot of other candidates sense an opportunity."

The question, Heye and others said, is how many people stay in for the long run.

"If we have 10 people still in come February," Heye said, "that’s a different equation."

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Trump draws a huge field of 2024 opponents: Why it helps and hurts him