After the 2022 election, the path for Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis in the 2024 GOP presidential primaries seemed clear. Given a third straight disappointing election for former president Donald Trump and his allies — and DeSantis’s resounding 19-point win in a recent former swing state — DeSantis could run as a more electable version of Trump. He would be Trump without the headaches.
It’s now become clear that Republicans prefer both Trump and the headaches. More than that, it appears DeSantis’s electability argument has almost completely deserted him.
DeSantis’s vanishing electability case has been in the works for a while, as Trump has reasserted a commanding lead as the GOP primaries approach. New polling this week drives it home.
And it’s not just a perception problem, but increasingly a reality one, too.
A Monmouth University poll released Tuesday finds that nearly 7 in 10 GOP voters say Trump is either “definitely” (45 percent) or “probably” (24 percent) the GOP’s strongest candidate against President Biden.
When asked to compare a potential DeSantis candidacy to a potential Trump candidacy, just 22 percent say DeSantis would be stronger. More than twice as many — 47 percent — say DeSantis would be weaker. (Twenty-six percent say he would be just as strong.)
Fox Business polls in the key primary states of Iowa and South Carolina tell the same tale.
In Iowa, 45 percent said Trump would be the most likely to defeat Biden, while 23 percent picked DeSantis. And in South Carolina, Trump’s edge on this measure was threefold: 51 percent to 17 percent.
Voters’ views of relative electability, of course, might not reflect reality. But there’s also evidence that DeSantis simply doesn’t have as much to work with as he builds his case.
For one thing, his image rating has taken a substantial hit in recent months. As recently as late March, more Americans liked DeSantis than disliked him in the FiveThirtyEight average. Today, his unfavorable rating outpaces his favorable rating by 10 points — double digits underwater.
DeSantis’s net image split — favorable minus unfavorable — in mid-March was 16 points better than Trump’s (DeSantis plus-3, Trump minus-13). That advantage has shrunk to six points (DeSantis minus-10, Trump minus-16).
It also shows up in the general election matchups.
After the 2022 election, polls generally showed DeSantis performing better than Trump in hypothetical matchups with Biden. And that largely continued around DeSantis’s launch.
But not so much anymore. A Yahoo/YouGov poll from mid-July showed both men trailing Biden by four points. A USA Today/Suffolk University poll showed DeSantis leading Biden by two points in Ohio, while Trump led Biden by five. And a poll in Michigan actually showed DeSantis trailing Biden by 13 points, while Trump trailed Biden by just two.
There is limited recent data on this. But lower-quality polls show much the same thing. About the only recent polls in which DeSantis continues to run stronger than Trump in the general election are those conducted by a DeSantis-aligned pollster.
There also is evidence that voters are simply uninterested in the kind of electability argument DeSantis or others might make, particularly regarding Trump’s criminal indictments.
Despite Trump’s two indictments (and a potential third one in the offing), polling suggests that Republicans are not making pragmatic choices on that front. When NBC News pollsters asked about the impact of the indictments, more than twice as many GOP primary voters (64 percent) cited a need to stick with Trump because he is being targeted and “no other candidate is like” him vs. those who viewed the indictments as a distraction and a reason to nominate someone who can perform better against Biden (31 percent).
The Monmouth poll also gets at this. It asked GOP voters how concerned they were that the indictments would weaken Trump in the general election. Just 11 percent were “very concerned,” and 16 percent were “somewhat concerned.” More than 70 percent expressed little (27 percent) or no (45 percent) concern.
It is possible that Trump’s legal problems could ultimately register in ways that they simply do not right now, particularly as these matters go to trial. Perhaps GOP voters are claiming the indictments do not matter to them but in fact truly worry about them.
The most significant trials are most likely to come too late to seriously recast the GOP nominating contest. Meanwhile, Republicans including DeSantis have been timid in broaching these subjects for fear of alienating Trump’s base.
Throw on top of that DeSantis’s feeling the need to run hard to the right and alienating more-moderate voters in the process, and it should perhaps be no surprise that DeSantis’s supposed silver bullet is looking like a dud.