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On the surface, former President Trump is having a good New Year. He leads Gov. Ron DeSantis (R-Fla.) in all national GOP polls, President Biden’s document-blundering has taken some of the heat off Trump, and the former president’s ultra-low-energy campaign is about to wake up with a rally in South Carolina.
But appearances can be deceiving: DeSantis has had a good January, too, and Trump has added to his catalogue of missteps for DeSantis to exploit.
Where the numbers are
Trump leads DeSantis in all national polls conducted since Georgia’s Senate run-off, except in a Fabrizio and Lee poll released Dec. 7 and a Suffolk poll on Dec. 11. Trump also leads most of the state primary polls, except for North Carolina (DeSantis leads there, 56 percent to 35 percent for Trump), and essentially ties in Texas and New Hampshire.
Trump does best with his own pollster, McLaughlin & Associates, which puts him up, 58 percent to 36 percent; otherwise, just two polls have a majority of Republicans supporting Trump: Emerson and Big Village. The Emerson poll has Trump at 55 percent, unchanged since November, and DeSantis up, from 25 percent to 29 percent. A significant problem for all the GOP primary polls is small sample sizes. The Fabrizio poll had a sample size of just 270; Big Village hovers around 350. Emerson has a sample of 428 voters.
The poll with the largest sample size is the Morning Consult January tracking poll, which has Trump leading DeSantis, 49 percent to 30 percent. That poll is a bit on the high end for Trump; the RealClearPolitics average has Trump ahead 46 percent to 31 percent. But for Trump, the ballot test is where the good news ends.
Trump’s favorable-unfavorable split remains high at 78 percent to 20 percent, with DeSantis at 72 percent to 13 percent. But DeSantis has room to grow, with 15 percent either not knowing him or not having formed an opinion. If they break proportionately, DeSantis pushes past Trump’s favorable level. Worse for Trump is his fall-off from 78 percent favorable to just 49 percent on the ballot test — a 30-point drop.
The other good news for DeSantis is that he remains far ahead of any other potential Republican candidate. Only Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) and Gov. Kristi Noem (R-S.D.) have lower unfavorable ratings, but that’s with a majority of Republicans not even forming an opinion. DeSantis’s strongest competition, former Vice President Mike Pence, has terrible numbers with a 60 percent favorable to 32 percent unfavorable — the worst ratio of anyone by far.
One hopeful sign for Trump is that the ballot-test bleeding appears to have stopped. After falling under a majority of GOP support, Trump seems to be holding steady in the mid-40s. But there is a caveat: The polls themselves are suspect. Each major poll looks like it’s living in its own world. In the Emerson world, Trump is way ahead; in the YouGov world, Trump’s numbers are not good. This should not be the case.
If the polls were truly representative, they would be moving more in tandem.
With small sample sizes come large margins of error and volatility.
The Emerson poll, with under 500 participants, should not be stuck at 55 percent for two months. Morning Consult is likely a more reliable gauge, with many more participants and ranging from 45 percent to 49 percent for Trump over the past couple of months. The bottom line is the GOP primary polls show a big drop from Trump’s favorable to his ballot test.
Future trouble for Trump
The good news that Trump still leads in polling is counterbalanced by his own missteps in December and January. Trump led off the New Year blaming the pro-life movement for Republican losses in the midterms. Unable to stand any criticism, Trump managed to alienate key pro-life advocates.
Trump’s pro-life gaffe occurred in the middle of the fractious battle over Speaker of the House, where Trump was a consistent support of eventual winner Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.). But winning came at a cost: Trump was utterly unable to move the votes of the Freedom Caucus toward McCarthy and looked impotent in the process. Worse for Trump, he became identified with the kind of Washington dealmaking that grassroots conservatives despise more than ever.
Team Trump likes to scoff that DeSantis has not been hit by Trump’s attacks yet, implying DeSantis will crumble like former Florida governor and presidential candidate Jeb Bush. But Trump has been giving DeSantis plenty of fodder to return fire, and DeSantis clearly knows what is coming — unlike the 2016 GOP field that was sent reeling by Trump’s unconventional, boundary-breaking campaign.
DeSantis can’t stay on the bench forever
It’s not all smooth sailing for DeSantis, however. He has not been on the national campaign stage as a target, and Trump is skilled and ferocious on the attack. Nobody will know how well DeSantis can handle the inevitable Trump barrage until it happens. President Biden helped Trump with his own fumbling of classified material, relieving some of the legal pressure on Trump.
DeSantis can’t win by being Mr. Nice Guy — he is going to have to hit back. Trump still has high favorable ratings among Republicans and has plenty of residual loyalty. DeSantis has to figure out how to knock Trump down without knocking himself out.
The biggest concern for DeSantis is whether Trump will be able to solidify a big enough portion of his base to make the primary math impossible. This problem is lessening a bit as no potential Republican hopeful other than Pence is getting much of anything. The high-water mark for candidates not named Pence in the RealClearPolitics tracker is 6 percent for former governor and United Nations ambassador Nikki Haley (R-S.C.) in one Siena poll in July. Pence himself is mired in single digits, not managing to break above 10 percent since a June Morning Consult poll.
The no-hopers might make a stab at running, and a few might even be enticed into the race with vague promises from Trump, but it does not appear they will grab more than a few points. Pence might run just because he can’t help himself.
If Pence and a couple of stragglers pull 10 percent of the GOP primary vote, that would make 46 percent the threshold for winning. It is possible Trump could hang on to those voters and box out DeSantis; the longer Trump has the field to himself, the more committed his voters become.
Given the disparity of the Republican primary polls and the fact that Trump is still in a race by himself, predicting how the race unfolds is a dicey proposition. But make no mistake, the Republican nomination is not going to be gift-wrapped and handed to Trump. He is going to have to win it — and everyone has seen his playbook.
Keith Naughton, Ph.D., is co-founder of Silent Majority Strategies, a public and regulatory affairs consulting firm. Naughton is a former Pennsylvania political campaign consultant. Follow him on Twitter @KNaughton711.