HomePoliticsDeSantis, on Defense, is showing signs of slipping in polls

DeSantis, on Defense, is showing signs of slipping in polls

It’s been a tough few months for Ron DeSantis.

Donald Trump and his allies have portrayed him as “Meatball Ron”, “Ron DeSanctimonious”, a “groomer”, disloyal and an advocate for cutting entitlement programs. Now he is being criticized by many mainstream conservatives for calling Russia’s invasion of Ukraine a “territorial dispute.”

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Does all this make a difference in the polls? There are signs that the answer is yes.

In polls conducted since the Trump offensive began two months ago, DeSantis, Florida’s governor, has steadily lost ground against Trump, whose own numbers have increased.

It can be difficult to track who’s up and who’s off in the Republican race since different pollsters have such wildly different views on Trump’s strength. In the past few days, a CNN/SSRS poll showed a tight race, with DeSantis at 39% and Trump at 37% among registered voters, while a Morning Consult poll found Trump leading nearly 2-to-1, 52 % to 28%.

In this situation, the best way to get a clear picture of recent trends is to compare surveys from the same pollsters over time.

In the past two months, we’ve gotten about a dozen polls from pollsters who’ve been researching the Republican race for the past two months. These polls are not necessarily high quality or representative, so don’t focus on the average of these polls. It’s the trend that matters, and the trend is unequivocal: Each of these polls has shown DeSantis doing worse than before, and Trump doing better.

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Sometimes it’s hard to explain why the polls move the way they do. This does not seem to be one of those cases. It’s easy to tell a neat story about why DeSantis slipped up.

The DeSantis election bump is over. In the aftermath of the midterms, DeSantis benefited from extensive media coverage of his landslide victory in Florida and Trump’s role in the GOP’s underwhelming showing.

Trump went on the offensive. Beginning in mid-to-late January, Trump began testing several lines of attack, criticizing DeSantis’ loyalty and his consistency on COVID issues. In early February, Trump shared a photo and posts on his Truth Social site suggesting that DeSantis “groomed” female students when he was a high school teacher 20 years ago. He’s kept up the pressure ever since.

DeSantis is on the sidelines. When Trump attacked him, there wasn’t much defense by DeSantis or counter-attacks against Trump, either by DeSantis or his allies. DeSantis hasn’t even run for office yet.

It’s a little hard to figure out which of these statements is the most important. Looking more closely at the data, there is reason to believe that all these factors play a role.

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For example, there is solid evidence that DeSantis was slipping even before Trump’s attacks began in earnest. A Monmouth University poll from January 26 to February 2 showed that DeSantis’ support deteriorated significantly compared to an early December poll. At this early point, the shift in the Monmouth survey and other surveys looks more like a waning post-midterm bounce than the effect of Trump’s attacks.

But DeSantis continued to lose ground in more recent polls, long after his interim bump should have subsided. This week, a Quinnipiac poll showed that Trump made big gains in the past month alone, with his lead growing by 12 points.

On average, DeSantis lost 4 points in last month’s polls compared to the same pollster’s polls between Jan. 15 and Feb. 15.

How important is it that DeSantis loses ground? It may not matter much on its own, but it could say something important about the challenges facing the DeSantis campaign.

So far, there is little evidence that DeSantis has suffered serious or irreparable damage, even though he has lost ground against Trump. For example, his preference scores remain strong: The new Quinnipiac poll showed him with an exceptional 72-6 preference score among Republicans. If the media conversation turns more favorable, his stance against Trump could easily recover.

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But there’s a chance this episode betrays a deeper problem for DeSantis, even if the attacks themselves weren’t particularly damaging. He and his team have been unable to respond to the attacks or change the conversation, possibly because he and his allies believe they cannot safely engage the former president. It would help explain why Trump’s attacks have gone largely unchallenged. It would help explain their efforts to narrow down areas of substantive disagreement with Trump, including over a topic like Ukraine, in which DeSantis is now at odds with about half of his own most likely supporters.

It wouldn’t be surprising if the DeSantis team hesitated to hire someone who remains popular among Republicans and who has, say, the ability to intervene asymmetrically, as his “groomer” attacks highlighted. That’s a lesson some former Florida presidential candidates learned all too well in 2016.

But if attacking Trump carries risks, so does letting him punch without a strong defense or counterpunch. If you need proof, look at DeSantis’s falling polls.

circa 2023 The New York Times Company

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