Hmmm: DeSantis tops Trump in "approval" straw poll at Western Conservative Summit

AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee

My condolences to the governor on his “victory” here, as it’s destined to offend the biggest and most fragile ego in the GOP. As DeSantis’s star continues to rise, Trump will increasingly feel threatened by it. The only thing less tolerable to him than losing a national election to Biden, I’d imagine, would be losing his base to another Republican.

He’ll turn on DeSantis eventually over it, an old-fashioned battle for dominance between two alpha gorillas. Remember, some of Trump’s own advisors reportedly expect DeSantis to run in 2024 even if Trump does. I think that’s unlikely, but the more evidence there is that Republican voters prefer the new guy, the more tempted DeSantis will be. It’d be hugely risky, but waiting until 2028 would bring its own risks.

Here’s the first little inkling that a meaningful number of Republican voters might prefer the new guy:

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis scored something of an upset this weekend by finishing slightly ahead of former President Donald Trump in the Western Conservative Summit’s straw poll for the 2024 presidential election, the poll’s organizer said Saturday.

DeSantis led the vote with about 75% to Trump’s roughly 72% in the highly unscientific poll, which was conducted online using the approval voting method…

Other possible Republican presidential contenders trailed, with Texas Sen. Ted Cruz nabbing 42% support, former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo finishing just under 40%, South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott at 37% and South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem and Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton nearly tied, with about 30% each.

You can see the full results here. Mike Pence finished 10th with just 21.56 percent. Nikki Haley was last among all Republicans tested at 19.14 percent, five points behind Donald Trump Jr. Junior’s poor showing is surprising given that he’s placed in the top five in numerous 2024 primary polls. It may be that the sort of righty who pays attention to the Western Conservative Summit is a bit more policy-minded than the average Republican voter, making them more immune to Trump Jr’s perpetual own-the-libs shtick.

That’s one problem with trying to read something meaningful into this poll, that it’s not necessarily representative of the wider Republican base. Another is the “approval” format. People weren’t asked to choose between Trump and DeSantis, merely to say whether they approved of each politician listed on the ballot. There’s no way to tell how many people who approve of both would prefer DeSantis in 2024 to the former president head to head.

Even so, any data point suggesting that Trump is no longer the most popular politician in the party is noteworthy. So is the fact that DeSantis and Trump stand alone among the 2024 contenders. Ted Cruz is a rock-ribbed conservative who had already been a senator for five years and finished second in a presidential primary by the time DeSantis was elected governor in 2018, yet he’s an afterthought here. Yesterday one presidential betting market moved DeSantis to four-to-one odds on winning the 2024 nomination — the same as Trump. Until recently the conventional wisdom was that no Republican could defeat Trump in the next primary. I wonder how far away we are from a new conventional wisdom that no one can defeat DeSantis if Trump decides not to run.

You’ll recall that Trump defeated DeSantis easily in the CPAC straw poll conducted in February, 55/21. That one was a true test of presidential preference, not an “approval” poll. But I wonder if it’s already outdated. DeSantis’s one great advantage over Trump is that, as a sitting governor, he can actively fight culture-war battles with skin in the game while Trump is relegated to issuing press releases. And DeSantis has fought a lot of them since the CPAC poll — vaccine passports, a “minute of silence” for students in public schools, banning transgender women from women’s sports, most recently offering to send Florida law enforcement to the border. The smear he suffered from “60 Minutes” over Florida’s vaccine rollout and his willingness to spar with CBS over it also surely won him some new fans.

I doubt we’ve reached the point where he would outpoll Trump head-to-head but I’d bet good money that if we reran the CPAC survey he wouldn’t trail by 34 points this time. It’s a matter of time before the Trump family wakes up to that and their praise for DeSantis becomes less effusive.

Here’s a scenario that has a small but nonzero chance of happening. Trump decides in 2023 that he’s not going to run and endorses DeSantis as his handpicked successor. The field clears and DeSantis is anointed the party’s presumptive nominee. Trump then watches with dismay as DeSantis is greeted by Republican audiences with the same sort of excitement that previously only Trump himself could generate. Republican politicians begin talking less about their loyalty to Trump and more about their support for DeSantis and his agenda as governor. Trump, suddenly relegated to yesterday’s news, quickly begins to regret his decision to play kingmaker and starts whispering to aides about jumping into the race after all. Maybe they talk him out of it — or maybe he gets in and offers to make DeSantis his VP if DeSantis will agree to drop out. What happens after that, God only knows.

As I say, there’s only a small chance of this happening. Trump will probably keep people in suspense about his 2024 intentions until the last moment before the ballot deadline, craving maximum drama and enjoying the discomfort of other potential candidates in having to wait him out. If he decides not to run at that point then he won’t be able to jump in later if he changes his mind. (Unless, I guess, he convinces state Republican parties to amend their rules on the fly for him and let him get on the ballot even after the deadline has passed. Which, uh, they’d probably do.) But the chances of a double-cross aren’t zero. Stay tuned.

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Jazz Shaw 7:31 PM on October 02, 2022