2024 GOP primary poll: DeSantis 39, Pence 15, Cruz 7, Haley 4

AP Photo/Susan Walsh

You can tell there’s a certain special anxiety about DeSantis on the left already based on how sloppy and desperate some of the attacks on him have been. I don’t just mean the embarrassing “60 Minutes” hit piece about alleged pay-for-play on vaccine distribution or the conspiracy-mongering about Florida supposedly cooking its COVID numbers to make him look better.

I mean the head of the teachers union casually revealing that she can’t do math in her haste to score a point on him.

Florida’s had 38,000 deaths from COVID and is 26th of the 50 states in deaths per capita, below the national average. What sort of wave from the Delta variant is Randi expecting that’ll push its death toll into the millions?

I guess we’d better shut down public schools there and elsewhere this fall as a precaution, just in case she’s right.

The new primary poll mentioned in the headline comes from Republican pollster Tony Fabrizio, who surveyed the field with and without Trump. At the moment the only question in Republican presidential politics is whether Trump runs. If yes then he’s the nominee. If no then DeSantis is the nominee. (I stress “at the moment.”) Had Trump not put Pence in an impossible position on January 6 I think the results in the Trump-less field would have been tight, possibly/probably with Pence leading DeSantis. As it is, I can’t see how the VP climbs back to become the party’s second choice, especially now that he’s begun publicly defending his actions that day.

Trump remains the clear leader of the party. If he decided to run again for president in a crowded 2024 primary field, he would get roughly half of the vote, with DeSantis in a distant second place at 19 percent, according to a new survey of GOP voters from veteran Republican pollster Tony Fabrizio. Everyone else — including former Vice President Mike Pence — would be in single digits…

“For all the talk of the party moving on from Trump, it’s not the case. If he runs, he’s still the 800-pound gorilla,” Fabrizio said. “But while it’s Trump’s party, there is a clear successor — and that’s DeSantis. He’s the crown prince.”…

“Voters crave authenticity, and he comes across as very authentic,” [GOP strategist Kevin] McLaughlin said. “While some candidates are busy trying to ‘create’ an image or persona that will resonate with GOP presidential primary voters, DeSantis is just doing his job and letting his actions do all the talking.”

Politico’s description of the poll is accurate but misleading in that it doesn’t pay enough attention to how much DeSantis has gained even against Trump. In February, in a multi-candidate field, Trump led him 51/7. Today that lead has slipped to 47/19, a shift of 16 net points. Thanks to DeSantis, Trump no longer earns a majority of the vote against the rest of the field. There’s no reason — at the moment — to believe DeSantis won’t continue to impress MAGA during his gubernatorial reelection bid over the next 16 months either. And if he wins comfortably in 2022, there’ll be a volcano of chatter inside and outside Republican circles that he’s the party’s most electable option in 2024. That’ll further boost his standing in primary polls against Trump.

There’s also been major movement towards DeSantis in the Trump-less poll since February:

It’s not Pence who’s the biggest loser from DeSantismania, as he hasn’t fallen far in the past five months. It’s the rest. DeSantis looks to be gobbling up votes from everyone from Ted Cruz to Nikki Haley. That’s auspicious, as it suggests he’s better positioned than the competition to consolidate MAGA populists and more establishment Republican voters.

Fabrizio polled Trump and DeSantis head-to-head too, with no other candidates offered. If I were the governor, I’d take this as encouraging:

Nearly a third of the party already prefers him to Trump and just 43 percent say they definitely prefer Trump to him. There’s also an inkling here of the coming electability argument in DeSantis’s favor, as he leads Trump slightly among the not-so-strong Republican contingent. Based on this, DeSantis would probably play better with moderates and independents than Trump would.

And don’t forget, for all the attention he’s gotten over the past year from righty activists, he’s still unknown to many casual Republican voters outside Florida. Asking them if they prefer him or Trump is asking them if they prefer the most famous person in the world to a guy they’ve barely heard of. It’s a name-recognition mismatch, but time and more media exposure will change that. There’s no reason to think DeSantis won’t keep making gains, at least until he runs into the wall of hardcore MAGA devotees. Where is that wall? 50 percent of the party? 25 percent? A lot depends on the answer.

What would really help him and the GOP is if Republican leaders followed McConnell’s example and stopped giving Trump attention. Oh well.