2024 primary poll: Trump leads DeSantis by ... 45 points

(AP Photo/Butch Dill, File)

Maybe the reports of DeSantis closing the gap with Trump in primary polling were a little premature.

Still, this new data notwithstanding, I’m convinced he has a real foothold in populist opinion with room to grow. My sense is that a majority of right-wing commentators already prefer him to Trump as the 2024 nominee, although whether they’re all willing to say so publicly is a separate question. The audience still seems to want Trump. For now.

Maybe?

In a hypothetical eight-person GOP presidential primary, Trump holds a clear edge, garnering 57 percent support among Republican voters. DeSantis and former Vice President Mike Pence are nearly deadlocked at 12 percent and 11 percent, respectively. No other would-be candidate tested in the poll registers double-digit support.

Should Trump forgo another campaign for the White House, however, DeSantis would supplant him as the frontrunner. The Florida governor scores 30 percent support in a field that doesn’t include Trump, while Pence takes second place at 24 percent.

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) gets 14 percent support in such a scenario, according to the survey.

If trailing the guy who refused to overturn the election doesn’t convince Ted Cruz that he has no chance of being president, I don’t know what will.

The question I keep coming to back with these polls that show DeSantis a distant second to Trump is: How many Republicans are making a considered choice between the two and how many have only the faintest idea of who DeSantis is? News junkies like you and me take for granted that DeSantis is a household name on the right. Conservative media writes about him every day, he appears on Fox News regularly, he’s constantly engaged in high-profile policy squabbles with Democrats, including as recently as this morning.

But the universe of Republican primary voters is much larger than the audience for activist righty media. We can safely assume that primary voters are more politically engaged than general election voters are, but their degree of engagement runs the gamut. How much do low-information primary voters know about DeSantis? In particular, how much do centrist Republicans who dislike Trump and might be looking for an “Anybody But Trump” alternative know about him?

How many people are choosing Trump in these polls because their reaction to hearing DeSantis’s name is “Wait, who’s Ron DeSantis again? Is he the guy from Texas?”

If I’m right that DeSantis’s problem is awareness, not a strong preference for Trump on the merits, then he’s in a much better position than the numbers would suggest. All he has to do is find a way to connect with more casual voters within the GOP.

Uh … how does he do that? How do you compete for name recognition with a rival who can achieve total media saturation at will?

Is there any way for DeSantis to expand his own media reach by an order of magnitude, say? One thing he could do is agree to national TV interviews more often, but I’d guess he’s reluctant to do that in a year when he’s up for reelection. He’s calculating that Republicans now have the numbers in Florida to sweep him to a second term without him needing to pander to swing voters, in which case he’s better off avoiding national media at a moment when he’s positioning as a solid populist. Next year, after he’s safely reelected, he’ll have more flexibility in steering a bit towards the center as he introduces himself to national voters.

But national TV interviews are old media, just one part of the equation. DeSantis also has his eye on new media, making nice with righty social media influencers in hopes that they’ll choose him over Trump too if and when the time comes. The more populist media figures are on his side, the more of a “permission structure” MAGA fans will have to choose DeSantis over their hero. Case in point:

Ms. Coulter, it seems, has found a shiny new leader with whom to antagonize her former hero. “For months now, Trump’s been playing the aging silent film star Norma Desmond in ‘Sunset Boulevard’ to DeSantis’s younger, prettier Betty Schaefer,” she wrote in her column Wednesday, which closed with this punch to the throat: “Give voters a populist conservative who’s not a con man and a liar and they’ll be ‘Republicans’ again. No wonder Trump hates DeSantis.”

In her email, Ms. Coulter got even more personal. “DeSantis is better than Trump, for many, many reasons, including: He won’t bring Jared and Ivanka into the White House.” She also expressed confidence that Mr. DeSantis can handle Mr. Trump. “He’s mostly just ignoring the 11-year-old. Unlike Trump, DeSantis has a day job.”

Speaking of social media, here’s an interesting stat from Axios:

Trump’s numbers there are artificially depressed since he’s the only person on the list who’s out of office and deprived of a social media platform. He has few opportunities to make real “news” yet he still inspires more chatter on social media than the sitting president. Even so, DeSantis outperforms him. And unlike Ted Cruz and Marjorie Taylor Greene, I think DeSantis’s engagement involves a true mix of fans and haters. With the other two, it’s usually haters sniping at them for some outlandish trollish thing they’ve said or done.

DeSantis has a real grassroots following, in other words, one that I think could threaten Trump’s hold on the party if he can figure out a way to break through into the political consciousness of casual Republicans. But the only way to do that might be to primary Trump. And if he did, Trump almost certainly wouldn’t debate him and give DeSantis a shot at major media attention. So the challenger would still be stuck scrambling to build a national profile while Trump hogs the spotlight.

One of his biggest assets as a potential Trump successor is the fact that Democrats clearly despise him, giving him invaluable “own the libs” cred. Here’s former Biden COVID czar Andy Slavitt dinging DeSantis for the dust-up between Florida and the FDA over monoclonal antibody treatments.