New poll shows DeSantis gaining on Trump as GOP's 2024 choice

AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack

Polling on Trump vs. DeSantis is all over the board right now but I think two conclusions are fair:

1. Trump still leads big, enough so that he’d easily hold off DeSantis *if* the primary were held today.
2. Because the primary won’t be held today, Trump should start worrying if he isn’t worried already.

According to some polls, he should worry only a tiny bit. A few days ago, Harvard-Harris found him ahead of DeSantis by 45 points. Another poll this week from Morning Consult finds him up 36 points, 50/14:

You shouldn’t lose any sleep if your foremost rival is 30-40 points behind you.

But what if those polls are wrong and the true gap between the two is smaller? If I were Trump, I’d lose some sleep over this:

My colleague, David Wasserman wrote about a conversation he had with a GOP strategist whose organization is privately poll-testing Trump against DeSantis in an imaginary 2024 presidential primary. The group, Wasserman writes, has found Trump’s lead over the GOP Governor varies from 25 points in the Deep South to single digits in the Midwest, with a tie among GOP voters familiar with both.

Today Echelon Insights published its own survey of a Trump/DeSantis contest, one which validated both of the conclusions above. On the one hand, Trump continues to lead by a comfortable margin. On the other hand, the numbers are trending against him:

Why has DeSantis gained 15 points on him in three months? Possibly it’s due to him straining to signal that he’s friendly to anti-vaxxers at a moment when Trump has irritated that group by trumpeting how effective the vaccines are. After annoying that group himself by extolling the vaccines early last year, DeSantis is now so determined to pander to them that he won’t answer a simple question about whether he’s been boosted or not. Trump’s reign over the GOP may come to ruin because, for once in his life, he insisted on telling his base a truth it didn’t want to hear. DeSantis, not feeling the same compunction, stands to benefit.

But there’s a more likely explanation for DeSantis’s surge: Name recognition. That was my theory in this post for why the governor continues to lag Trump by such wide margins. It’s not because MAGA fans have sized him up and made a considered decision that they prefer Trump. It’s because most Republican primary voters don’t pay close enough attention to politics every day to have formed a firm opinion about DeSantis. Once they do start paying attention to him, odds are they’ll like what they see. And if they do, the gap with Trump could close quickly.

Echelon tested that theory, incidentally. And guess what.

Among Republicans who know and like both candidates, Trump’s lead is … single digits. And unlike DeSantis, Trump will have no opportunities over the next two years to score policy wins that’ll increase his political standing within the party. If DeSantis does run in 2024, he’ll run on a message of “Trump, except competent.” Being governor gives him ample real-world opportunities to prove that.

To put that another way, Republican opinion right now is essentially a one-way ratchet. It’s possible DeSantis will have a scandal or misstep badly on some policy program, but odds are he’ll continue to do the pugilistic populist thing he’s been doing, courting anti-vaxxers and other key Trumpist constituencies he needs to challenge Trump. Some who currently prefer Trump will watch that and come around to preferring DeSantis. And there isn’t much Trump can do to reverse that dynamic, for the simple reason that he holds no office and lacks a major media platform which he could use to draw pro-DeSantis Republicans back to him.

Which means he may need to either declare his presidential candidacy early or pick a fight with DeSantis soon, or both. He can’t let that ratchet turn uninterrupted for too long. If he does, DeSantis will become convinced that he stands a real chance of winning in 2024 and suddenly Trump will have a fight on his hands for the nomination.

I wouldn’t waste much time if I were him:

By the way, another poll out today from Marquette Law finds that 70 percent of Americans don’t want Trump to run for president again. That’s basically the entirety of the United States minus the hardcore MAGA wing of the GOP. People are so sour on Trump, in fact, that DeSantis — an unknown to most voters — fares marginally better than Trump does head to head against Biden:

The political fundamentals will make 2024 an increasingly easy choice for Republicans on the merits. The question is whether Trump’s cult-leader dominance of the party will prevent them from making that choice.