Earthquake: DeSantis leads Trump in primary poll of New Hampshire Republicans

(AP Photo/Butch Dill, File)

I doubt there’s been a poll published in the last five years that will frighten and anger Trump as much as this one. Even those that showed him losing to Biden in 2020 didn’t threaten him the way this New Hampshire survey does. After all, losing the election meant only that he’d no longer be president.

Losing a primary means he’s no longer the king of the GOP. It would mean that “his people” have moved on and found someone they like better. Even his trusted tactic of screaming “rigged!” after he loses a race might not work if he loses to DeSantis. It’s easy to convince Republican voters that national elections have been gamed but harder with respect to elections that are under the GOP’s exclusive control.

The sample size here is small, under 400 people, but it’s still going to alarm TrumpWorld like nothing else could about the prospect of a contested primary in 2024. Expect the Trump oppo team to scramble and begin leaking whatever dirt on DeSantis they’ve got — the sooner the better, as having him underperform in this fall’s Florida gubernatorial election would puncture the perception that he’s more electable than Trump. We might even begin to see Trump criticize DeSantis directly in the coming months to try to deflate the balloon before it has a chance to rise. I didn’t think the Trump/DeSantis cold war would turn hot until 2023 but if polls are already detecting a shift among Republican voters then Trump has no time to lose.

DeSantis is also the second choice of more New Hampshire Republicans than Trump is. And there’s this:

Looking at all of that, you might deduce that DeSantis is a tougher match-up for Biden in New Hampshire than Trump is. Your deduction would be correct:

Few numbers demonstrate as clearly how foolish Republicans would be to nominate Trump again than the fact that he hasn’t made headway in New Hampshire here despite monster inflation and Biden’s national job approval circling the drain. Meanwhile, DeSantis leading Biden by any margin in NH is shocking, as the state has gone red in a presidential election just once since 1988.

There’s the whole DeSantis “electability” pitch to Republican primary voters, gift-wrapped with a bow on top.

Look again at the first image above and note the shift over time. What’s driving it? How has the upstart made such strides in such a short period? I’d flag three factors:

1. DeSantis is forever on the lookout for culture-war flashpoints which he can exploit to impress the Republican base. The episode with Disney was a sort of parlay, first enacting the “don’t say gay” bill over liberal objections and then moving to nuke Disney’s special district privileges in Florida when the company raised objections. Wherever there’s an issue that’s caught the attention of the populist right — LGBT visibility, woke corporations, vaccines — DeSantis is johnny on the spot.

2. Trump’s “rigged election” nonsense is getting boring even to some who subscribe to it. His hardcore base will never let it go but to many he sounds like Captain Queeg when he rambles about “ballot dumps” while Republican voters worry about inflation and gas prices. It’s impossible to have watched both DeSantis and Trump over the past six months and come away concluding that Trump is more in touch with the base than DeSantis is.

3. The January 6 hearings might be doing DeSantis a favor by reminding the country that Trump is an unhinged authoritarian willing to sic a mob on Congress in hopes of clinging to power illegally. Call this the “Brit Hume theory” of the hearings, except that Hume thought the committee was inadvertently doing Republicans a favor by damaging Trump whereas I think the favor is quite intentional. The committee believes the country can’t endure another Trump presidency and they’re making the case — effectively — as to why, even if it means the GOP nominates someone more formidable in 2024. More from Sarah Longwell:

There’s also this:

If you need any more evidence that DeSantis is thinking hard about 2024, digest this Politico scoop about his endorsements in Florida. The typical story about endorsements involves a politician desperately hoping to land the support of Donald Trump; it’s rare to see one about a politician *not* wanting Trump’s support. But here we are. And if you read this site yesterday, you know why.

According to four people connected to the governor and former president, DeSantis has not asked Trump for a formal endorsement and isn’t planning to. It’s a clear sign that DeSantis, who more than four years ago was a little-known congressman from northeast Florida, has risen high in the GOP stratosphere…

DeSantis’ decision to forgo a Trump endorsement is a stark contrast from four years ago. In 2018, DeSantis was seen as a long shot challenger, running against then-Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam. Putnam had backing from the Republican establishment and a money advantage. But DeSantis shook the foundations of the race when he picked up a crucial endorsement from Trump ahead of the primary. Desantis even ran a notable television ad that depicted him reading the former president’s book “The Art of the Deal” to one of his kids.

DeSantis not wanting Trump’s endorsement is the flip side of Team Trump wanting Republicans to believe that DeSantis is quietly struggling in the polls. The Trumpers need voters to believe that DeSantis owes all of his success to Trump while DeSantis needs them to believe that he’s his own man, unbeholden. That’s a battle for control of DeSantis’s “electability” narrative: If he owes everything to Trump’s endorsement in 2018 and again in 2022 then he’s simply coasting on Trump’s popularity. He’s no more electable than Trump himself is. Whereas if DeSantis wins without Trump’s endorsement this time — and wins by a bigger margin than he did in 2018, which will certainly happen — then the claim that he’s riding Trump’s coattails is demolished. He really is more electable than Trump.

It’s no coincidence that when DeSantis’s name comes up in an interview, Trump unfailingly takes credit for his victory in the 2018 gubernatorial primary. (Justifiably, by the way.) DeSantis needs him to cut that out if he’s serious about challenging him in 2024, as it’s an absolute prerequisite to him winning the nomination that Republican voters not believe all GOP success flows from 45. So I believe it when Politico says he won’t ask for Trump’s endorsement.

But I’ll lay you a bet: Trump will want to endorse him anyway, unbidden, precisely in order to preserve some ability to take credit for his eventual victory. How he’s going to manage that when he and his cronies are leaking dirt on DeSantis and sniping at him with unattributed quotes in the press, I don’t know. But it’ll be amazingly fun to watch.

One last point. The clearer it becomes in the polling that the primaries would boil down to a two-man race between Trump and DeSantis, the better it is for DeSantis and the worse it is for Trump. If hopefuls like Mike Pence and Ted Cruz come to realize that they have zero chance of winning, they might pass on the race. And if they do, that leaves DeSantis free to consolidate the “Anyone But Trump” contingent. I don’t think he can beat Trump if the 2024 primary field is a big one, causing that contingent to splinter. But mano a mano? He’s got a shot.

Jazz Shaw Jul 06, 2022 9:01 AM ET