Are we sure the backlash to the Mar-a-Lago search is an insurmountable problem for DeSantis?

AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack

The conventional wisdom since the search happened is that DeSantis is now cooked in a Republican primary. Conservative voters’ sacred duty to spite the libs at all costs requires them to nominate a guy who’s the subject of multiple criminal investigations and was impeached twice as president. Sorry, Ron. Focus on 2028, maybe. The “DeSantasy” of 2024 is over.


Is it?

Let me show you two polls while asking you to bear in mind that DeSantis’s entire sales pitch in a primary against Trump will be that he offers all of the culture-war fun that Trump does with none of the excess baggage. Trump — but electable, in other words. Here’s what Morning Consult found when it asked Americans whether they approve or disapprove of the search at Mar-a-Lago:

Overall, registered voters approve 52/37. Independents approve 51/29. There’s very little gender gap, and in every age group tested more people approve of the operation than disapprove.

Republicans are a big outlier, obviously, splitting 16/76, a big obstacle for DeSantis in a primary. But is it an insurmountable one? The fact that a majority of voters overall side with the DOJ against Trump makes this another reason in theory for GOP voters to prefer DeSantis on electability grounds. Rationally, it’s nutty to nominate someone whom a majority of the country believes may have committed a crime warranting a federal search when you can nominate a guy whom you like and who’s unencumbered by such matters.

Which is not to say that Republican voters will vote rationally in the end, of course. They seldom do. It’s simply to say that the Mar-a-Lago search hasn’t damaged DeSantis’s electability pitch. It’s strengthened it. And he’s shrewdly been careful to denounce the search himself, making sure that MAGA voters don’t perceive him as being on the other side of the issue.


The next poll is from YouGov. Same question: Do you approve or disapprove of the search at Mar-a-Lago?

Same basic results as Morning Consult. Registered voters support the operation 56/38. Indies support it 47/37. Republicans again are overwhelmingly opposed at 21/72. But based on the overall numbers, if you had to bet on whether the search has made Trump more or less electable in a general election relative to DeSantis, you’d say less. Which is exactly what candidate DeSantis would want you to say when you’re weighing your primary vote.

I linked this a day or two ago but it’s worth posting again here. Here’s Fox primetimer Laura Ingraham:

“People conflate Trump with people’s overall sense of happiness in the country. Donald Trump’s been a friend of mine for 25 years, and I’m always very open about this on my show. But, you know we’ll see whether that’s what the country wants,” Ingraham said during an appearance on Lisa Boothe’s podcast. “The country I think is so exhausted. They’re exhausted by the battle, the constant battle, that they may believe that, well, maybe it’s time to turn the page if we can get someone who has all Trump’s policies, who’s not Trump.”

“The country is exhausted by the battle” is a fine encapsulation of DeSantis’s nascent argument against Trump. Is our goal to win elections and stop the radical left? Then let’s give centrist voters out there who are tired of Joe Biden’s malaise a Republican nominee they’re willing to support.


One more data point from the YouGov poll, just to remind you that the Mar-a-Lago saga isn’t over yet. If the facts get worse for Trump, even Republicans’ views of his culpability in the matter might start to shift. Here’s what YouGov got when it asked people if they’d approve or disapprove of Trump’s actions in taking documents to his home if it turned out that some of the documents were related to nuclear weapons:

Registered voters would disapprove overwhelmingly, 24/58. Even those who voted for Trump in 2020 are slightly disapproving on balance at 35/36. WaPo reported last week that classified documents “related to nuclear weapons” were among the material the feds were looking for at Mar-a-Lago, although that’s phrased so vaguely that it could describe anything that touches on the subject. Since that report came out, though, some mainstream Republican politicians have been a bit more restrained in siding with Trump against the DOJ on the matter. They don’t want to be left holding the bag here if it turns out that he really did have egregiously sensitive material shoved in a storage room somewhere at his heavily traveled resort.

I suspect that his many shifting explanations for why there were official documents on the premises aren’t doing him favors either. A former Director of the Information Security Oversight Office, who oversaw classified info throughout the executive branch, published a piece yesterday exposing five myths about the DOJ’s documents probe and Trump’s defenses to it. Here, for example, is what he had to say about Trump supposedly having issued a “standing order” that any material he removed was declassified.


Out of almost 3 million individuals with security clearances, ISOO has reported that less than 2,000 possess original classification authority. Everyone else classifies derivatively, i.e. they simply carry forward the original decision that specific information is classified. In fiscal year 2017 (the last year for which numbers exist), ISOO reported that there were 58,501 original classification decisions compared to 49 million derivative decisions. Traditionally, rarely if ever does the president personally serve as an original classification authority. If the former president personally declassified information contained in documents removed to the White House residence, procedures should have been in place to notify the official who originally classified that information who in turn would have to have notified the potentially millions of individuals who derivatively classified or otherwise had copies of that same classified information. No such procedures appear to have existed during the Trump administration. As such, if Trump had, in fact, declassified the records in question, the original classifier and the myriad of authorized users of that information would remain oblivious to the fact that the information contained therein would no longer have the legal protections of the classification system. One such user was the president’s own national security advisor, John Bolton, who stated, “I was never briefed on any such order, procedure, policy when I came in,” adding that he had never been told of it while he was working there, and had never heard of such a thing after.


The feds claimed in the inventory attached to the search warrant that they had recovered top secret documents from the premises, which is indefensible given that the Archives had asked for them back, the DOJ had subpoenaed them, and one of Trump’s lawyers had certified previously that all classified material was gone. The clearer it becomes that he really did do something he shouldn’t have here, and the more desperate his excuses are for why he did it, the more even Republican opinion may shift — quietly — towards “the country is exhausted by the battle.” Don’t give up on DeSantis’s chances just yet.

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David Strom 12:00 PM | February 22, 2024