DeSantis, on defense, shows signs of slipping in polls

It’s been a rough few months for Ron DeSantis.

Donald Trump and his allies have branded him “Meatball Ron,” “Ron DeSanctimonious,” a “groomer,” disloyal, and a supporter of claims-reduction programs. Now he is being criticized by many mainstream conservatives for calling Russia’s invasion of Ukraine a “territorial dispute”.

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Does all this make a difference in the polls? There are indications that the answer is yes.

In polls conducted since the Trump offensive began two months ago, Florida Gov. DeSantis has steadily lost ground to Trump, whose own count has been increasing.

It can be difficult to keep track of who’s up and who’s down in the Republican race because different pollsters have had such wildly different views of Trump’s strength. In just the past few days, a CNN/SSRS poll showed a close race, with DeSantis at 39% and Trump at 37% among registered voters, while a Morning Consult poll put Trump by nearly 2 to 1, 52% . to 28%.

In this situation, the best way to get a clear view of recent trends is to compare polls from the same pollsters over time.

In the past two months, we’ve received about a dozen polls from pollsters who had studied the Republican race for the previous two months. These polls aren’t necessarily high quality or representative, so don’t focus on the average of these polls. It’s the trend that matters, and the trend is clear: Every single one of those polls has shown DeSantis doing worse than before and Trump doing better.

Sometimes it’s hard to explain why the polls are doing the way they are. This does not appear to be one of those cases. It’s easy to tell a neat story about why DeSantis slipped up.

The DeSantis campaign is over. After the midterms, DeSantis benefited from extensive media coverage of his landslide win in Florida and Trump’s role in the GOP’s disappointing performance.

Trump went on the offensive. From mid to late January, Trump tested various lines of attack and criticized DeSantis’ loyalty and consistency on COVID issues. In early February, Trump shared a photo and posts on his Truth Social website that suggested DeSantis was a high school teacher “nurturing” female students two decades ago. He’s been keeping the pressure up ever since.

DeSantis is on the sidelines. When Trump attacked him, there wasn’t much defense by DeSantis or counter-attacks on Trump, whether by DeSantis or his allies. DeSantis hasn’t even declared his candidacy yet.

It’s a little tricky to figure out which of these explanations is the most important. Looking more closely at the data, there is reason to believe that all of these factors play a role.

For example, there’s decent evidence that DeSantis slipped even before Trump’s attacks began in earnest. A Monmouth University poll from January 26 to February 2 showed a significant decline in support for DeSantis compared to an early December poll. At this early stage, the shift in the Monmouth and other polls looks more like a waning post-half recovery than the impact of Trump’s attacks.

But DeSantis has consistently lost ground in more recent polls, long after its medium-term bump should have dissipated. This week, a Quinnipiac poll showed Trump making big gains in the last month alone, with his lead widening by 12 points.

On average, DeSantis lost 4 points in polls conducted over the past month compared to polls conducted by the same pollster between January 15th and February 15th.

How important is it that DeSantis is losing ground? It may not matter much by itself, but it could say something important about the challenges facing the DeSantis campaign.

So far, there’s little evidence that DeSantis has suffered serious or irreparable harm, even as he’s lost ground to Trump. His likeability ratings, for example, remain strong: The new Quinnipiac poll showed him an exceptional 72-6 likeability rating among Republicans. If the media talk turns more favorable, his position on Trump could recover slightly.

But there’s a chance this episode reveals a deeper problem for DeSantis, even if the attacks themselves weren’t particularly damaging. He and his team failed to respond to the attacks or delay talks, and it’s possible he and his allies don’t believe they can safely attack the former president. It would help explain why Trump’s attacks have largely gone unchallenged. It would help explain their efforts to narrow down areas of substantive disagreement with Trump, including an issue like Ukraine, on which DeSantis is now at odds with about half of his own most likely supporters.

It wouldn’t be surprising if the DeSantis team hesitated to hire someone who remains popular with Republicans and who has, say, the ability to engage asymmetrically, as demonstrated by his “groomer” attacks. That’s a lesson some former Florida presidential candidates learned all too well in 2016.

But if attacking Trump carries risks, allowing him to strike without vigorous defense or counterattack also carries risks. If you need proof, you can just look at DeSantis’ slipping poll numbers.

c.2023 The New York Times Company

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