The DeSantis Decline

After former President Donald Trump led a hand-picked slate of candidates to defeat in 2022, many Republicans sought a fresh face to lead the conservative movement. For some members of the GOP establishment, the ideal candidate was Florida Governor Ron DeSantis. In him they saw a younger, sharper version of the former president, and someone who is popular with party voters in his home state (where he had just coasted to an unprecedented 19-point landslide win), DeSantis seemed to offer a path forward for voters who agreed with many of Trump’s core policies but wanted a more controlled face for the party.

This impetus for change was so strong that DeSantis actually led Trump in some primary polls back in mid-February, well before he even announced his campaign. Prominent analysts like David Shor went so far as to call him a favorite to win the nomination, and pollsters like Nate Cohn noted his unique and rare strength among Republican primary voters in early polling.

Instead of being a harbinger of things to come, however, that was the high point for DeSantis. His nascent campaign has been hobbled by self-induced missteps and an indictment-fueled surge from Donald Trump, and his candidacy has flailed, with the Florida governor seeing his favorability and standing in primary polling plummet since his mid-February peak.

Why might this be happening? There are a few possible reasons. Although Trump had begun attacking DeSantis months ago on a variety of issues, DeSantis had steadfastly refused to push back until recently. This meant that while DeSantis’ favorables began to plummet as his vulnerabilities got exposed by Trump, DeSantis would not raise a counter.

DeSantis also is, by many accounts, extremely awkward on the campaign trail. While his campaign had worked to shield him from tough questions at the start, the spotlight of a presidential primary quickly caused DeSantis’ weaknesses to soon manifest in many different ways. This same social dynamic may have partly contributed to his struggle in the endorsement battle, with the Florida congressional delegation broadly opting to endorse Trump over DeSantis. While some DeSantis backers may argue that endorsements are overrated, they are not meaningless — history suggests that the volume of endorsements is actually about as predictive of the primary as polling is, and so the fact that DeSantis trails Trump on both fronts by large margins is a major red flag for his candidacy.

Another key problem for DeSantis is that as his national relevance has increased, his campaign decisions and policy goals have been placed under intense scrutiny by the media and donors, and these groups generally find his stances off-putting. Chief among the concerns expressed is his obstinate focus on rolling back LGBT rights, best shown in a bizarre advertisement that attacked Trump for allegedly “promoting Pride month”. The ad was widely described as tone-deaf, out-of-touch, and “terminally online”. It is also of questionable popularity or relevance to voters, even in a Republican primary.

A June 2023 poll from Gallup found that 49% of Republicans supported the legality of same-sex marriages, while an April 2023 poll from Fox found that only 1% of voters listed “wokeness/transgender issues” as the most important issue facing the country. It is not clear that these angles will meaningfully move the needle towards DeSantis, and they are certainly not ones that we think are likely to close a 30 point gap between him and Trump. His controversial policy stances extend to other issues too; he has taken the unpopular position of downplaying the Russian invasion of Ukraine, has endured significant criticism for banning books in Florida schools, and has faced serious pushback over his six-week abortion ban.

These policy missteps are not free from consequence. In fact, they have compromised DeSantis’ electability angle significantly via a raft of negative headlines and some extreme donor unease. In a worrying sign for the governor, key GOP backers have both publicly and privately expressed major concerns regarding his flailing candidacy, his refusal to attack Trump directly, and his aforementioned policy positions. While there is time for him to turn things around, the sheer size of his disadvantage should not be understated — to reiterate, DeSantis currently trails Trump by nearly thirty points in GOP primary polls and lags badly in endorsements and small-donor fundraising, with his own spokesperson calling Trump the “runaway front-runner”.

DeSantis now faces a troubling reality: the more people see of him, the less they seem to like him. His myopic focus on culture war wedge issues and his campaign missteps have helped lead to a marked polling decline and a tremendous endorsement deficit, and there is little sign of this changing anytime soon.

By no means is it true that DeSantis doesn’t have a path to winning the nomination. After all, most of the support he has shed in the polls so far has gone solely to Trump and can theoretically be recovered, especially if the former President is disqualified from office due to an espionage conviction.

But he was never supposed to be in the position of praying for a conviction to eject his main rival from the race. He wasn’t supposed to need a miracle. Five months ago, he was viewed as the rare candidate who could go toe to toe with Donald Trump and wrest control of the GOP from him en route to re-establishing Republican control of government.

Today, however, that has never seemed further from reality.

Data acknowledgements: Data for DeSantis’ net favorability and primary vote share is from FiveThirtyEight‘s aggregators. Data for DeSantis’ head to head margin vs Trump is from RaceToTheWhiteHouse.

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