How inevitable is a third consecutive nomination of Donald Trump? Partisan commentators, when it suits their purposes, tend to assume it is so.
Republicans who remain supporters of the 45th president point to data showing he remains popular among his party’s voters. They also recall how loudly heralded attempts to deprive him of his first nomination, in 2016, foundered.
Democrats who regard Trump’s election as an inexplicable black swan event, or even a putsch, have an obvious interest in elevating his chances. So do the cable news channels, which, hungry for ratings, gave him the equivalent of billions of dollars’ worth of free advertising in the spring of 2016.
That interest is illustrated in the poll numbers. For Trump remains unpopular with, if not anathema to, a majority of voters, including many who otherwise regularly vote Republican. That unpopularity is a sledgehammer they can use to attack all Republicans.
Democrats certainly don’t want to depend on the popularity of Joe Biden or his policies. And who else do they have to run?
But is Trump’s lock on a third presidential nomination all that secure? Recent polling suggests the answer is no.
Most noteworthy has been the New York Times-Siena College poll conducted July 5-7. Of its sample of Republican voters, 49% favored Trump and 25% favored Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis for the 2024 nomination. That sounds like a big Trump edge, but, as reporter Michael Bender pointed out, his margin there is smaller than Hillary Clinton’s was over Bernie Sanders in early 2016.
To which two things must be added. The first is that this is based on the responses of a minority of the 849 registered voters whom NYT-Siena interviewed. Margins of error in samples this small are pretty large.
What this poll really tells us is that about half of Republicans still support Trump—fewer probably than in all 2021-22 polling—and a substantial minority pick out the governor of one state, albeit a large one, as an alternative.
That is underlined by the much less noticed results of another poll, sponsored by Yahoo News/YouGov, conducted June 24-27. That survey showed Trump leading with 45%, with DeSantis not so far back at 36%. The total sample size here was much larger, 1,630 adults. The 400-respondent subsample of Republicans would likely have a smaller margin of error, but it could also be a possibly less representative group of respondents.
The second thing that should be added to the Times-Siena results and in support of Bender’s spin is that state polls are showing Trump with less than solid majority support from Republicans.
A July 13-15 WDIV/Detroit News survey of 500 Michigan Republican primary voters, conducted in anticipation of the state’s Aug. 2 primary, showed Trump with 45% and DeSantis with 42%. That’s a statistical tie.
A June 16-20 Granite Poll survey of 318 Republican primary voters in first-in-the-nation New Hampshire showed 39% for DeSantis and 37% for Trump. That’s a contrast with the 43-18 and 47-19 Trump leads in corresponding polls in July and October 2021.
Florida is the one state where voters have equal substantive knowledge of both candidates. There, a Victory Insights survey of 600 Republican primary voters polled July 13-14 showed DeSantis with 51% of the vote and Trump with 33%. When pressed to say which candidate they leaned toward, it was DeSantis, 61% to 39%. An early July survey of 656 Florida Republicans by Blueprint Polling similarly found DeSantis leading Trump 51% to 39%.
From these numbers, I find it easy to conclude that DeSantis could be a serious competitor for the 2024 Republican nomination. That’s not because Trump has been disqualified by the Jan. 6 hearings. They may have cost him a few general election points, but not as many as he has cost himself.
His continued fixation on relitigating the 2020 election leaves him vulnerable to a DeSantis brimming with critiques of the present and programs for the future. DeSantis, as Dexter Filkins’ perhaps unwillingly positive portrait in the New Yorker indicates, is smart, hardworking, disciplined and eager to win fights, citing chapter and verse, over hostile media.
He could have an additional advantage. Current polling discourages any other candidate, even former Vice President Mike Pence, from entering the race. In 2016, Trump benefited from split opposition and from a no-hope but persistent John Kasich who siphoned off anti-Trump votes.
Can Ron DeSantis win a one-on-one race against Donald Trump? Current polling tells me the answer is, sure he could.
Michael Barone is a senior political analyst for the Washington Examiner, resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and longtime co-author of The Almanac of American Politics.
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