It’s been a rough few months for Ron DeSantis.
Donald J. Trump and his allies have branded him “Meatball Ron,” “Ron DeSanctimonious,” a “groomer,” disloyal, and a supporter of claims-cutting programs. Now he is being criticized by many mainstream conservatives for calling Russia’s invasion of Ukraine a “territorial dispute”.
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, Mr. DeSantis, the Florida governor, has steadily lost ground to Mr. Trump, whose own numbers have 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 opinions of Mr. Trump’s strength. In just the past few days, a CNN/SSRS poll showed a close race, with Mr. DeSantis at 39 percent and Mr. Trump at 37 percent among registered voters, while a Morning Consult poll put Mr. Trump by nearly two -a lead, 52 percent to 28 percent.
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’ve studied the Republican race for the past 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 Mr. DeSantis doing worse than before and Mr. 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 Mr. DeSantis slipped up.
The DeSantis campaign is over. After the midterms, Mr. DeSantis benefited from extensive media coverage of his landslide victory in Florida and Mr. Trump’s role in the GOP’s disappointing performance.
Trump went on the offensive. From mid to late January, Mr Trump began testing different lines of attack, criticizing Mr DeSantis’ loyalty and his consistency on Covid issues. Earlier in February, Mr. Trump shared a photo and posts on his Truth Social website that suggested Mr. DeSantis was a high school teacher who “nursed” female students two decades ago. He’s been keeping the pressure up ever since.
DeSantis is on the sidelines. When Mr. Trump attacked him, there wasn’t much defense by Mr. DeSantis or counter-attacks on Mr. Trump, whether by Mr. DeSantis or his allies. Mr. DeSantis has not even declared his candidacy.
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 is decent evidence that Mr. DeSantis slipped even before Mr. Trump’s attacks began in earnest. A Janmouth University poll from Jan. 26 to Feb. 2 showed a significant deterioration in support for Mr. 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 Mr Trump’s attacks.
But Mr. DeSantis has continued to lose ground in more recent polls, long after his medium-term bump should have dissipated. This week, a Quinnipiac poll showed Mr Trump making big gains in the last month alone, with his lead widening by 12 points.
On average, Mr. DeSantis lost four points in polls conducted over the past month, compared to polls by the same pollster between Jan. 15 and Feb. 15.
How important is it that Mr. DeSantis lose ground? It may not matter much by itself, but it could say something important about the challenges facing the DeSantis campaign.
So far, even if he has lost ground to Mr. Trump, there is little evidence that Mr. DeSantis suffered any serious or irreparable damage. His likeability ratings, for example, remain strong: The new Quinnipiac poll showed him an exceptional 72-6 likeability rating among Republicans. If the national conversation on issues and events turns more favorable, his position on Mr. Trump could recover slightly.
But there’s a chance this episode will reveal a deeper problem for Mr. 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 Mr Trump’s attacks have largely gone unchallenged. It would help explain their efforts to narrow down areas of substantive disagreement with Mr. Trump, including an issue like Ukraine, on which Mr. 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 there are risks in attacking Mr. Trump, there are risks in allowing him to strike without vigorous defense or counterattack. If you need proof, you can just look at Mr. DeSantis’ declining poll numbers.