Poll: DeSantis tops Trump by 23 points among Republicans

We’ve seen the signs for months now that Donald Trump could be vulnerable in a Republican primary, at least if he has to face his strongest potential opponent, Ron DeSantis. But a new poll conducted by Suffolk University for USA Today is the first to show Trump already trailing DeSantis nationally by a wide margin. As with any single poll finding, this should be taken with a grain of salt until it is confirmed by multiple pollsters, but this is un-spinnably bad news for Trump. And if DeSantis sees numbers like this in his internal polling — which one assumes he’ll conduct before making his decision — it is hard to see why he would pass on a run in 2024.

Per the RealClearPolitics poll average, Trump led DeSantis 48.8 percent to 27.3 percent through the most recent poll taken a month ago. But Republicans have had more time now to digest the disastrous performance of Trump’s candidates in 2022 compared with the whomping success of DeSantis and the Florida Republican slate he led. This particular poll comes from a reputable pollster: Suffolk was rated B+ by FiveThirtyEight entering 2022, and nailed the outcome of this year’s contested Senate races. The poll is still probably at least something of an outlier. Suffolk polled 1,000 registered voters between December 7 and December 11, of whom 374 were classified as “Republicans and conservative Independents,” with a fairly wide statistical margin of error of +/-5.1 percentage points. In short, this could easily be a fair ways off a true projection of a Republican primary electorate 14 months from now. Moreover, this is not like the polls in the RCP average, which test support across a whole field; it’s just asking the head-to-head matchup, which Trump was famously able to avoid in the 2016 primary. But even discounting the eye-popping headline for a certain amount of fudge factor, a 23-point lead for DeSantis is newsworthy.

The deeper you drill into this poll and its crosstabs, the better it looks for DeSantis and the worse not just for Trump but also for Joe Biden, whose reelection hinges so heavily on drawing Trump as an opponent. Biden leads Trump 47 percent to 40 percent, but trails DeSantis 47 percent to 43 percent. Among independent women, Biden leads DeSantis by five, but leads Trump by 23. Trump’s favorability among all voters is 30 percent, compared with 62 percent having an unfavorable view. Among all voters, 69 percent don’t want Trump to run again, and 67 percent don’t want Biden to run again. Sixty-five percent of Republicans and conservative independents want DeSantis to run, compared with less than half who want Trump running again. Forty-two percent of respondents say they voted for Trump in 2020, 47 percent for Biden, and 7 percent did not vote — which would raise some questions about the sample, but then, (1) people are notoriously inaccurate in reporting past votes and (2) it is very early to try to project a likely 2024 electorate anyway, especially in a primary.

Those voters were asked to choose between “I want Trump to run and continue the policies he pursued in office” and “I want Republicans to continue the policies Trump pursued in office, but with a different Republican nominee for president,” and they preferred the latter by a 61-31 percent margin. But note: Not only did that question not offer a third alternative, but the poll asked it before asking about DeSantis running, thus priming the voters to think of him in those terms. Among the primary sample, we see the already-familiar split: DeSantis runs even with Trump at 44 percent of non-college-educated Republicans, but his lead escalates at each level of education: 54-35 among those with some college, 69-24 among college graduates, and 76-13 among those with post-graduate educations. Trump has a 29-point lead (57-28) among those making below $50,000 a year, but DeSantis leads by double digits in every other income category. The good news for Trump: His best voters are the people hardest to poll. The bad news: His best voters are the people hardest to turn out. Also, those trends are reversed when DeSantis faces Biden: He leads Biden 52 percent to 38 percent among people without college degrees, but trails 51 percent to 38 percent among those with college or post-graduate degrees.

USA Today also notes that the poll shows significant erosion of Trump’s position compared to past showings in the same poll:

In July, 60% of Republicans wanted Trump to run again. In October, that number had dipped to 56%. Now it has fallen to 47%, an almost-even split with the 45% who don’t want him to run for a third time. The polls taken in July and December were of registered voters. The poll in October was of likely midterm voters. Trump is viewed less favorably by his partisans as well. The percentage of Republicans who see him favorably has dropped from 75% in October to 64% in December. His unfavorable rating has risen to 23% from 18%.

It’s a long way from here to the start of 2024, let alone November 2024. But here’s the thing: Trump is such a known quantity that it will be nearly impossible for him to persuade anyone to support him who isn’t already with him. In a Republican primary, anywhere from a third to half of the voters (depending upon the state) will be people who backed Trump in the 2016 primaries, and the vast majority will be people who voted for Trump in one or both of his general-election campaigns. If former supporters defect, it’s not a decision easily undone by a candidate who will be 77 years old during the primary and talks mainly about himself and his own past. It will also be impossible for Trump to run on his aura of inevitability and invincible hold on the party if he has to run from behind. If more of the polls in the coming months look like this, the Trump 2024 campaign will swiftly acquire the reek of staleness and failure.

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