Trump vs. DeSantis, by the numbers

Based on a casual reading of the polls, Donald Trump looks to have smooth sailing to the Republican presidential nomination in 2024 and the chance to erase the stink of losing to Joe Biden that he so covets. But if that’s the case, why does Trump seem so panicky these days? Simple: Trump is in trouble, and — when you dig into the numbers — his grip on the GOP nomination is getting more tenuous. It is Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) who has all the momentum. 

The good news for Trump is that he still has high approval numbers among Republicans and leads in all but one of the GOP primary ballot tests. But that is where the good news ends. Trump is trending down against DeSantis on the national ballot and, for the first time, is losing in a state primary ballot test. According to FiveThirtyEight, Trump was regularly besting DeSantis with totals in the upper 50s to more than 60 percent, but the last time he hit 60 percent was in Echelon’s late-April poll. In the past month, Trump has mostly been in the low to mid-50s. 

Normally, a 28-point lead would be cause for celebration, but not for Trump. Trump’s totals are lagging far behind his approval ratings among Republicans. According to the YouGov June 21 benchmark, Trump is at 80 percent approval, meaning he is running nearly 30 points behind on the ballot test. And all this when Trump is the only Republican really running. Only Trump is holding rallies around the country; he has all but announced his candidacy and continues to work nonstop at dominating the headlines. 

Make no mistake, DeSantis is running, just in a highly calculated, surreptitious manner. As a result, his national numbers are not that great at face value. He lags Trump nationally and in primary polling. His national approval is 33 percent approve, 37 percent disapprove, according to the Yahoo News poll. He also has to get through reelection in Florida in November. 

Where DeSantis looks best is in comparison to Trump and others. In the same Yahoo poll, every political figure had a net negative rating. Trump was down 10 points, and Mike Pence was down 12 points. Negative sentiment was less pronounced for DeSantis: Just 26 percent of independents viewed DeSantis very unfavorably, compared to 54 percent for Trump. With Hispanics — a top GOP target group — DeSantis is underwater 28 percent to 33 percent (20 percent very unfavorable), but Trump is down 38 percent to 52 percent (41 percent very unfavorable). 

DeSantis also leads all other potential Republican candidates. Only Pence is competitive, but that is a bit generous. Echelon puts DeSantis ahead of Pence, 39 percent to 18 percent; in no recent poll is DeSantis behind. Trump has done a number on Pence within the GOP. Pence is 57 percent approve to 29 percent disapprove among Republicans, very weak for a man with nearly total name recognition. DeSantis polls 58 percent approve to just 15 percent disapprove. 

Trump’s gathering storm 

With universal name ID and a big initial lead, Trump should be unassailable. But lack of discipline, impatience and self-pity are conspiring to drag him down. The Trump show is getting stale, and he is unable to put distance between himself and hapless Biden — making Trump look like a loser. 

Biden’s approval numbers have collapsed, but Trump has barely benefited. Biden is down to a RealClearPolitics average of 39.1 percent approve and 56.4 percent disapprove. His worst result is Trafalgar, at a 35-60 percent deficit (Reuters and Quinnipiac are nearly identical at 36-58 and 35-58, respectively); his best is YouGov, at a 43-53 percent deficit. That is bad, but Trump is worse. YouGov has Trump down 40 percent approve to 55 percent disapprove. Trump is down 43 to 53 percent with independents, 36 to 58 percent with Hispanics, and at a deficit with seniors. Even his Republican numbers are not great, at 80 percent. Typically, GOP voters rally around their standard-bearer in the upper 80s. 

The Jan. 6 House select committee hearings are not helping. The public is not sympathetic to the Capitol rioters of 2021, with 68 percent disapproving, including majorities of all demographic and ideological groups — 58 percent among Republicans; 52 percent think Trump had “a lot” or “some” responsibility, including majorities or pluralities of all demographic groups; just 24 percent think he had no responsibility. 

It is true that the public is far less interested in these hearings than in inflation and other domestic issues, but that only plays well for Trump if he takes advantage. Instead, Trump continues to fume about the hearings and complain that the 2020 election was stolen. His side hobby is inserting himself into Republican primaries, where he has shown a marked inability to move GOP voters. 

As a result, Trump is offering no alternative to Biden, and the public wants neither of them. The Yahoo survey shows just 31 percent of the public wants Trump to run; only 29 percent of independents agree, while not a single demographic is net positive. Republicans only agree at 58 percent — and that is without offering alternatives. The numbers are worse for Biden, with just 21 percent looking forward to a Biden run, including just 43 percent of Democrats and a mere 12 percent of independents. 

Trump is essentially tied with Biden in national polling. In the past month, Trump’s best result is a 42-38 percent lead in a May Redfield & Wilton survey. Most recently, the Republican-leaning firm Echelon has Trump down 43-45 percent among likely voters. Not a single poll has put Trump at 50 percent or higher. Considering Biden’s polling nosedive and fumbling response to growing domestic problems, Trump’s numbers are terrible. Just a small uptick in fortune could make Trump a two-time loser to Biden. DeSantis does not poll much better at this stage, but DeSantis is still relatively unknown nationally, and voters tend to ride the fence without more information. 

Trump feeling the heat 

Polling numbers are not the only problem for Trump. DeSantis has the momentum and is playing a disciplined long game. DeSantis is in office, pursuing actual policy, offering real alternatives rather than just complaints; he is capturing the fancy of some in the media and some celebrities such as Bill Maher and Elon Musk — things that used to be Trump’s territory. 

Trump is on the defensive and faces a long fight — and that is not where Trump does well. Recall that Trump won the GOP nomination by blitzing his opponents with a relatively short campaign; the Republican field was inexperienced nationally, had never seen anything like Trump and was always on the defensive. Now everyone has seen the Trump show. There is nothing new to offer — he has gone into repeats like some wheezy syndicated sitcom. Unfortunately for him, Trump is no “Seinfeld.” He’s more like “The Cosby Show” — hot for a while but now forgotten. 

I wrote in this space in May that a DeSantis-Tim Scott ticket would be able to knock out Trump and be a favorite to wipe out any Democratic ticket in 2024. It’s starting to look like DeSantis could do that on his own.

Keith Naughton, Ph.D., is co-founder of Silent Majority Strategies, a public and regulatory affairs consulting firm. Naughton is a former Pennsylvania political campaign consultant. Follow him on Twitter @KNaughton711.

Tags 2024 presidential race DeSantis v. Trump discipline Donald Trump grievance culture Jan. 6 capitol riot Joe Biden Mike Pence momentum playing defense public opinion polling Ron DeSantis Trump Trump approval ratings Trump polls

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