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The current state of play in the GOP presidential primary

AP Photo/Reba Saldanha/Marta Lavandier

There are still 11 months until the presidential primary season begins in earnest. Yet there is little doubt that the race for the Republican nomination will be a two-man contest between former President Donald Trump and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R). 

Nate Cohn’s analysis of the last 50 years of primary polling data bears this out, as he notes: “nearly every candidate with as much support as Ron DeSantis and Donald Trump in early polls has gone on to win the party nomination in the modern era.” 

While Trump and DeSantis have more or less solidified their frontrunner statuses, the question still remains: Who is better positioned to ultimately win the nomination? 

The answer depends on various factors, including the number of candidates running and voter turnout. Most polling thus far has suggested that Trump is likely to prevail in a crowded Republican primary field in a lower-turnout scenario, while DeSantis would fare better in a two-way contest with a higher turnout.  

That being said, over the last month, Trump’s grip on the Republican Party has strengthened considerably, while DeSantis’ position has weakened. 

Trump trounces the full field of roughly a dozen potential candidates, per the latest Emerson College poll, which found the former president with a massive 30 point lead over DeSantis, whose vote share has dropped by four points since January. 

While DeSantis is stronger in a head-to-head matchup, Trump still leads DeSantis in this scenario by 8 points, per a recent Yahoo News/YouGov poll — which marks a 12 point swing to Trump since their poll from early February, which registered DeSantis with a 4 point lead. 

The design of the Republican Party’s winner-take-all delegate system also inherently benefits a candidate like Trump, whose devoted base comprises roughly 35 to 40 percent of the primary electorate. This is far from a majority but is enough to carry him to the nomination, as it did in 2016. 

The diehard loyalty of Trump’s supporters means that he would also likely benefit from a low turnout scenario — which most primaries tend to be — where only more partisan voters cast ballots. Recent polling finds Trump leading DeSantis by 17 points among Republicans who identify as “strong conservatives,” whereas DeSantis leads by 26 points with more moderate voters. 

While these collective factors suggest that Trump has the edge, DeSantis’s momentum is noteworthy.  

DeSantis is particularly well-positioned against Trump in the first two primary states: Iowa and New Hampshire. If DeSantis scores early wins he will have national momentum going into Super Tuesday that could be challenging for Trump to overcome, even if Trump sweeps the third and fourth states — South Carolina and Nevada — as polling suggests he might. 

The prediction that DeSantis will flame out à la former Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) in 2016 has gone from possible to improbable. The Florida governor boasts historically strong early polling numbers and has courted a number of deep-pocked Republican donors even before entering the race. The GOP establishment quietly touts him as the party’s rising star and as a more viable general election candidate than Trump, notwithstanding the number of far-right positions DeSantis has taken as governor. 

Though CPAC remains supportive of Trump, another prominent conservative group, Club for Growth, has aligned itself with DeSantis. Support for DeSantis within the party is likely to continue building as he visits key early states in the coming weeks, and he could enjoy an additional surge when he eventually declares his candidacy this spring. 

This past weekend, DeSantis was joined by over 100 influential Republican donors, governors, senators, and on-air personalities for a multi-day fundraiser at a hotel just four miles from Trump’s Mar-a-Lago property, where of the events was titled “Florida: Where Woke Goes to Die.” 

To be sure, DeSantis has governed with an eye toward the nomination. An Ivy League-educated Navy veteran, he was once considered to be a more traditional Republican but has pivoted sharply to the right during his time as governor in an effort to build his national reputation as a firebrand conservative. 

DeSantis has used his office to penalize Disney and so-called ‘woke’ corporatism, censor K-12 schools and promote vaccine skepticism. Two additional items on his to-do list before the session ends in May are rolling back abortion rights and weakening gun safety laws. 

While DeSantis’s rightward shift has made him the darling of the conservative movement, he could very well run into obstacles defending his record once the campaign gets underway, and it is plausible that his current supporters — non-Trump, more moderate Republicans who are concerned with electability — defect to one of the other candidates pitching themselves as “electable.” One such position is his past support for cutting Social Security and Medicare, which Trump is already criticizing him for. 

Notwithstanding DeSantis’s vulnerabilities, there is a quiet but clear preference among party leaders and conservative-leaning media for Trump to fade into the background, and for DeSantis to helm the party in 2024. But there is no indication that other potential GOP nominees would coalesce around DeSantis to defeat Trump as Democrats did in 2020 when they backed Joe Biden ahead of Super Tuesday. 

Most likely, the primary field will expand to double digits, moderate voters will spread out their votes between the non-Trump candidates and the influential Trump wing of the party will back their leader, putting him in a position to secure the nomination once again. 

Douglas E. Schoen is a political consultant who served as an advisor to President Clinton and to the 2020 presidential campaign of Michael Bloomberg. His new book is “The End of Democracy? Russia and China on the Rise and America in Retreat.”

Tags 2024 Republican primary conservatives Donald Trump Politics of the United States presidential primary Republican voters Ron DeSantis

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