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DeSantis struggles in the polls

Messaging and polling aren’t quite there for Florida’s presidential hopeful

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican presidential candidate, waves to guests during a campaign event in Rochester, N.H. Associated Press/Photo by Charles Krupa

DeSantis struggles in the polls

Former President Donald Trump and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis share very similar campaign models: an appeal to core Republican voters through strong, America-first messaging coupled with a promise to counter mainstream political trends. Even the way they deliver that message looks similar on stage—all the way down to their hand motions.

So why do they look nothing alike in the polls?

According to a July poll by Florida Atlantic University and Mainstreet Research, Trump is crushing DeSantis among Republicans in the governor’s home state, Florida, with a 54 to 37 percent lead. It’s a surprising turn for a candidate who under a year ago was being hailed as the clear Trump alternative.

DeSantis came within striking distance of Trump’s lead back in February. But since then, his numbers have taken a dive—and not just in Florida. DeSantis’ campaign management, his core messaging, and Trump’s legal battles all fit into the puzzle of why the 46th governor of the Sunshine State is finding himself increasingly in the shadow cast by the Republican front-runner.

DeSantis started strong. In his first 24 hours as a candidate he received north of $8 million in donations—a sum eclipsing President Joe Biden’s first 24 hours in 2019. As of June 30, DeSantis’ Political Action Committee, Never Back Down Inc., had raised over $130 million. They haven’t been shy about spending it, either. Since the beginning of the year, the campaign has already shelled out roughly 25 percent of its contributions, a large bulk of it toward messaging, outreach, and advertising. But that effort hasn’t translated to polling surges.

Drew Savicki writes for 270toWin, an online resource that tracks presidential elections. Part of DeSantis’ polling woes, he said, could stem from the realities of launching a campaign as opposed to the excitement that generally surrounds the mere prospect of running.

“DeSantis’ initial polling versus Trump last year was based on the idea of DeSantis as a hypothetical candidate,” Savicki said. “He had strong support from the most anti-Trump group in the party—college-educated voters.”

That’s still DeSantis’ best crowd. Results from a poll put out by The New York Times in partnership with the Siena College Research Institute last week show that Trump is beating DeSantis nationally at 54 to 17 percent among Republicans. But of voters with a bachelor degree or higher, DeSantis closes the gap slightly with 23 percent of support compared to Trump’s 40 percent.

DeSantis’ talking points lend themselves well to a crowd that pays attention to numbers and legislation. In a recent speech at the American Legislative Exchange Council’s Annual Meeting in Orlando, the governor focused on the intersection between policy and ideology. Speaking out against “woke” practices in elected office, DeSantis emphasized a need for reform in areas like education and investing. To state Rep. John Snyder, sitting in the audience, the focus on tangible policy wins was exactly what he hoped to hear.

“Gov. Ron DeSantis was electrifying,” Snyder said. “Gov. DeSantis led the fight for lower taxes, the expansion of school choice, [and] we pushed through a robust legal reform package. We also strengthened parental rights, and fought to get rid of ESG and other woke policies.”

To him, that legislative mandate is proof that a conservative platform can be a winning one.

But Savicki isn’t as convinced DeSantis’ messaging is where it needs to be. He believes that when DeSantis isn’t talking to state legislators, his talking points may be harder to embrace.

“Partly, DeSantis’ decline is because he misread the room,” Savicki said. “Recent polls show his fixation on ‘woke’ is not a top issue for GOP primary voters.”

While the numbers show that DeSantis’ core messaging might be flying under the radar of conservative headlines, Trump’s indictments, by contrast, are taking center stage. In terms of screen time, three separate indictments levied at the former president have given Trump round-the-clock coverage.

While not directly correlated to DeSantis’ campaign, the timeline of the indictments track with a widening rift between the two candidates. On March 30—the day of Trump’s first indictment—the former president’s support sat at around 45 percent, according to FiveThirtyEight, a polling aggregation service. At the time, DeSantis was hovering around 27 percent. But in the month afterwards, Trump pulled ahead, making the climb to above 50 percent while DeSantis sank to just barely over 20 percent. That window of time saw more of a change in the polls than DeSantis’ official announcement on May 24.

It’s hard to pin down any one reason as the one pulling the DeSantis campaign down. At the end of the day, Savicki thinks it could all come down to personality—one of Trump’s strengths.

“He has a much stronger personality than DeSantis, and personality in my view is one of the most important aspects in a primary,” he said. “Every cycle you see more issue-based candidates fall flat.”

Savicki pointed out that past presidential candidates like Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas., in 2016, and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., in 2020, eventually sputtered out despite their strong topical stances on healthcare, education, or immigration. Sometimes compelling issues aren’t enough to overtake personality in an arena where all the candidates share a similar platform.

“I think Trump has the fun factor in his favor, too,” Savicki said.

Leo Briceno

Leo is a WORLD reporter covering politics in Washington, D.C. He is a graduate of Patrick Henry College.

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