He’s on a massive book tour, he’s doing more TV spots than Sammy Davis Jr. in his prime, he has a strong, dedicated and influential fan base defending him on social media, and he’s visiting places like New Hampshire and Iowa. So why is Donald Trump surging in the polls?
DeSantis’s declining poll numbers are not a popular topic of conversation among conservative elites. When it does come up, we are generally told that it's not a big deal, he’s not actually running yet, this was to be expected, national polls don’t matter, it’s early, etc.
But look, when a potential presidential campaign does a public relations full court press for three months you can’t spin a double digit decline in the polls as a good result.
The current DeSantis blitz began after the midterm election in which Trump’s supposedly poor candidate selection, the Mehmet Oz’s and Kari Lake’s of the world, lost and cost the GOP the Senate.
This was it, we were told, as we had been so many times before, Trump was finished. Trump’s support did soften for a few weeks, but it wasn’t severe and it wasn’t sustained. It was in this environment that team DeSantis began its soft launch into candidacy.
What has played out in the ensuing months as Trump regained his solid lead shows us that DeSantis’ greatest advantage may simultaneously be his greatest weakness.
Let's be clear and honest about one thing: conservative media, especially conservative legacy media, is more or less all in for the Florida governor. Santa Claus doesn’t get this kind of positive coverage, but the flip side of this is that a lot of GOP voters are asking, why?
Conservative voters are asking themselves why every career politician, every donor, and every billionaire media mogul so clearly wants DeSantis. Well do these voters remember the 2016 primary in which entire right wing magazine covers were dedicated to “protecting” voters from the allegedly dangerous Trump.
It backfired back then, and it seems to be backfiring again.
The experts and influencers pushing DeSantis, again just as in 2016, argue that this is all about electability. DeSantis can win the general election, they argue, Trump can’t. There are two problems with this approach, one is that it's not really backed up by much evidence, but far more importantly, electability is not a major driver for most voters, even in a primary.
The vast majority of voters don’t spend all day arguing on Twitter or pouring over the Real Clear Politics average of polls.
Rather they vote for the candidate they like, the one who they think is listening, and the one who they think shares their priorities.
For now that is still Donald Trump, and every pundit from Pittsburgh to Portland can promise that DeSantis will appeal to suburban moms in swing states, or whoever, but it won’t matter. Pundits don’t win elections, voters do.
The open and obvious love affair between conservative media and DeSantis offers a further complication. Donald Trump’s favorite entity to run against is not a Republican, it's not a Democrat, it's the news media, or as he puts it, “the enemy of the people.”
Why? Because the news media is far and away the least trusted and most unfavorably viewed institution in our society, and it's not close.
Trump is already suggesting that the reason conservative inc. is in the tank for Ron is that he is a Paul Ryan in populist clothing. Given DeSantis’ track record as governor, this seems an unfair attack, but when every prominent conservative who bemoans the changes to the GOP wrought by Trump is saying, “I like this DeSantis guy,” it raises eyebrows. It just does.
All is not gloomy for Ron DeSantis and his many fans. He is beating other non-Trump candidates by double digits and may be developing a polling floor of about 25 percent of voters, that’s a very strong position from which to officially launch a campaign.
Further, he does have a story of success in Florida, he does have a fresh approach to using government power to fight the excesses of the woke left. But just as one cannot successfully woo a woman by showing her a spreadsheet of his good qualities, a candidate needs some magic, some charm, to woo voters.
The closest that we have seen DeSantis come to this was his stirring “Florida is where woke goes to die,” inauguration speech earlier this year. He laid out a very strong case for a presidential run, and tellingly did not say the word “Trump” once during his remarks. That Ron DeSantis can win. The Ron DeSantis whose online influencers scold and berate people about poll numbers and being in a “Trump cult” will have far more difficult time.
The good news for DeSantis and his supporters is that this is the campaign preseason. Just as baseball teams tweak lineups and pitching rotations that aren’t working during spring training, team DeSantis can adjust away from messaging that thus far just isn’t working. But make no mistake, opening day is coming soon. Welcome to the big leagues, Mr. DeSantis, it only gets harder from here.