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The inevitable — and imminent — Trump-DeSantis war

Florida Gov.-elect Ron DeSantis (R) listens as President Donald Trump speaks during a meeting with governors-elect in 2018. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
6 min

Thus far, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) has handled former president Donald Trump’s barbs like pretty much every other Republican does: largely by ignoring them outright, and at other times responding in an oblique way, so as not to poke the bear (and the bear’s supporters). And his new book is light on anything that could be considered critical of Trump.

But the Trump-DeSantis battle is brewing. Indeed, assuming DeSantis actually runs, the race between them is set up like few others before, in a way that practically demands that kind of direct confrontation.

That’s true for a few reasons.

One is that, historically speaking, the two candidates are performing unusually well at this early stage of the presidential race, as the New York Times’s Nate Cohn notes. The share of the vote each of them garners in early polling (DeSantis around 30 percent and Trump around 40 percent) is commensurate with a strong majority of eventual presidential nominees in the modern era.

For all the derision aimed at early polling — and with the caveat that it’s not completely predictive (see: Rudy Giuliani 2008) — it has proven a very good indicator of where nomination battles wind up. And both candidates have reached that threshold.

The practical implication of all that: Right now, it’s a two-candidate race with little modern precedent.

The second reason is that there is a ton of overlap between their bases of support.

A Fox News poll released Sunday gets at this dynamic. It shows Trump leading DeSantis 43 percent to 28 percent in a crowded field. But it went a step further than most polls, in that it asked whom people’s second choice was.

And for both Trump and DeSantis, the other was the leading second choice for their voters — 42 percent of DeSantis-first voters went for Trump second, and 34 percent of Trump-first voters went for DeSantis second.

So nearly 6 in 10 voters made Trump either their first or second choice, and a slight majority did the same for DeSantis. In each case, more than two-thirds of their second-choice voters are picking the other guy first.

That means not only are they each other’s biggest competition for the nomination; they’re also cannibalizing each other’s potential bases of support, in a way that reinforces the utility of knocking the other guy down a few pegs. If either of them sinks the other, the victor’s path to the nomination would basically be clear — at least as things stand.

From Palm Beach to Staten Island, DeSantis makes 2024 moves on Trump’s turf

A third reason is that Trump, especially, can’t let DeSantis just stick around.

Plenty has been written about the 2016 GOP primary and how misguided it was to think Trump might lose if the field were whittled down to two candidates. That theory of the race made sense on paper, but even early 2016 polls and studies suggested it was vastly oversimplified — that Trump was well-positioned even in a two-candidate race.

The 2024 primary is shaping up very differently. Because of DeSantis’s strength, many pollsters have taken the unorthodox step of repeatedly testing a one-on-one race. And just about every time, DeSantis does significantly better against Trump — and sometimes leads.

This, of course, very much connects to his being the second choice for lots of Trump voters. But if you’re Trump, it means you simply can’t let DeSantis monopolize the non-Trump lane: To the extent DeSantis continues to look like the most (or even only credible Trump alternative as the race progresses, and voters in the market for an alternative coalesce behind him), that’s very bad news for Trump.

It would be much more productive for Trump if DeSantis were polling much closer to the also-rans, increasing the possibility that they stick around and the field remains crowded as the actual voting takes place.

(A recent Quinnipiac University poll also got at this dynamic: It polled a crowded field featuring over a dozen names, and then distilled the race down to just four candidates: Trump, DeSantis, former vice president Mike Pence and former United Nations ambassador Nikki Haley. In the smaller field, Trump gained just one point, while DeSantis gained five and drew virtually even.)

And the final reason — related to No. 3 above — is that it’s looking like DeSantis is the only bona fide obstacle for Trump right now.

It’s tempting for some observers to conclude the GOP primary electorate is turning on Trump — and there is some evidence that GOP voters have, to some degree. But it would be more apt to say they’ve turned toward DeSantis, because while he sometimes leads Trump in head-to-head matchups, that’s not the case for others.

The Fox News poll tested Haley against Trump one on one, and Trump led by a whopping 66-24 percent. (YouGov previously showed Trump leading Haley by a 2-to-1 margin.) And Monmouth University tested Trump vs. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) and similarly found Trump ahead 60-31 percent.

So it’s true that GOP voters are increasingly ready to turn the page, but right now they don’t seem ready to turn things over to just any consensus non-Trump alternative — far from it.

If you look at those numbers and you’re Trump, you don’t need a high-priced campaign consultant to tell you what your top priority should be if you want the nomination. And so we should expect Trump to go hard at DeSantis, just like he has against virtually everyone who has dared to stand in his way.

Some factors make that a little more fraught: We’ve never seen a Trump foe emerge who has DeSantis’s stature in the conservative movement, and Trump will have to measure his need to target DeSantis against the possible backlash. (To the extent he even can act in measured way, of course. And the early “groomer” attack suggests he can’t.)

Similarly, as early indicators show, DeSantis will be reluctant to go too hard after Trump, for fear of needlessly alienating Trump’s supporters.

But once he’s in and they’re on the debate stage together, a clash will be very difficult to avoid. And at that point, it’s difficult to see how it could be anything but game on. There are just too many factors — arguably more than usual — pushing it in that direction.