The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Trump’s not only leading, he’s leading with those more likely to vote

Trump and DeSantis memorabilia on sale at the Conservative Political Action Conference at National Harbor, Md., on March 3. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
6 min

Just because Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) isn’t a registered candidate for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination doesn’t mean that he’s not actively campaigning. Quite the opposite is the case, in fact: DeSantis’s transparent machinations toward a formal bid now include directly contrasting his record with former president Donald Trump’s.

So, the long-foreseen clash between the two Republican front-runners is now underway. And, at the moment, it is Trump — the guy whose last bid for the presidency culminated in a violent effort to overturn his loss — who is in the driver’s seat for the nomination. DeSantis’s gains on Trump have been reversed in recent polls and, relatedly, Trump’s lead has expanded with several of the voting blocs most likely actually to vote in the primaries.

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Regardless, Trump’s allies spent Wednesday morning expressing (or, in some cases, performing) outrage at DeSantis. The governor had the temerity to answer interviewer Piers Morgan’s questions about Trump with some mild criticism, responses that Morgan and Trumpworld each hyped as explosive out of different motivations. DeSantis, for example, said that his governing style was “no daily drama,” about as light a criticism as you can offer of Trump. The front page of the New York Post summarized the interview as “RON HITS DON.”

This issue of drama and Trump’s pugilistic style is not a new one for his opponents to raise. It’s one that many Republican voters identify as something they dislike. The response to the Morgan interview, though, also shows how it works for Trump: He now will claim that DeSantis attacked him so he has no choice but to hit back, a standard Trump tactic meant to lower any political cost of throwing mud.

DeSantis has adopted a different tactic. As he told Morgan, “It’s not important for me to be fighting with people on social media.” That’s because he’s long outsourced the social-media fighting to people like his aide Christina Pushaw, who, because she’s not DeSantis himself, can be far more aggressive and still keep DeSantis at a convenient distance.

Generally speaking, the excerpts of the Morgan interview that have been made public reveal a central component of the DeSantis-Trump feud: not much really differentiates them. Trump’s not a detailed-policy-proposal guy, while DeSantis has spent the past two years as governor largely trying to codify right-wing culture-war fights as law. There’s a debate between the two over the federal government’s pandemic response, but that’s about it.

What the Republican primary appears to be likely to come down to, then, is whether voters want Trump or someone else. For months, DeSantis has been the go-to non-Trump option. But as Trump has been chucking bombs at him, that position has eroded.

On Tuesday, Monmouth University released new polling showing Trump with a double-digit lead in the Republican primary contest. This is an improvement relative to Monmouth’s February poll, in which Trump and DeSantis were even.

What stands out when considering how voters’ views have changed in the past month is that Trump has seen a surge with his long-standing bases of support: members of the party, strong conservatives, those without college degrees. Among other groups (Republican-leaning independents, those with degrees, etc.), his position improved more subtly.

Notice, too, that among those groups where Trump has less support, a higher percentage of respondents identify one of the myriad other Republicans as their primary pick for the nomination. Like, among independents who lean Republican, twice as many respondents pick a non-Trump and non-DeSantis candidate than is the case with Republicans.

We see a similar pattern with Quinnipiac University polling in February and this month. With groups where Trump’s support is weaker, more respondents pick a non-Trump, non-DeSantis option. That’s a problem for DeSantis for a simple reason. If the race comes down to Trump vs. non-Trump, there are several billion people who fit into the latter category. There’s only one former president Donald Trump.

The movement in Quinnipiac’s polling is different from that in the Monmouth polling, you’ll notice. Here, Trump’s holding steady with his core supporters while gaining with those who are more favorable to DeSantis. The result is the same: Trump is doing better with more-conservative voters and with actual Republicans.

This is important, given who votes in Republican primaries. Polling by American National Election Studies (ANES) conducted at the time of the 2012 presidential election showed that more-conservative voters and strong Republicans were more likely to report having voted in the primary. Republican primary voters with college degrees were more likely to have voted than were those with only a high school education.

Notice that the chart above also shows how those groups ended up casting their ballots. Among the most conservative voters, votes were about evenly split between the eventual nominee, Mitt Romney, and other Republicans. Compare that to what happened in 2016, when Trump won the nomination.

That year, more-moderate primary voters and independents were more likely to vote for non-Trump candidates. But in part because Trump did better with more-conservative voters who were more likely to turn out and in part because more people voted, Trump prevailed despite the skepticism of more-centrist primary voters. More than half of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents who supported non-Trump candidates in 2016 had college degrees. But Trump won the nomination anyway, eventually earning less than half of the total votes cast.

The anti-Trump vote in 2016, then, looked a lot like the anti-Trump vote now. The difference? Trump now has more support overall than he did at the beginning of 2016.

There’s a lot of time until voting begins. DeSantis may consolidate more non-Trump support, although a significant decline in his position now will have some voters scrambling for a more viable non-Trump option. It’s theoretically possible that the dynamics of the race will change in some other way, too, from possible indictments to some policy differentiation with Trump that actually peels away his support over the long term.

At the moment, Trump’s position looks a lot like it did 2016. The main difference since that point is that Americans have a better sense of what Trump would do if returned to office. For a plurality of Republican primary voters, this is not a deterrent.