It’s still very early in the Republican primary. Only three candidates have officially declared that they’re running, and Donald Trump’s central (and probably only) rival, Ron DeSantis, is biding his time before he jumps in. Yet polls at this stage tend to be quite predictive, and the contours of the race are coming into view. The central question looming over the proceedings: Can anyone stop the ex-president, who only recently seemed eminently stoppable? Whit Ayres is the founder and president of North Star Opinion Research and has worked for candidates such as DeSantis, Marco Rubio, and Lindsey Graham. I spoke with Ayres about where the GOP stands right now, whether DeSantis’s isolationist view on Ukraine is a mistake, and to what extent a raft of indictments would really hurt Trump.
After midterm elections that were pretty disastrous for Republicans, a lot of people seemed to think not necessarily that Trump was done, but that he was vastly diminished. The polling reflected that for a while, but in recent weeks he’s made a serious comeback. How do you view the state of the race right now in terms of his vulnerability?
We’ve done a lot of research over the last few years, and it’s shown pretty consistently that there’s a three-part division within the Republican Party. One is a “Never Trump” group. They’ve never been supportive of him. They didn’t vote for him in ’16, they didn’t vote for him in ’20. This group is pretty consistently around 10 percent of the party, not more than 12 or 15 at the most, but right around 10 percent.
There’s a group of “Always Trump” voters. These are people who believe he’s the best president we’ve ever had. They would walk through a wall of flame for him. Criticizing Donald Trump with these people is like criticizing Jesus Christ in a rural Evangelical church: It’s not going to have any effect on his reputation, but it’ll just trash the reputation of the person who takes a shot at him. And they’re somewhere around a third of the electorate.
The largest group, somewhere around 60 percent, is “Maybe Trump.” It’s important to understand these folks are people who voted for Trump. They supported him when he was president. They thought he did a lot of good stuff, but they are at least open to other candidates. That doesn’t mean they’re going to vote for them, but they are open to supporting other candidates and they’re looking around at what’s out there. If Donald Trump ends up as the nominee, they’re all going to vote for Trump over Biden, but they’re at least shopping, and when you ask those people why, it’s because they’re skeptical Trump can win in 2024.
But Trump’s personal characteristics will obviously never get any better, and the midterms were such a rebuke to so many of his handpicked candidates — I’d think the 60 percent of the electorate you described would at this point be really enthusiastic about finding an alternative. And yet Trump is still pulling a lot more than his unshakeable one-third. The polls’ reliability may be all over the place, but in most of them, he’s doing much better than that. He’s getting 40-something, 50-something percent.
That’s partly because people don’t know that much about the alternatives. Now, Ron DeSantis has good name ID. People know he’s a popular governor in Florida, and that he won going away. But they also don’t know that much about what he’ll do. Last week we learned an awful lot about his position on Ukraine, which, frankly, I find flabbergasting. On Ukraine, it seems to me that he’s going after the Always Trump voters, and the Always Trump voters are going to vote for Trump.
But don’t you think there’s been a shift among the Maybe Trumpers, too, on foreign intervention? That seems to bear out in polls done on the issue.
Yeah, there’s more resistance among Republican voters, I think. Part of that is driven by Trump and part of it is that the support is associated with Biden. If he’s for something, they’re against it. But the people who specialize in foreign policy in the Republican Party were pretty appalled.
Sure, but DeSantis has a pretty good record of reading base dynamics, so I wonder if he’s being savvier than some people think.
Maybe, but it just seems to me like he’s trying to mimic Trump, and not just with his behavior and confrontational approach. I’ve listened to a lot of these Always Trump people for years now. They’re going with Trump. They are not going with DeSantis, and so it seems to me like DeSantis’s challenge is consolidating that 60 percent of the Maybe Trump voters, rather than trying to peel off some of the Always Trump group. But anyway, it’s a strategic decision, and maybe you’re right. Maybe he’s smarter than I think he is.
Going back to Trump’s weaknesses — there’s also his legal predicament. It’s hard to imagine that his looming probable indictment in the Stormy Daniels hush-money case would do anything to damage him. But the Georgia election-interference case, the classified-documents case, and of course January 6 — those are all much more serious. I was wondering what you think would happen in a scenario where he gets charged multiple times on one or all of those. Would it have a huge effect on voters?
The honest answer is I really don’t have a clue. My totally uninformed speculation is that there would be an initial rally-around effect. I don’t think years-old payments to porn stars are likely to do anything, and if that’s the first indictment out of the gate, it’ll play into Trump’s hands, because he can just say, “Oh, this is just yesterday’s news.” But if there really are serious criminal charges involving obstruction of Congress, for example, or the classified documents, or trying to steal an election in Georgia, I think it will add to this sense, in the long run — after the initial rally around the flag — that Trump carries an enormous amount of baggage, which will be very difficult to carry over the finish line in November 2024.
The party does continue to nominate completely unelectable people. In a CNN poll a few days ago, a majority of Republicans said it was more important for their preferred candidate to agree with them on issues than it was for the candidate to be capable of beating Biden.
People in primaries care more about whether people agree with them. The way people’s minds work is if Candidate X agrees with me, and I’m right — therefore Candidate X is more electable.
The selfish approach.
There is a very poor history of people running as the more electable candidate, and basically arguing, “Listen, I know you agree with these other guys more than you agree with me, but I’m a better general-election candidate and, therefore, you should vote for me.” That’s usually a losing argument. I think this is a different situation, though. If you actually have a candidate facing serious credible criminal charges, that changes the calculus.
You were Marco Rubio’s pollster in 2016. DeSantis is sometimes compared to Scott Walker — somebody who inspired a lot of early buzz among GOP elites that year, which failed to translate into results. Do you think that kind of equivalence with DeSantis is valid at all?
No, I think this is a different phenomenon. DeSantis has done a remarkable job of building name ID. He has raised incredible amounts of money, and he’s turned what was a classic swing state into a Republican bastion in four years. Nobody in the field in 2016 had raised hundreds of millions of dollars before they even announced, and no one had the sort of record where they could claim to have turned around a swing state, and carried Hispanic Miami-Dade County. I mean, that’s a hell of a story to tell, and I don’t think anybody in ’16 was quite comparable. I think it’s a real disservice to talk about DeSantis that way.
There’s no question that DeSantis is untested. One of my earlier presidential clients was Lamar Alexander, and he was famous for saying that going from a statewide race to the presidential campaign is like going from eighth-grade basketball to the NBA finals.
And it’s true, it’s completely different, and DeSantis does not have a team around him that’s been with him. We did his polling in 2018 in the gubernatorial race, and he won’t have anything to do with anybody who was associated with that race — not the general consultant, not the campaign manager, not either one of the media firms, not the polling firm.
Why is that?
I have no idea.
He did win that race, after all.
He won. Yeah, our poll had it 47-47, and it ended up basically as a tie. So the polling doesn’t get a lot better than that.
But I was going to say he doesn’t have a team that’s been with him, like Biden does. You don’t know how he’s going to fare in the sort of living room–to–living room campaigning that people in Iowa and New Hampshire tend to value, so there are a lot of unknowns about it, but I just think it really underestimates what he’s accomplished to compare him to a Scott Walker.
Trump is now attacking DeSantis a lot, which is a challenge the governor hasn’t faced before. At the moment, DeSantis’s strategy seems to be to stay above the fray and not mention Trump by name. But that obviously seems untenable over the long run.
He is following a Brian Kemp strategy that was very effective in Georgia, where Kemp said, “Listen, I am not mad at Donald Trump. Donald Trump may be mad at me, but I’m not mad at him.” And Kemp never responded. Kemp was viciously attacked by Trump, who said he was a RINO, a guy not the least bit interested in fraud. Trump ripped him a new one. Trump recruited a former senator to run against him in a primary, for God’s sake.
Of course, the difference is they weren’t running against each other, Trump versus Kemp.
Exactly. That’s the difference. DeSantis’s strategy bears some resemblance to Brian Kemp’s strategy, who was very effective when he was running for reelection for an office he already held in a state where he was well known and well liked.
Do you think there’s any room in this race for anyone other than these two candidates? It looks like it’s going to be a smaller field than it was in ’16, so perhaps not quite as hard to stand out.
It depends on how well DeSantis does. If he goes out and knocks it out of the park in the first few primaries, the answer is no. On the other hand, if he gets tied around the axle on Ukraine or a few other issues like that, it opens the door for somebody else to come along and capture the hearts of those Maybe Trump voters.
I’m having trouble imagining Mike Pompeo gaining any traction, but I guess there’s a universe where that happens.
Nikki Haley has a lot to sell. She is an attractive candidate with a good record as governor, very popular in South Carolina. Tim Scott’s an attractive candidate, too. I don’t know that there’s room for both of them on the same track, from one state, but they’re both popular politicians and very, very popular in South Carolina, which happens to be the third primary.
Trump has really lost a lot of institutional support, especially since the midterms, but even before that. A lot of elected officials in the party speak out against him consistently in a way they did not when he was president, and Fox News is like the DeSantis Channel now. But this is a far cry from 2016, when he really had no institutional support. Does any of this matter for a guy who’s proven he can win running against the Establishment in a crowded field, even if it’s less crowded than ’16?
Sure, you’re talking about a guy who’s got an iron lock on a third of the electorate, and there are winner-take-all primaries. He can do it.
One thing that matters a lot is how long people stay in after they have no chance of winning. In 2016, Jeb Bush, John Kasich, they all hung around well after it was obvious that they couldn’t win. On the Democratic side, after South Carolina, Buttigieg and Klobuchar dropped out and endorsed Biden, almost the next day. So that’s what really matters, is how long these people stay in, not how many candidates the race starts out with.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.