Presidential-campaign narratives are often hard to form, but once formed, they are equally hard to shake.
Earlier this year, the New York Times’s polling wizard Nate Cohn definitely contributed to the impression that in the 2024 Republican presidential-nominating contest, Donald Trump was punching under his past weight, while Ron DeSantis was polling even stronger than a lot of early candidates who eventually won nominations. When you add in the strong impression that Republican elites thought a divided field was the key to Trump’s shocking primary victories in 2016, the “story” emerged that if Republicans wanted for whatever reason to consign Trump to the ashbin of political history, DeSantis looked like the guy to do it.
Cohn was hardly alone: my colleague Jonathan Chait took a long look at DeSantis’s widespread elite and conservative media support and labeled him the front-runner some time ago. After Mitt Romney hinted that other candidates should get out of the way and let DeSantis take down Trump in a one-on-one contest, I joined the parade as well (though I now think DeSantis’s lurch into MAGA-land on Ukraine may have messed up his possible coalition).
Looking at more objective data, Cohn is now concluding that Trump is gaining strength and DeSantis is losing his edge. Indeed, Cohn seems to attribute this trend directly to Trumpian pounding of the Florida governor rather than to DeSantis’s inherent weaknesses and/or his fan base’s overselling of the likely 2024 candidate:
Donald J. Trump and his allies have blasted him as “Meatball Ron,” “Ron DeSanctimonious,” a “groomer,” disloyal and a supporter of cutting entitlement programs. Now, he’s getting criticism from many mainstream conservatives for calling Russia’s invasion of Ukraine a “territorial dispute.”
Is all of this making a difference in the polls? There are signs the answer is yes.
In surveys taken since the Trump offensive began two months ago, Mr. DeSantis, the Florida governor, has steadily lost ground against Mr. Trump, whose own numbers have increased.
To gain a steady gaze through the haze of competing polls, Cohn looks at the Trump-DeSantis trend lines in successive surveys by the same pollsters, which is always a good idea:
Over the last two months, we’ve gotten about a dozen polls from pollsters who had surveyed the Republican race over the previous two months. These polls aren’t necessarily of high quality or representative, so don’t focus on the average across these polls. It’s the trend that’s important, and the trend is unequivocal: Every single one of these polls has shown Mr. DeSantis faring worse than before, and Mr. Trump faring better.
One theory Cohn raises is that DeSantis was earlier benefiting from a “midterm bounce” based on his and his party’s big showing in Florida last November even as Republicans underperformed elsewhere. As 2024 approaches, 2022 matters less every day. But for whatever reason, DeSantis’s losses versus Trump are broad if not always that deep:
On average, Mr. DeSantis has lost four points in polls taken over the last month compared with polls by the same pollster between Jan. 15 and Feb. 15….. But Mr. DeSantis has kept losing ground in more recent polls, long after his midterm bump should have dissipated. This week, a Quinnipiac survey showed Mr. Trump making big gains over just the last month, with his lead growing by 12 points.
Cohn mostly attributes these trends to Trump being aggressive while DeSantis is pretty much plodding along, promoting his book and his record in Florida without paying too much attention to rivals. Whatever the reasons for the DeSantis locomotive slowing down a bit, it’s a development that can be self-replicating. He really does need to show some retail political chops in retail-heavy early states like Iowa, and he really does need to show enough support to keep the field from growing much more than it already has. The good news for him is that no third actual or potential candidate is making a move in the polls. But he has to beat Trump. If he’s expecting the 45th president’s campaign to collapse under its own ponderous weight, he really could join the sizable ranks of political people in both parties who have underestimated this pol with his own record to exaggerate, wrapped in the gauzy glamor of evil.