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How Electable Is Ron DeSantis?
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How Electable Is Ron DeSantis?

More than Trump?

lorida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks to Iowa voters on March 10, 2023 in Des Moines, Iowa. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

There are many reasons to prefer Florida’s governor to Florida’s most famous resident as the next presidential nominee of the Republican Party, as I do. He’s never tried to overthrow the government. He has no obvious psychological disorders. (Unsociability is an idiosyncrasy, not a disorder. And frankly, in my eyes, a virtue.) He’s smart and deeply engaged on policy. He’s never been indicted.

He hasn’t been accused of sexual misconduct by more than 20 women. He didn’t try to shake down a foreign leader for oppo on his next election opponent. He doesn’t think Kim Jong-un is a chill bro.

We could do this all day.

Above all else, in case you’re eager for some reason to see this increasingly authoritarian movement back in charge of the executive branch, he’s electable.

I think.

More electable than Trump, at least.

I … think?

I’m pretty sure. Ninety percent confident. I’d place a decent-sized wager on it.

But a few months ago I was 100 percent sure. Lately I’ve begun to wonder.

Here’s the conversation I have with myself. It’s a short one.

Left shoulder: “Have you seen the polling lately? Where’s the evidence that Ron DeSantis is more electable than Trump?”

Right shoulder: “You idiot. Where’s the evidence that any Republican is less electable?”

Right shoulder has the better of it. How could anyone do worse than this?

Twenty-five percent.

The arguments for DeSantis’ electability are familiar but worth revisiting briefly. The first boils down to the word “scoreboard.” If you win reelection by almost 20 points in a state that’s typically decided by 3 points or less in presidential elections, you’re officially and forevermore an electable presidential contender. One recent poll of Florida found DeSantis more popular now than he was when he won reelection last November, in fact. His electability is growing, in theory.

Another is the contrast he presents with Joe Biden. If you were an 80-year-old president whose chief liability was the perception that you’re too old and feeble to do the job, who would you rather face? An overweight 76-year-old retread who’s been nominated three times or a guy with three kids under 10 who’d be the youngest president elected since John F. Kennedy?

There’s also the small matter that the first indictment of Donald Trump is unlikely to be the last. If his approval rating stands at 25 percent now, after a weak case of bookkeeping fraud was filed in Manhattan, one wonders what it might look like if/when he’s charged with obstructing justice in the classified documents probe or with election tampering in Georgia. Views of Trump among swing voters might grow so dark by fall 2024 as to “recession-proof” Biden’s chances of victory.

Finally, and very much related to all of the above, DeSantis has a greater ability to improve his image among undecided voters than Trump does. Insofar as opinions about the former guy aren’t already set in stone, they’re likely to move in one direction only as his legal troubles, and his unhinged reactions to them, metastasize. Not so for DeSantis. There are millions of American voters who know little about him and are destined to like the cut of his jib after they get a look. He has room to grow. Trump does not, absent a catastrophe—physical or economic—that afflicts Joe Biden.

It’s pretty straightforward. DeSantis is more electable.

But is he much more electable or only marginally so? That’s the part I’m struggling with.

Without looking at the polling, I’d have guessed that DeSantis would consistently be a few points ahead of Trump in hypothetical 2024 matchups with Biden.

That logic is also straightforward. While the president’s job approval is middling, just 32 percent say he deserves to be reelected according to a recent survey from CNN. Fully 67 percent say he “does not have the stamina and sharpness to serve effectively as president.” Forced to choose between him and a Republican like Trump whom they despise, swing voters might understandably sigh and conclude that a senescent Biden remains the lesser of two evils.

But when offered a choice between him and a Republican like DeSantis about whom many don’t have strong feelings (yet), some who prefer Biden to Trump will opt to roll the dice on the young and more generic Republican instead, one would think. Result: DeSantis should look stronger by the numbers against the incumbent than Trump does.

He does not.

RealClearPolitics is tracking the 2024 head-to-head polling. As of Tuesday morning they have DeSantis leading Biden by an average of 2 points, 44-42 and Trump leading Biden by 1.8 points, 44.1-42.3. Scarcely a difference. This, despite the fact that DeSantis is polling nearly 4 points ahead of Trump in favorability.

The last week of individual polls bears that out. In some cases, Trump even outperforms DeSantis against Biden. Morning Consult has him trailing the president by 1 point while the governor trails Biden by 2. Redfield & Wilton puts Trump a point behind Biden and the comparatively unknown DeSantis 9 points behind. Echelon Insights sees the incumbent leading both Republicans by 3. Harvard-Harris has Biden trailing DeSantis by three while trailing Trump by 4. 

If anything, given the “rally around the accused felon” effect currently playing out in Republican primary polling, we might expect Trump to overtake DeSantis soon in head-to-head polling with the Democrat.

Some surveys, like Quinnipiac and Cygnal, do show DeSantis outperforming the former guy against Biden in a significant way. But if he’s so much more electable than Trump is, why aren’t we seeing that borne out across all sorts of polling? 

The obvious answer is to point back to what I said above about DeSantis having room to grow. The governor is still a cipher to many voters and  could feasibly reach 50 percent in a general election once he introduces himself and the public gets to know him. Whereas it’s hard to imagine Trump cracking even 47 percent given that he’s failed to do so twice before and didn’t have an insurrection and an indictment (or three?) on his resume then.

It’s an appealing theory. But there are reasons to suspect that it’s wrong.

Swing voters might not be as receptive to him as we think.

My colleague Sarah Isgur has also been noodling DeSantis’ surprisingly tepid polling against Biden. She notes today that there are fewer undecideds than you might think between the president and the relatively unknown governor of Florida in the Echelon Insights poll I mentioned. The same is true in this month’s Morning Consult poll:

The share willing to vote third party in a Biden/Trump matchup is a little bigger than in a Biden/DeSantis race and the share that’s undecided is a little smaller, but I wouldn’t have expected DeSantis to be polling on par with the most polarizing figure in modern American political history.

“If Biden is holding his own, not just against Trump, but against DeSantis, it tells me that even the wobbliest part of his base isn’t willing to vote for a Republican at this point,” Isgur writes. I think that’s right—although I’d change that last part to “vote for a certain type of Republican.” Voters might not know the ins and outs of DeSantis’ policies in Florida but they’ve probably heard or read that he’s cracked up to be “Trump, but electable” and could be reacting accordingly. The idea that he’d be a worse president than Trump has become a budding subgenre of left-wing punditry, don’t forget.

DeSantis’ reputation as “a certain type of Republican,” a populist authoritarian in the Trump mold, may have preceded his entry into the race. If it has, he’ll find it harder than expected to change swing voters’ minds about him.

Primary politics is making DeSantis’ problem with swing voters worse.

DeSantis’ strategy for beating Trump in a Republican primary has been clear and consistent for nearly two years, dating back to when he first started making encouraging grunts toward vaccine skeptics. Simply: On issue after issue, get to Trump’s right and stay to his right.

And if there’s no room to Trump’s right, adopt Trump’s own position as your own.

DeSantis has normie conservative voters in the bag on “Anyone But Trump” grounds and he knows it. That gives him endless room to pander to MAGA populists who may prefer Trump on the merits but worry that their guy is too unpopular to win a second term. Hence DeSantis’ “Trump, but electable” pitch, tossing culture-war chum to the base in Florida to reassure them that they won’t be sacrificing anything in terms of lib-owning if they opt for him over their favorite.

It’s a sound strategy for winning a primary. The problem is that voters outside the party have begun to pay attention to DeSantis as the hype around his candidacy builds and are watching with dismay as he continues to chum the populist waters endlessly.

Black leaders are watching his crusade against “wokeness” and critical race theory. COVID hawks are watching his messaging about vaccines. Defense hawks are watching his cynical maneuvering on Ukraine. And everyone but everyone is watching him tighten the screws on legal abortion, moving from a 15-week ban toward the sort of six-week ban that’s common in much redder states. 

Last week DeSantis quietly signed a bill authorizing permitless carry of firearms in his state, a policy Tim Miller aptly described as “about as popular as genital warts.” The abortion bill that’s headed for his desk is polling in the toilet as well. That led Amy Walter to wonder:

Viewed through the prism of his primary strategy, all of these moves are rational. DeSantis can’t break Trump’s hold over his cult without proving that he’s at least as much of a “fighter” as the cult leader himself is. If he moderates on any issue—any issue!—Trump will treat it as DeSantis having failed a litmus test of populist authenticity. The governor won’t make it to a general election if he doesn’t out-Trump Trump.

But that comes at a price. “The gap between what GOP base voters demand and what swing voters will tolerate grows wider every day,” The Bulwark’s Sarah Longwell tweeted after the party’s most recent pummeling over the issue of abortion. DeSantis has resolved to give Republican base voters everything they want in exchange for making him their nominee. Go figure that swing voters might now find him less tolerable, with all that implies for his alleged electability.

DeSantis might not be able to turn out Republicans like Trump can.

One point of fascination after last week’s state Supreme Court disaster in Wisconsin was how Republicans could have lost such an important race by 10 points when Trump won the state in 2016 and nearly won it in 2020. It’s tempting to chalk it up to a post-Roe abortion backlash, but abortion wasn’t a live issue the last time Wisconsin held a state Supreme Court election, two years ago this spring. Republicans lost that one by double digits as well.

More likely is that there’s a “Trump effect” on right-wing turnout. At last check, nearly a third of Republicans describe themselves as supporters of Trump more so than supporters of the GOP. It’s unclear what his indictment might have done to that number but none of us would be very surprised if it’s increased lately, would we?

There may, in short, be a certain type of right-wing voter who won’t show up on Election Day unless Trump himself is on the ballot, even when the stakes are high a la Wisconsin. How will that voter react if someone other than Trump is the party’s nominee in 2024?

Maybe if the party replaced him with another charismatic demagogue, they’d turn out. But DeSantis, for all of his gifts, isn’t Mr. Charisma. If he ends up flipping 4 percent of Biden 2020 voters in Arizona and Georgia, say, while 10 percent of dejected Trump 2020 loyalists feel unmotivated and stay home, who wins those states?

Compounding his difficulty in consolidating the MAGA base is the fact that the educational divide within the party is large and growing. I’ve written about that before but Ron Brownstein’s piece on the subject today at CNN is worth your time. Trump has chased many white college grads out of the GOP and replaced them with whites without degrees. Even if DeSantis can overcome that and win enough working-class white votes to prevail, how many voters who prefer Trump will decide that a party without him no longer holds their interest?

In 2012, [Public Opinion Strategies] found, those Whites without a college degree constituted 48% of all Republicans, only slightly more than Whites with a college degree, who represented 40%. By 2016, when Trump was first nominated, the gap between the two groups had widened, with the non-college Whites rising to 56% of all Republicans, and the college-educated Whites falling to 33%. In the 2022 results, the Whites without a college degree soared to 62% of all GOP partisans, while the college-educated Whites sagged to 25%. (Looking at all GOP supporters, including the relatively small number who are racial minorities, the group without a college degree rose from 56% in 2012 to 70% in 2022, POS found.)

Last week Charles Cooke of National Review tried to make sense of a poll that showed DeSantis is viewed considerably more favorably than Trump by Republicans in Florida, 87 percent to 71 percent. Even so, DeSantis led Trump by just 5 points in a hypothetical primary, 44-39. (A more recent poll, post-indictment, finds Trump surging ahead to a 15-point lead over the governor in Florida.) If so many more Republican voters like DeSantis, Cooke wondered, why are he and the former president nearly even head-to-head?

Inescapably, I think, the answer is that there’s no substitute for Trump for some right-wingers. They like DeSantis; they appreciate what he’s done for the state; but they’re not so much “Republicans” as they are Trumpers. Take Trump off the national ticket and it’s anyone’s guess what they’ll do.

That might also be influencing how each candidate is currently polling against Biden. How many of the people who say they “don’t know” when asked to choose between the two are true swing voters and how many are ardent Trump fans who can’t bring themselves to prefer any Republican other than Trump to the president?

Trump will burn down the party if he loses the nomination.

We’ve touched on this many times before so I won’t belabor it, but this analysis wouldn’t be complete without it. In a political vacuum, DeSantis stands a better chance of defeating Biden than Trump does.

But in the reality we inhabit, his degree of difficulty in winning a general election may be higher than Trump’s is. If Trump faces Biden, what’s left of the right will broadly unite behind him. DeSantis will endorse him as well to show that he’s a team player ahead of the 2028 cycle.

If DeSantis faces Biden, he’ll have to fight a two-front war. On his left flank, Biden and the Democrats will attack with any weapon to hand. On his right flank, Trump will screech that the primary was rigged and that the governor is a weak-tea establishment Republican of Paul Ryan’s ilk. Some of the messaging from left and right will, amazingly, converge—and already has converged, in fact.

Being the opportunist that he is, it wouldn’t surprise me to find Trump reading the polls on abortion after losing the nomination and declaring DeSantis to be more of an extremist on the subject than Joe Biden is.

Is the governor still the most electable Republican if the most influential right-wing figure of our era is actively agitating to convince populist voters that he’s unworthy of their votes? Watching DeSantis struggle to outperform Trump against Biden in early polling leaves me wondering whether Trump’s attacks have already begun to steer some Republican voters toward misgivings about DeSantis and indifference when asked to choose between him and Biden—both members of the so-called “uniparty,” in populist parlance.

If so, Trump’s early negative barrage has been shrewd strategically, whether or not he designed it to be. The less impressive DeSantis’ polling against Biden is, the weaker the claims about his alleged electability become. If the “Trump, but electable” guy turns out to be not all that electable, why not stick with the genuine article?

Nick Catoggio is a staff writer at The Dispatch and is based in Texas. Prior to joining the company in 2022, he spent 16 years gradually alienating a populist readership at Hot Air. When Nick isn’t busy writing a daily newsletter on politics, he’s … probably planning the next day’s newsletter.