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The Doom Poll
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The Doom Poll

Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.

Supporters of former President Donald Trump buy campaign souvenirs at the Turning Point Action USA conference in West Palm Beach, Florida, on July 15, 2023. (Photo by Giorgio Viera/AFP/Getty Images)

Do you guys ever think about dying?

As in Barbie, so too in life: Read through today’s New York Times survey of the Republican primary and you might find yourself suddenly thinking about dying.

Or feeling like you’re dying, even.

The pros will remind us that it’s just one poll but in this case the pollster enjoys an A+ rating from FiveThirtyEight. And the topline number happens to reflect the national polling average almost exactly. The Times has the race 54-17 for Trump over DeSantis; the RealClearPolitics average has it 54-18.3. The frontrunner has tripled the vote share of the only opponent who seemed to have a chance of defeating him. No candidate in the history of modern presidential polling has lost a lead of as much as 20 points at this stage of a campaign, let alone 37.

What makes this a “doom poll” and effectively a premortem of the DeSantis campaign isn’t the topline, though, as grim as that is. It’s the fact that, no matter how you slice and dice the Republican electorate demographically here, Trump is ahead—often handily. “He led by wide margins among men and women, younger and older voters, moderates and conservatives, those who went to college and those who didn’t, and in cities, suburbs and rural areas,” the Times says of its data. There are effectively zero “DeSantis constituencies” left within the party, only constituencies that prefer Trump to the governor a bit less emphatically than others.

The impression I’m left with after digesting it is that there was nothing DeSantis could have done realistically to defeat Trump, especially once the drumbeat of indictments began. The primary isn’t over. It never began.

This disaster has many fathers.

Almost obligatorily, there’s the boy-who-cried-wolf impact on Republican voters from institutions being caught with their pants down during the Trump era. It’s a familiar excuse for the right’s descent into madness, but there’s something to it. Hillary Clinton should have been prosecuted; Trump didn’t collude with Russia to get elected; the dismissed and derided pre-election story of Hunter Biden’s laptop was true; the Alvin Bragg indictment in Manhattan is politicized nonsense. Each of these episodes reinforced populist beliefs that Trump and his supporters are victims of a long-running scam by the liberal establishment to maintain their grip on power by hook or by crook. The backlash has nurtured a defensive instinct on his behalf so intense that it can no longer be reasoned with.

And insofar as it might be reasoned with, right-wing institutional actors have been too cowardly or selfish to try. Republican politicians who refused to say that Trump lost the 2020 election for fear of how their voters might react have now neutered the argument that he’s unelectable in 2024. Pro-DeSantis media outlets that spent six years accusing the “deep state” of being out to get Trump persuaded primary voters not to care about him leaving top-secret material lying around at his home. A movement that spends every waking hour brainwashing its members to dismiss any criticism of its leader as illegitimate and improperly motivated will struggle to criticize him persuasively when the time comes for new leadership. Go figure.

Republican voters have been poorly served by institutions during the Trump years, which helps explain why the Times poll says what it says. But for those who still believe in personal responsibility, explanations aren’t excuses. For instance, there’s no excuse for this:

Even Trump doesn’t claim that there were no classified documents at Mar-a-Lago. But the right’s justifiable skepticism of certain institutional actors combined with the hyper-contrarian “question everything” sensibility of populist media has inculcated in many a willingness to assume that any—any—politically inconvenient fact must be a lie. Reality itself is now suspect insofar as it conflicts with political ends. The word “Orwellian” is overused, but it fits here.

Which brings us back to the doom poll. Insofar as there’s good news in it, it’s that not all Republican voters have fallen into Orwell’s trap. The bad news is that enough have done so as to make it all but impossible for anyone else to win this primary.

There are four takeaways from the data.

Trump’s diehard base really does function more like a cult than a political bloc.

Nate Cohn of the Times sifted through the numbers and identified 37 percent of the party as constituting the “MAGA base,” as he describes it. How loyal is the MAGA base?

So loyal that not a single person in a group of 319 would concede that their hero had committed serious federal crimes. “The MAGA base doesn’t support Mr. Trump in spite of his flaws,” Cohn wrote. “It supports him because it doesn’t seem to believe he has flaws.”

How much of that loyalty is owed to ideology and how much to persona is hard to say. When the Times asked Republicans which candidate is more “fun,” Trump led DeSantis 54-16—almost precisely reflecting his overall lead in the primary. (In fairness, Trump clearly is the more fun of the two.) If you’re of the opinion that populist Republicans view politics as more like pro wrestling than a vehicle for policymaking and government, that result won’t dissuade you.

Yet it’s also true that the more ideological a right-winger is, the more likely he is to prefer Trump to DeSantis. The former president leads DeSantis 65-15 among “very conservative” Republicans versus 35-17 among self-described “moderate” and “liberal” ones. Which is absurd on its face: DeSantis was vastly more conservative than Trump in his pre-2015 incarnation as a congressman and has been a “high energy” populist conservative legislator as governor, much more so than Trump was as president.

However you define “conservative,” pre-Trump or post-Trump, DeSantis should hold the advantage. Unless, that is, you define “conservative” as synonymous with Trump himself, in which case all imitators will pale by comparison to the genuine article. Judging by the doom poll, that appears to be what most Republicans imagine “conservatism” to be nowadays. Actual conservatives should take note in considering whether this party still represents their interests.

And DeSantis fans should consider the possibility that the “MAGA base” really might not turn out for their guy in the general election if he wins the nomination. I’ve been skeptical of that in the past, but a bloc conditioned to view all of its leader’s failures as illegitimate might well hold a grudge against an opponent who causes such a failure in the primary.

DeSantis’ best pitches to Republican voters have fallen flat.

The governor began his campaign touting three supposed advantages over Trump. He was more electable against Joe Biden, as he proved with his landslide victory in Florida last fall. He was more aggressive in using executive authority to advance the populist agenda, walking the walk whereas you-know-who had mostly just talked the talk. And he would wage culture war against “wokeness” with special fervor relative to Trump, who cares far less about that issue than he does conspiracy theories about the 2020 election and the criminal charges against him.

The doom poll tested each of those subjects. DeSantis trails in each, badly in some cases.

Electability? Fifty-eight percent of Republicans say “able to beat Biden” describes Trump more accurately than DeSantis. Just 28 percent say the opposite. It’s hard to believe that a man who’s likely to be under four separate criminal indictments by the time of the first Republican debate might be a more formidable nominee for the GOP, but the RCP averages suggest that it’s true. Quite a testament to DeSantis’ own political liabilities.

An aggressive, proactive executive? Trump leads on that too. Asked whether the phrase “get things done” better describes the frontrunner or the governor, 67 percent say Trump versus 22 percent who say DeSantis. It’s hard for a never-been-president to beat a former president on this metric, it seems.

The war on “woke”? The Times didn’t test Trump and DeSantis head-to-head on that but it did ask Republicans whom they’d prefer in a contest between a candidate who promises to fight corporations that promote “woke” ideology and another who wants the government to stay out of deciding what corporations should support. Result: The hands-off candidate leads 52-38. Among voters who prefer DeSantis in the primary, it’s 55-38. Punishing “woke” businesses failed to draw majority support even among the most ardent populist voters, the so-called MAGA base.

Because the governor’s feud with Disney has linked him so closely in the right-wing imagination to battling those “woke” businesses, it’s possible that some Republicans surveyed by the Times recognized this question as a proxy for their feelings about DeSantis and answered accordingly. In that case, Trump supporters who back DeSantis’ crusade against Disney on the merits might have responded disapprovingly here to signal disapproval of the governor.

But either way, an issue that was supposed to give the challenger a leg up on the frontrunner has failed to do so. And it’s not the only one that has.

Young Republicans are Trumpier than their elders in important ways.

If you thought Friday’s newsletter about the next generation of Republicans was grim, buckle up.

It might not surprise you that, according to the doom poll, Robert F. Kennedy Jr. is now more popular among Republicans than Mike Pence is. The former VP enjoys a 44-45 favorability rating; for RFK it’s 53-23. That’s majority support on the American right for the nuttiest Democrat in the race and plurality disdain for a staunchly conservative Republican congressman turned governor turned vice president.

What might surprise you is that Kennedy’s strongest support comes from Republicans aged 18-29. It’s not baby boomers watching Fox News glassy-eyed at all hours who have taken the shiniest shine to frequent Fox guest RFK. It’s the kids.

Among that group his favorability stands at 67-1. (No typo.) In every other age group, he’s no higher than 56 percent favorable and no lower than 18 percent unfavorable. 

There’s a similar age gap on the question of sending military and economic support to Ukraine. A majority of Republican senior citizens, veterans of the Cold War, support sending that aid; middle-aged Republicans are less enthusiastic but even 40 percent of them are in favor. Only in the 18-29 group does support drop below 30 percent, clocking in at 28-64.

Go figure, then, that Trump’s lead over DeSantis among young Republicans is even more lopsided than it is among the primary electorate overall, a 59-15 advantage.

Twentysomething right-wingers aren’t more populist than older ones across the board. They’re more willing to legalize gay marriage than their Republican grandparents are and, remarkably, more willing to support a comprehensive immigration deal that would grant illegal immigrants a path to citizenship. They’re also more open to reforming entitlements in the name of reducing the deficit than retirement-age Republicans are, not very surprisingly.

Their preferences may be less a product of considered populist ideology than having been drawn to Trump’s anti-establishment persona as they came of age politically and adopting his passions—Kennedy-style paranoia and anti-anti-Putinism—as their own. And how else could it be, realistically? Any young voter who dislikes Trump, and there are many, decamped for the Democratic Party long ago. All that’s left of twentysomethings on the right at this point are MAGA true believers, the sort of people whose BS detector is sufficiently haywire that they don’t bat an eye at stuff like this:

If you’re worried about what the party will look like in 10 years, you should be.

A more centrist DeSantis campaign probably wouldn’t have fared much better.

As more bad news piles up for the governor, the second-guessing grows more intense. Why did he run to Trump’s right? Why didn’t he pitch himself to more mainstream Republican voters?

I’ve already answered that at length but the doom poll provides extra reason to doubt that a more mainstream DeSantis would have won this race. Here’s how Cohn divides the primary electorate from the Times data he’s seeing:

You can see the governor’s strategic dilemma at a glance. If Trump begins with an absolute floor of 37 percent, there’s hardly any margin for error for DeSantis in consolidating the remaining 63 percent. To do so he’d need to craft a message that appeals simultaneously to Republicans who are populist enough to consider supporting Trump again and to Never Trumpers who have ruled out supporting him. Is there any such message? Cohn elaborates on how tricky it would be to try to reconcile these two factions:

These two groups of voters don’t just differ on Mr. Trump; they disagree on the issues as well. Mr. Trump’s skeptics support additional military and economic aid to Ukraine, and comprehensive immigration reform, while they oppose a six-week abortion ban. The persuadable voters, on the other hand, take the opposite view on all of those issues.

Remember in March how DeSantis tried to have it both ways on Ukraine? There’s a reason: To satisfy Never Trumpers and Quite Possibly Trumpers, he needed to take two different positions, essentially. So he did. It didn’t work great.

I think the governor and his team calculated correctly that they couldn’t win by conceding the MAGA base to Trump and trying to thread a needle that somehow consolidated the remaining 63 percent. It’s impossible. There are too many candidates competing for that second group and too many factions with conflicting visions for the party to coalesce behind a single message. So DeSantis tried something bold—he attempted to win over part of the MAGA base itself with a “more Trump than Trump” message. He thought that if Trump fans began defecting from the cult leader to him, overjoyed Never Trumpers and Trump-skeptic persuadables would toss aside their misgivings about the governor’s hyper-populist pandering and rally behind him to slay the dragon.

It was a bold strategy, high risk and high reward. And he put in the work: The last two years of DeSantis’ tenure as governor were dedicated singlemindedly to trying to convince the MAGA base that he’s more Trump than Trump. From COVID to critical race theory, from trans rights to woke corporations, there’s no populist hobby horse DeSantis hasn’t saddled up and eagerly ridden to show the right that he meant business. No Republican since 2015 has made as compelling a case legislatively that he, not the leader of the party, is the most formidable populist in the party.

If he had suddenly backburnered all of that in order to run a more mainstream campaign, blathering about the economy or what have you, he’d still be far behind Trump but with a different coalition. There’d be more Never Trumpers behind him—and fewer populists. The second-guessing would be as loud as it is now, but instead of wondering why he wasn’t running further to the center, armchair quarterbacks would be wondering why he wasn’t running further to the right. What was the point of spending so much time on CRT, etc., in Florida if he was only going to end up positioning himself as a slightly more populist Nikki Haley? Trump voters hate him now!

So he ran to the right. He made a play for the MAGA base. It hasn’t worked: DeSantis trails Trump 62-31 in the doom pool head-to-head, the sort of binary choice where we would expect every Trump-skeptic in the party to hold their nose and support the governor. If that’s the best DeSantis can do while pandering his heart out to woo stubborn populists, what reason is there to think he might have done better by pandering to them less?

Are there some moderate Republicans who prefer Trump to a more-Trump-than-Trump Ron DeSantis, and who might have switched to the governor had he run a more centrist campaign? Sure, maybe. But how persuadable are those “moderates,” really, if they’re sticking with Trump in the present circumstances? Chris Christie put it starkly:

Consider the possibility that this party, including its so-called moderates, is entirely too far gone for any strategy to have successfully pried away a majority of Republicans from Trump. In fact, in the head-to-head question with DeSantis, the doom poll finds that 22 percent who believe Trump committed serious federal crimes still prefer him to the governor. Even college-educated Republicans, whom DeSantis was winning not long ago, now favor Trump by 17 points despite the fact that we’re at two indictments and counting.

It’s not primarily the MAGA base that has delivered us to this point in the right’s civic deterioration. It’s those not-very-persuadable “persuadables” who keep finding ways not to let themselves be persuaded who are to blame.

One voter, asked by the Times why he was sticking with Trump over the governor of Florida, answered memorably: “He might say mean things and make all the men cry because all the men are wearing your wife’s underpants and you can’t be a man anymore. You got to be a little sissy and cry about everything. But at the end of the day, you want results. Donald Trump’s my guy. He’s proved it on a national level.” There’s nothing Ron DeSantis can do about “logic” like that. He spent the last year in Florida exploring creative ways legislatively to target men who enjoy wearing women’s underpants and he got “results,” believing that doing so would flip precisely this type of voter into his column and away from Trump.

He miscalculated. Only one candidate can own the libs to the satisfaction of most of the Republican Party, it seems. The governor is doomed. Do you ever think about dying?

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.