In line with our recent theme, the Times is out today with a poll that is absolutely devastating for Ron DeSantis. But in truth it is devastating for every Republican candidate not named Donald Trump. It is only devastating for DeSantis inasmuch as he is the only candidate who appears to be in the race at all rather than running what amounts to a novelty or lifestyle campaign. According to the Times/Siena Poll, nationwide Trump has 54% of Republicans supporting him compared to 17% for DeSantis. The next five runners-up either have 2% or 3%. As I said, in practical terms, they’re not even in the race.
Is the fractured field preventing DeSantis from breaking through? Not really. If all the other candidates dropped out and gave DeSantis a clear one-on-one matchup, Trump would still be disemboweling him by a 62% to 31% margin.
I’ve devoted perhaps too much time to chronicling DeSantis’s comically inept, losing campaign and his profound shortcomings as a political candidate. But at a basic level these critiques are not so much unfair as beside the point. What these numbers tell us is the simple fact that Republican voters want Donald Trump to be their party’s nominee, never stopped wanting him to be their nominee and in practical terms will never stop. As I told you seven or eight months ago, when many others had momentarily lost their bearings, Donald Trump will absolutely be the Republican nominee for the simple reason that he’s the leader of that party and Republican voters support him. If anything the poll and the follow-on interviews with individual respondents show less negativity and contempt for DeSantis than I might have anticipated. Most like DeSantis just fine. He’s just not Trump, their leader.
This poll highlights a few details about the crumpled, broken carcass of DeSantis’s campaign. One is that he really is the Jebbite candidate in the race. While Trump dominates the field across regions and in every demographic category, DeSantis does best or loses by the least among wealthier Republicans and those with college degrees. As I said, he’s the Jebbite candidate in the race.
There are two very notable stand outs in this breakdown of candidate attributes.
First, DeSantis does fairly well on what in MAGA terms are the fairly anemic metrics of being likable and moral. Meanwhile, Trump crushes DeSantis on the measures which amount to dominance and power. The worldview is aptly captured by 69 year old David Green of New Hampshire who told the Times that Trump “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.” Fair enough.
Second, look at that measure of “fun.” I can’t think of any other race in which I’ve seen this question asked. You may recall polls which asked some version of which candidate would be more fun to have a beer with. We saw that during the George W. Bush era. But that question was really about relatability. Who could you relate to and unwind with? Who is a regular guy?
This question seems to ask something quite different: who is more fun to watch. It’s a measure of the entertainment factor. That “fun” factor is an anchor of Trump’s support. Another article out this summer captured it in a different way. A central feature of the MAGA movement is how much fun its adherents find in it, this article explained. Indeed, they have a hard time understanding how those outside the movement don’t see it in the same way but rather see it as threatening, dark, ugly.
This is a recurrent theme of many authoritarian movements. The strongman is also an entertainer. It was an abiding theme of Benito Mussolini’s two decades in power in Italy. Indeed, Trump isn’t even the only revanchist, strongman type figure with an over-the-top hairdo. Think of Gert Wilders in The Netherlands, among many other examples.
In campaign terms the whole picture comes into focus if we think of Trump as running for reelection and facing a contested primary. If George W. Bush or Barack Obama or even Joe Biden had faced contested primaries when they ran for reelection we might imagine they would have garnered between 50% and 75% support, with perhaps one candidate breaking through a bit but no one seriously threatening their renomination. It’s no accident Trump’s supporters still call him President and don’t believe he legitimately lost power. In a sense he is running as the incumbent. He’s still the leader of the party on that basis. Everything comes into focus when you see it in those terms. Whatever DeSantis’s failings as a candidate, the real error was not understanding this broader context about Trump’s incumbency in the first place.