Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has spent the past few months running to the right ahead of his expected entry into the 2024 Republican presidential primary campaign. From signing into law a six-week abortion ban to fighting with Disney, the governor has focused on satisfying his party’s conservative base.
So far at least, those efforts have not paid off in Republican primary polling, with DeSantis falling further behind the current front-runner, former President Donald Trump.
Things have gotten so bad for DeSantis that a recent Fox News poll shows him at 21% – comparable with the 19% that Robert F. Kennedy Jr., who has pushed debunked conspiracy theories about vaccine safety, is receiving on the Democratic side.
DeSantis was at 28% in Fox’s February poll, 15 points behind Trump. The Florida governor’s support has dropped in the two Fox polls published since, and he now trails the former president by 32 points.
The Fox poll is not alone in showing DeSantis floundering. The latest average of national polls has him dropping from the low 30s into the low 20s.
This may not seem like a big deal, but early polling has long been an indicator of how well presidential candidates do in the primary the following year. Of all primary elections since 1972 without incumbents running, candidates at around 30% in early primary polls (like DeSantis was in February) have gone on to become their parties’ nominees about 40% of the time. Candidates polling the way DeSantis is now have gone on to win about 20% of the time.
I will, of course, point out that 20% is not nothing. DeSantis most certainly still has a chance of winning. The comparison with Kennedy is not a remark on Kennedy’s strength but on DeSantis’ weakness.
There is no historical example of an incumbent in President Joe Biden’s current position (over 60% in the latest Fox poll) losing a primary. At this point in 1995, Bill Clinton was polling roughly where Biden is now, and he had no problem winning the Democratic nomination the following year.
In that same campaign, Jesse Jackson was polling near 20% in a number of early surveys against Clinton. So what we’re seeing from Kennedy now is not, as of yet, a historical anomaly.
Jackson didn’t run in that 1996 race. The power of incumbency is strong enough to deter most challengers.
The last three incumbents to either lose state primary elections (when on the ballot) or drop out of the race – Lyndon Johnson in 1968, Gerald Ford in 1976 and Jimmy Carter in 1980 – were at less than 40% of the vote or up by fewer than 10 points at this point in primary polling.
The good news for DeSantis is that he doesn’t need to beat an incumbent, though one could make the case that Trump is polling like one.
In fact, DeSantis’ decline is at least in part because of Trump’s rise. The former president, who has been indicted on felony criminal charges in New York, has gone from the low to mid-40s to above 50% in the average 2024 polling. (Trump has pleaded not guilty to the charges.)
But one could also argue that DeSantis isn’t helping his cause. He has yet to formally announce his 2024 campaign – most past nominees had already done so or had filed with the Federal Election Commission at this point in the race. And the governor’s play to the right doesn’t line up with where the anti-Trump forces are within the Republican Party.
Trump has continually been weakest among party moderates. A Quinnipiac University poll released at the end of March found that he was pulling in 61% among very conservative Republicans, while garnering a mere 30% from moderate and liberal Republicans.
This moderate wing is the part of the party that is least likely to want a ban on abortion after six weeks. A KFF poll taken late last year showed moderate and liberal Republicans split 50/50 on whether they wanted a six-week abortion ban.
This group isn’t small. Moderates and liberals made up about 30% of potential Republican primary voters in the Quinnipiac poll.
Indeed, DeSantis’ other big newsmaking action (his fight with Disney) has managed to split the GOP as well, a Reuters/Ipsos poll from last week found. Although a clear majority sided with the governor (64%), 36% of Republicans do not.
For reference, over 80% of Republicans said in a Fox poll last month that Trump had not done anything illegal, with regard to the criminal charges against him in New York.
DeSantis, at the moment, is not building a base. He’s dividing Republicans and allowing Trump to claim an electability mantle. The general electorate remains opposed to a six-week abortion ban and his position on Disney.
We’ll see if that changes should his polling position improve after an official campaign launch. If it doesn’t, this may end up being one of the most boring presidential primary seasons in the modern era, given Biden’s and Trump’s significant advantages.