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DeSantis is Flopping, but Not for the Reason You Think
Trump's attacks are not the problem, it's DeSantis's failure to stay top of mind in a media environment dominated by Trump
Nothing in life is more fickle than the political media. They change narratives with the ferocity of Ron DeSantis confronted with a pudding cup.
In a few short weeks, the political press pivoted from “Donald Trump is doomed” to “Ron DeSantis is blowing it.” A number of columnists like David Frum and Josh Barro weighed in on how DeSantis is struggling in his nascent, not-yet-announced campaign for President. Similar sentiments were circulating on Twitter — especially among NeverTrump and Trump-Uncomfortable Republicans praying for the fall of the MAGA King.
Here’s how Politico Playbook summed up the state of the GOP primary:
DONALD TRUMP could be criminally indicted any day now, a historic first that could upend American politics.
But for now, at least, the former president looks ascendant in his bid to become the future president: Teflon Don has yet to be caught by any would-be GOP rivals and is slowly reintegrating himself into portions of the American political firmament.
The evidence is clear; Trump is up, and DeSantis is down. But most people misattribute this shift. And that is why so many pundits and political operatives fail to understand the core dynamic shaping modern politics.
The Proof Is in the Polling
It’s hard to overstate how vulnerable Donald Trump was in late 2022. The former President and his endorsed candidates had just cost his party the Senate and several winnable House races. Then, Trump celebrated his ignominious defeat by dining with Nazis at Mar a Lago. DeSantis — fresh off a huge win in Florida — was ascendant. He had all of the momentum and opportunity. The anti-Trump wing of the Party immediately coalesced around DeSantis. Poll after poll showed DeSantis’ strength in a race against Trump. It seemed Trump was being drummed out of American politics.
Well, Trump’s back (if he ever left).
As Nate Cohn wrote in the New York Times:
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.
The CW is catching up to a trend that has been happening for more than a month. Axios recounted the recent movement in the polls:
A new Yahoo News/YouGov poll has Trump opening up an 8-point lead on DeSantis (47%-39%), after DeSantis led the former president by 4 in the pollster's previous survey at the beginning of February.
The GOP polling firm Echelon Insights found Trump leading DeSantis by 15 points (46%-31%) on a national ballot test. Last month, the pollster found Trump only leading DeSantis by 2 points (36%-34%).
Fox News' first presidential primary poll, testing the GOP presidential ballot, found Trump leading DeSantis by 15 points (43%-28%).
Some of these polls are shitty. The movement may amount to nothing more than statistical noise, but there is a clear trend. The polling confirms the general sense of the race. More and more Republicans are comfortable with the idea of Trump. DeSantis’ footholds are slipping.
It’s Not the Attacks; It’s the Attention
Trump continues to rise in the polls, and has also opened up a howitzer on DeSantis — attacking him for wanting to cut Social Security, being a Paul Ryan-stooge, and hurling a series of nasty, unproved allegations about DeSantis’ personal life. The Florida Governor has largely opted not to respond in kind. In the few instances when DeSantis decided to (very) mildly retaliate, it blew up in his face.
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Seems clear, right? Trump has attacked DeSantis brutally. DeSantis failed to respond in kind, and DeSantis has fallen in the polls. These are the inferences most analysts are drawing. Except, that connection is a case of correlation, not causation.
The polling paints a different picture. Voters are either unaware of or unmoved by Trump’s attacks. It’s probably the former. Trump is launching these attacks on a niche social media site with few users and at rallies that get only a modicum of media coverage.
To measure the efficacy of a political attack, we must first track the unfavorable ratings of a candidate. If they go up, the attack is drawing blood. In the Monmouth poll, cited by everyone as evidence of DeSantis’s downfall, the Florida Governor remains incredibly popular with Republican voters. He has a 76% favorable rating, with only 8% viewing him unfavorably. Trump, on the other hand, has a favorable rating of 70/21.
If Trump’s rise and DeSantis’s fall are not from the attacks, why are they happening?
It’s all about attention.
Trump’s greatest skill as a politician is not his vicious attacks or dumb nicknames. He is not a master messenger or skilled political swordsman. He’s good at dominating the conversation. Because of his self-destructive tendencies and his unique combination of megalomania and insecurity, this skill often comes back to bite him in the ass. Among all voters, Trump is deeply unpopular and he constantly reminds people why they hate him. He polarizes the electorate and turns out the Democratic base.
But in a Republican Primary, where the vast majority of voters agree with him and seven in ten like him a lot, Trump’s ability to blot out the sun is a tremendous asset. Back in 2016, none of his opponents achieved the name recognition to reach escape velocity until it was too late. As Governor, DeSantis commanded attention and media coverage with controversial (and often bigoted) culture war shenanigans. But Trump is in an entirely different league. His omnipresence pushed DeSantis into the relative background.
This data from Google Trends shows how interest in DeSantis peaked last fall and has been relatively low since then. The Trends timeline matches up decently with DeSantis’ fluctuations in the polls.
Unlike earlier in the race, DeSantis is no longer making news on his terms. To the extent he gets talked about, it’s now on Trump’s terms. That shift has undoubtedly stalled DeSantis's momentum from last year.
It’s very possible – even probable – that DeSantis is an empty brown shirt without the skill or charisma to compete on the national stage. But If DeSantis wants to beat Trump, he must figure out how to compete in the attention wars.
In this media environment, you are either serving lunch or you are on the menu. And Ron DeSantis has very much been on the menu for weeks.