DeSantis falls back into the 2024 Republican pack as Trump’s dominance persists

Lily Smith/The Register / USA TODAY NETWORK
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Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis entered the 2024 presidential race with a clear argument for his candidacy — that he was the only Republican capable of beating former President Donald Trump and reversing the party’s recent losing streak.

All signs, up to that point, backed up his claim. Most public polling showed that no other GOP presidential hopeful came anywhere close to beating Trump in the nascent presidential primary. A few surveys released early this year even found Trump’s lead dwindling to single digits.

Now, just four months into his White House campaign, polls show DeSantis competing more with the likes of entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy or former United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley than with Trump.

After hitting a post-announcement high of 23.7% in national polls in early June, DeSantis’ support in the Republican primary sits at 12.5%, according to a polling average compiled by RealClearPolitics. Trump, meanwhile, has the support of more than half – 58.8% support – of GOP voters.

“This is not a two-person race, a three-person race, a four-person race,” Ford O’Connell, a Republican strategist and former Florida congressional candidate, said. “This is a one person race with a second tier of candidates. This is Donald Trump running up the score.”

It’s not only national polls that show DeSantis falling back with the rest of the GOP field.

In Iowa, which holds the critical first-in-the-nation Republican caucuses, DeSantis is trailing Trump by roughly 30 points, according to the RealClearPolitics average. An Emerson College survey released last week found DeSantis leading the candidate running in third place, U.S. Sen. Tim Scott, by just 6 points — within the poll’s margin of error.

The contests in New Hampshire and South Carolina — the second and third states to vote in the primary, respectively — appear even more contentious for DeSantis. A different Emerson College poll out last month found former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie overtaking DeSantis for second place in New Hampshire, while a Washington Post/Monmouth University survey out last week showed DeSantis trailing Trump, Haley and Scott in South Carolina.

DeSantis, who has bet much of his political fortune on Iowa, believing that a solid performance there will give him a jolt of momentum heading into the primaries in New Hampshire and South Carolina, has brushed off the poll numbers, insisting that the race is in flux and that most voters have yet to make up their minds on whom they’ll ultimately pick.

“I think it’s fluid,” DeSantis told Des Moines news station KCCI in an interview on Monday. “If you really press people, the majority of people here still haven’t made a 100% decision.”

But Dallas Woodhouse, a longtime Republican operative who has worked in both North and South Carolina politics, said that the circumstances surrounding the primary — including the boost Trump has received from his legal troubles — mean that DeSantis and other candidates may be facing the possibility that they’re simply competing for second place.

“I’ve just started to believe that this thing is what it is,” Woodhouse said. “You’ve seen there’s a number of good Republican candidates who are probably not going to get much oxygen. And I think to most of the people out there, it’s not a race at all.”

Eyes on Iowa

There are still nearly four months to go before the first votes are cast in the nominating contest. Bryan Griffin, the press secretary for DeSantis’ campaign, insisted that the primary effectively remains a head-to-head battle between DeSantis and Trump.

“This primary is a two-man race between Ron DeSantis and a man running in 2024 on the things he promised to do in 2016 and failed to do,” Griffin said, taking a shot at Trump’s four years in the White House. “Ron DeSantis is the only candidate in the race who can beat Joe Biden and implement the agenda we need to reverse this country’s decline and revive its future.”

And there are signs that Trump still views DeSantis as the biggest threat to his renomination. He attacks the Florida governor far more than any of his other Republican rivals, and just this week, his team announced a coming campaign onslaught in Iowa, targeting a state that DeSantis sees as crucial to his primary prospects.

DeSantis has already made nine separate trips to Iowa, visiting visited 58 of its 99 counties. He has the endorsements of 40 Iowa state lawmakers. Never Back Down, the main super PAC supporting DeSantis’ White House bid, has bought more than $10 million worth of ads in the state through November. And DeSantis has also embraced the state’s popular Republican governor, Kim Reynolds, whom Trump has openly attacked.

Trump is expected to visit the Hawkeye State five times over the next six weeks, beginning on Wednesday with stops in Maquoketa and Dubuque in Eastern Iowa. The more-aggressive campaign schedule coincides with a spate of new ad bookings in Iowa by Make America Great Again Inc., the main super PAC backing Trump’s White House bid. The group spent more than $700,000 last week on the spots, according to the ad-tracking first AdImpact.

“Polling shows President Trump leading by nearly 40 points in Iowa, but as he always tells us, put the pedal to the metal,” Steven Cheung, a spokesperson for Trump’s campaign, said in a statement. “We don’t play prevent defense, and President Trump’s aggressive upcoming schedule in Iowa reflects his continued commitment to earning support in the state one voter at a time.”