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The campaign reboots haven't worked. Gov. Ron DeSantis continues to drop in the polls. Now the second GOP presidential primary debate is approaching on Wednesday, and a big question is whether it even matters.
Is there anything DeSantis can do at this point to change the dynamic in a race where former President Donald Trump's lead grows more daunting with each new poll?
Many Republicans thought DeSantis did well in the first debate. A poll of GOP debate watchers showed DeSantis was viewed as one of the winners.
It didn't matter. Trump has continued to expand his lead,
A Quinnipiac University survey released Sept. 13 had Trump up by 50 percentage points nationally, an incredible margin.
"The red lights are flashing, the wagons are circled, there’s trouble in River City," said Quinnipiac polling analyst Tim Malloy.
Quinnipiac showed a much closer race in February, with DeSantis at 36% support and Trump at 42%. The pollster's latest survey shows just 12% of GOP voters back DeSantis.
“To put it bluntly, he’s dropping like a rock," Malloy said.
Trump's lead grows
DeSantis has struggled since formally entering the presidential race in May during a glitch-filled announcement on X, the platform formally known as Twitter. He has fired campaign staff amid concerns about overspending and switched campaign managers.
With his campaign in turmoil, there was intense pressure on DeSantis to deliver a strong performance during the first GOP presidential debate last month. The governor didn't generate much buzz during the event in Milwaukee, avoiding mixing it up with the other candidates, but a survey released after the event by the Washington Post, FiveThirtyEight and Ipsos found that a plurality of GOP voters thought DeSantis won.
Regardless, DeSantis' poll numbers haven't improved and multiple recent surveys show Trump strengthening his position in the race.
Emerson College released a national poll Wednesday that had Trump beating DeSantis by 47 percentage points, the largest margin in more than a year of Emerson polling the race.
DeSantis is at 12% support in the latest Emerson poll, compared to 29% in January.
"Probably most concerning is that 12% has been stagnant for the better part of a month," said Spencer Kimball, executive director of the Emerson College Polling Center. "August and September have seen him pre-debate and post debate sitting on that."
Kimball said it's not clear a good debate performance would significantly benefit DeSantis, or any other candidate, at this point because Trump's support is so strong, but a bad performance could knock him out of second place.
“The rest of the field is starting to pull into DeSantis, the concern for DeSantis is that a bad debate performance would drop him," Kimball said.
DeSantis drops to fifth in New Hampshire
DeSantis has shrugged off his bad national polling numbers, noting that the primary process plays out at the state level.
“We don’t have a national primary and if we had a national primary we would have a different approach, it’s a state by state process," DeSantis said recently on Fox Business. "Iowa and New Hampshire will be the first opening salvos and I can tell you those are much different pictures on the ground there than what some of the national narrative is."
Yet Trump still holds a commanding lead in Iowa, where DeSantis only is doing slightly better than he is nationally.
Emerson's latest survey has DeSantis down by 35 percentage points in Iowa.
“Trump’s got a strong lead in New Hampshire, Iowa, South Carolina," Kimball said of the first three states to vote.
DeSantis' New Hampshire campaign is looking particularly weak, with the University of New Hampshire/CNN releasing a poll Wednesday that had Florida's governor in fifth place behind Trump, Vivek Ramaswamy, Nikki Haley and Chris Christie. The headline of the news release accompanying the poll: "Trump leads, DeSantis Crashes in NH GOP Primary."
DeSantis led Trump by 12 percentage points in a January poll conducted by the University of New Hampshire.
"The cultural campaign he has been waging simply doesn't resonate with New Hampshire Republicans," Andrew Smith, director of the University of New Hampshire Survey Center, told the Washington Examiner. "I am still surprised he's pushing anti-woke rhetoric in New Hampshire."
In addition to the polling data, there are other warning signs for DeSantis' campaign.
Ken Griffin, a billionaire who was DeSantis' second largest donor when he ran for re-election as governor last year, said in a recent CNBC interview that he is "still on the sidelines as to who to support in this election cycle." Griffin isn't supporting DeSantis at this point.
“I don’t know his strategy,” Griffin said of DeSantis. “It’s not clear to me what voter base he is intending to appeal to.”
All in on Iowa
DeSantis has tried to challenge Trump from the right and appeal to the most conservative elements of the GOP. After initially trying to run a national campaign, he has retrenched and devoted much of his time and resources to campaigning in Iowa, which has a large base of conservative, Evangelical voters.
DeSantis is hoping to use Iowa as a springboard, and is highlighting issues such his support for a ban on abortions after six weeks of pregnancy as he tries to appeal to Iowa conservatives.
Yet Kimball noted that Emerson's polling shows that Iowa voters who care most about the abortion issue and would like to see a complete ban still favor Trump, who recently attracted attention for calling DeSantis' six-week abortion ban a "terrible thing."
"On the abortion issue, the data doesn’t suggest that’s going to move enough votes," Kimball said.
University of Iowa Political Science Professor Tim Hagle believes DeSantis likely is doing better in Iowa than the polls suggest. The state is difficult to poll because of its caucus system, he said, and DeSantis is investing enormous resources to ensure voters turn out to caucus for him.
“DeSantis is doing the groundwork that we usually like to see in Iowa for the caucuses," Hagle said.
Hagle also noted that polling tends to shift in Iowa as the caucus gets closer, and he believes Trump's abortion comments could hurt him with evangelicals. Then there's Gov. Kim Reynolds, who is weighing endorsing DeSantis, according to a recent Bloomberg article.
Reynolds' backing would be a big win for DeSantis, who could tap into her extensive political network in the state. It also would signal that she believes he had a good chance of winning the state.
“With Reynolds, she won very handily back in November for re-election and seems to be very popular in the state and has a good campaign organization," Hagle said. "If she could put that to work for DeSantis that’s going to give DeSantis... a boost.”
DeSantis still in second place
Despite his struggles, DeSantis still is viewed as the main alternative to Trump, Kimball noted. Additionally, there still is a considerable amount of time to campaign before the Iowa caucus on Jan. 15 and Trump's legal troubles are a big wild card in the race.
“There’s a lot of golf to play here and there’s a hurricane of controversy swirling around Trump," Malloy said. "So far it hasn’t hurt him… you wonder what - if any - impact it will have."
DeSantis projected optimism during his Fox Business appearance.
"We got a long way to go," he said. "We’re going to work very, very hard.”
This article originally appeared on Sarasota Herald-Tribune: Ron DeSantis keeps dropping in polls as second GOP debate approaches