Former President Trump has vaulted back to a substantial lead in California over Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis in the race for the Republican presidential nomination, as the party’s voters brush aside his legal travails, a new poll finds.
Trump has the support of 44% of California’s likely Republican primary voters, while DeSantis was backed by 26%, according to the UC Berkeley Institute of Governmental Studies poll co-sponsored by The Times. That’s a notable reversal of their standings three months ago, when DeSantis led Trump by 8 percentage points among the state’s GOP voters.
The former president’s rise shows his ability to use the media to galvanize the voters most likely to back his third White House bid, said Mark DiCamillo, director of the IGS poll.
“Trump dominates the news, and I think he enjoys that, and I think he gets the sense when he is dominating the news, he’s probably expanding his messaging to his base,” DiCamillo said. “I think this poll pretty much proves that. Even when the news isn’t necessarily great, he’s able to give his own opinion about why things are the way they are, and the Republican base pretty much believes him.”
Although Californians are overwhelmingly Democratic, the state has millions of Republican voters. They could play a critical role in selecting their party’s nominee.
The state’s presidential primary is scheduled to take place in March 2024, relatively early in the electoral cycle, and California will send 169 delegates to the Republican National Convention, the most of any state.
Twelve other Republicans were tested in the poll, including former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, who has formally declared her candidacy, and prospective candidates former Vice President Mike Pence and former Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming. None received the support of more than 4% of the state’s likely GOP voters. About 13% were undecided.
Trump’s surge in the poll comes after he was indicted by the Manhattan district attorney on fraud charges related to hush-money payments during the 2016 campaign and after a jury ordered him to pay $5 million to magazine writer E. Jean Carroll for sexually assaulting her in 1996 and later defaming her.
Nearly 3 out of 4 California Republican voters said it was impossible for the former president to receive an unbiased trial in New York. Two-thirds discounted the significance of the sexual assault verdict.
That’s a view rejected by the rest of the state’s voters: Roughly two-thirds of California voters overall said Trump could get a fair trial and the verdict should be taken seriously.
“What was striking to me, in this three-month period, Trump was getting all this negative publicity from the sexual-abuse trial, and his image actually went up” among Republicans, DiCamillo said.
Since February, the share of Republican voters with a favorable view of Trump has gone from 69% to 74%.
DeSantis’ favorability rating declined from 79% to 75%. The largest drop occurred in the share of Republicans who have a strongly favorable opinion of him, which went from 54% to 43% over the last three months, the poll found.
By contrast, only 27% of the state’s voters overall have a favorable view of Trump; 69% view him unfavorably.
A large majority of Republican voters, 86%, said the multiple investigations of Trump were more about politics and political revenge than about law and justice, and 70% said the probes should be stopped for the good of the country “because they are worsening the nation’s political divisions.”
That position, too, was rejected by a large majority of the state’s voters overall. Just over one-third of California voters said they believe the investigations are more about politics than law, and 37% think they should be halted. About 6 in 10 said the investigations “aim to hold Trump accountable for his unlawful actions.”
In addition to the Manhattan district attorney, a U.S. Justice Department special counsel is investigating Trump over his alleged mishandling of classified documents and possible obstruction of a federal investigation at his Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida, his efforts to overturn his 2020 election defeat and alleged schemes to fraudulently solicit donations to his campaigns.
The district attorney in Atlanta is also investigating Trump’s involvement in efforts to overturn the 2020 election results in Georgia.
Seven in 10 California voters say it’s at least likely that Trump committed a crime in one or more of those cases, with half saying he definitely did, the poll found. Among Republican voters, 23% say that’s likely, and 62% say it’s unlikely.
Three-quarters of voters overall also say that it’s important that Trump be “held accountable for any unlawful actions he may have committed” after the election. Republican voters split on that question, with 41% saying that it is important and 46% saying it is not.
As his legal problems have mounted, Trump intensified his attacks on DeSantis in recent months. That appears to have given him a boost as the Florida governor prepared to officially announce his presidential bid, a step he took on Wednesday with a glitch-filled session on Twitter.
Trump was “disparaging DeSantis, trying to push him outside and discount his potential candidacy. And DeSantis’ image went down among Republicans,” DiCamillo said.
DeSantis supporters have argued that he could be a stronger candidate against President Biden than Trump would be. That argument, however, does not appear to have much sway with the state’s GOP voters. Among likely GOP primary voters, 71% say it’s most important to pick a candidate who best represents their opinions on major issues. Just 26% say it’s most important to nominate the candidate “with the best chance of defeating Joe Biden.”
DeSantis has sought to appeal to conservative voters, staking out positions as a prominent voice in the Republican culture wars.
He signed legislation banning the discussion of sexual orientation and gender identity with elementary and middle school students, forbidding the teaching of “critical race theory,” reducing tenure protection for teachers, prohibiting gender-transition care for young people and banning drag performances in front of minors. He has also engaged in a high-profile war with the Walt Disney Corp., among the state’s largest employers, after the company opposed some of his education restrictions.
But the conservative voters to whom those policies might be expected to appeal aren’t turning to him, the new poll indicates.
Trump leads DeSantis 62% to 23% among likely California Republican voters who identify themselves as strongly conservative. The former president also has a wide lead among men and among likely GOP voters who did not graduate from college.
The strongly conservative voters also are the most likely to have a favorable view of Trump, with 87% of them having a positive image of him, the poll found, compared with 56% of those Republicans who describe themselves as moderates.
DeSantis does better with those moderates — he runs roughly even with Trump among likely Republican voters in that group. He has a small edge among those who are younger than 40 and runs close to Trump among college graduates.
All that suggests that a significant share of his support is coming from Republicans who are not fervent DeSantis supporters, but are seeking a viable GOP rival to Trump.
This is a theory backed by history — educated and affluent Californians who have traditionally voted for Republicans in suburban areas such as Orange County turned away from the party because of Trump in the 2016 presidential contest and in every election since then.
“Those moderates are looking for someone other than Trump,” DiCamillo said.
The Berkeley IGS poll surveyed 7,465 California registered voters online in English and Spanish, including a weighted sample of 1,835 registered Republicans, from May 17 to 22. Because the survey results are weighted to match census and voter registration benchmarks, precise estimates of the margin of error are difficult; however, the results are estimated to have a margin of error of 2.5 percentage points in either direction for the full sample and 3.5 percentage points for the Republican sample.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.