A warning to Trump? New poll shows ex-president, DeSantis in close race for Florida GOP primary in 2024

WASHINGTON – If Florida's two most famous Republicans wind up running against each other for president in 2024, it could be a very close race in their home state.

Former President Donald Trump leads Gov. Ron DeSantis by 47%-40% in a new poll, within the 7.4% margin of error among Florida Republicans in a Suffolk University/USA TODAY poll released Tuesday.

The poll revealed hints about how the Sunshine State could go this year and beyond.

Who will win Florida in 2024?: A new poll has Biden losing to these two prominent Republicans

Among the numbers:

Trump is not a lock against DeSantis

Trump handily defeated Florida Sen. Marco Rubio in the state's Republican presidential primary in 2016. Trump also won the state in both of his presidential campaigns in 2016 and 2020.

However, the former president might have a harder time in 2024 against DeSantis. The poll indicates that Trump has more intense support from Republicans, but DeSantis has support from independents who say they would re-register and vote in a GOP primary.

"DeSantis is competitive in this poll, even against the former (Republican) president," said David Paleologos, director of the Boston-based Suffolk University Political Research Center.

Trump is all but planning another presidential run 2024; DeSantis has not discussed the prospect of a '24 campaign publicly, saying he is focused on Florida (and his re-election bid this year).

But the poll suggests Trump might not have the same once-solid grip he had on the party while in office.

DeSantis: A better bet against Biden?

The poll shows both DeSantis and Trump defeating Biden in a Florida general election match-up – DeSantis by a wider margin.

The governor leads the current president in Florida by 52%-44%, according to the poll; Trump leads Biden by just three points, 47%-44%.

President Donald Trump stands behind Ron DeSantis, Candidate for Governor of Florida, as he speaks at a rally, Saturday, Nov. 3, 2018, in Pensacola, Fla.
President Donald Trump stands behind Ron DeSantis, Candidate for Governor of Florida, as he speaks at a rally, Saturday, Nov. 3, 2018, in Pensacola, Fla.

The reason: DeSantis has more support from independent voters who would participate in a general election; Trump has more support among Republicans, hence his lead over DeSantis in a potential GOP primary.

Frenemies? Donald Trump, Ron DeSantis eye each other warily before 2024 presidential race

COVID-19: DeSantis vows to fight Biden vaccine requirements

It's a common challenge for primaries, Paleologos said: "Party nominees who are strong within their party but less popular among the general electorate could win their respective party primaries but falter in the general election."

Biden in trouble in Florida

The poll gave the incumbent president poor marks across the board, at least in Florida.

Florida voters gave Biden an overall approval rating of 39%, while 53% of voters disapproved of his performance.

Respondents were particularly critical of Biden's performance on the economy; only 36% approved of it.

While Trump won Florida in 2020, Biden and the Democrats still hope to make a big play for the nation's third most populous state, one that that will have 30 electoral votes in the 2024 election.

Florida is the largest of a small handful of toss-up states that determine the winners of presidential elections – and it's a virtual must-win for Republican hopefuls, be it Trump, DeSantis or somebody else.

And in another sign that Biden could face an uphill battle in Florida, Hillary Clinton, the Democratic nominee who lost to Trump in 2016, leads Biden among Florida Democrats in a hypothetical Democratic primary in 2024. (There's no sign that she would actually challenge Biden.)

Rubio-Demings: Closer than it seems?

Florida also features one of this year's most-watched Senate races: incumbent Republican Marco Rubio vs. Democratic U.S. Rep. Val Demings.

The poll gave Rubio a fairly comfortable lead of 49%-41% over Demings, with 10% undecided.

More: U.S. Rep. Val Demings to challenge Marco Rubio for U.S. Senate seat

There are caveats, however: A full 29% of Florida voters do not yet know Demings, a congresswoman and former police chief from the Orlando area. Another 29% have heard her name, but haven't formed an opinion.

Among voters who know both candidates, Demings leads Rubio by 51%-42%.

"The familiar-with-both candidates data point suggests that as Demings introduces herself to more voters, her deficit could narrow, giving her the potential to flip the seat," Paleologos said.

It's still the economy

As often happens, voters listed jobs and the economy as their top issue.

Those worries come as inflation hovers around a 40-year high, making Americans pay more for everything from rent to food to transportation.

One in five voters, 20%, identified the economy as the top issue, followed by immigration policy (15%), inflation (13%), COVID-19 and crime/guns (tied at 9%) and schools/education (8%), according to the poll.

Inflation climbs: Inflation reaches highest level since 1982 as consumer prices jump 7% in 2021

Worries about mental health

The Florida poll mirrored a national survey conducted by Suffolk University/USA TODAY last month concerning one issue: the nation's mental health.

Exclusive poll: Overwhelming majority says the US faces a mental health crisis

The vast majority of respondents in the Florida poll – 73% – said they believe the United States is in the midst of a mental health crisis.

In a national survey conducted in early January, 88% said there is a mental health crisis ongoing.

DeSantis has to win re-election first

If DeSantis is going to run for president in 2024, he has to win re-election as governor of Florida in 2022.

The poll gave DeSantis comfortable leads over potential Democratic challengers, but not insurmountable ones.

DeSantis leads congressman and former governor (and former Republican) Charlie Crist by just six points, 49%-43%, with 8% undecided. DeSantis leads Commissioner of Agriculture Nikki Fried 51%-40%, with 9% undecided.

Paleologos noted that while DeSantis enjoys a big lead over his Democratic rivals, he does not crack 50% against Crist.

"That's always a red flag." he said.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Florida 2024: Poll shows close GOP race between Trump and DeSantis