Just last month DeSantis’ strategy of carefully avoiding rolling in the mud with Donald Trump was seen as being effective.
When Trump tried to attack him on his Covid Florida record, claiming that the state had remained closed for too long, the governor did not take the bait. DeSantis was praised for his approach. According to The Hill, “Trump’s farcical charge about DeSantis has fallen flat, in part because DeSantis and his communications team are refusing to take Trump’s bait when asked for comment by either declining to comment altogether or responding by touting their own record.”
Later, as Trump stepped up his juvenile name-calling and insults, DeSantis had a curt reply: “I spend my time delivering results for the people of Florida and fighting against Joe Biden,” he said. “That’s how I spend my time. I don’t spend my time trying to smear other Republicans.”
But Trump has continued to ratchet up the assault, tagging him as “Meatball Ron,” “Ron DeSanctimonious,” a “groomer,” disloyal, and a supporter of cutting entitlement programs.
Then DeSantis himself lent Trump a helping hand: he has lately expressed an anti-Ukraine position, calling it a “territorial dispute,” a position that most Republicans do not share.
Now we see that the former president’s attacks are paying off. In surveys taken since the Trump offensive began two months ago, DeSantis has steadily lost ground against Trump, whose own numbers have increased.
Reading polls is not much more accurate than reading tarot cards: you can make them say whatever you want. In this case, different pollsters have had wildly divergent takes on Trump’s strength. In just the past few days, a CNN/SSRS poll showed a tight race, with DeSantis at 39% and Trump at 37% among registered voters, while a Morning Consult poll found Trump with nearly a 2-to-1 lead, 52% to 28%.
Writing for The New York Times, Nate Cohn, acknowledging that polls are extraordinarily slippery, points out the one sure thing they demonstrate: “It’s the trend that’s important, and the trend is unequivocal: Every single one of these polls has shown DeSantis faring worse than before, and Trump faring better.”
The question is, why? Cohn sees a clear narrative explaining the trend:
— The DeSantis election bump is over. In the aftermath of the midterms, DeSantis benefited from extensive media coverage of his landslide win in Florida and Trump’s role in the GOP’s disappointing showing.
— Trump went on offense. Beginning in mid-to-late January, Trump began testing various lines of attack, criticizing DeSantis’ loyalty and his consistency on COVID issues. In early February on his Truth Social site, Trump shared a photo and posts suggesting DeSantis was “grooming” female students when he was a high school teacher two decades ago. He has kept up the pressure ever since.
— DeSantis is on the sideline. When Trump attacked him, there was not much of a defense by DeSantis or counterattacks on Trump, whether by DeSantis or his allies. DeSantis hasn’t even declared his candidacy yet.
Still, the damage done may not be irreparable—yet. DeSantis’ favorability ratings, for instance, remain strong: The new Quinnipiac survey showed him with an exceptional 72-6 favorability rating among Republicans. If the media conversation becomes more favorable, his position against Trump could easily rebound.
If on the other hand, DeSantis has failed to engage Trump and rebut the attacks because he and his allies don’t think they can safely engage the former president, then the problem may be much graver than appears at present.
Another unpredictable factor has now been injected in this equation. What will happen if Trump is indeed arrested, as is expected, and as he himself has already announced. In what is clearly a repetition of his January 6 strategy of instigating violence, he has already appealed to his followers to get out and protest. The NYPD is ready, with beefed up security, but will this harm the reckless Trump and help DeSantis?
If Ron DeSantis does eventually get in the ring and officially declare his candidacy, an out and out clash with Trump will be inevitable and one thing is irrefutable: no candidate ever won an election by standing in his corner and taking the punches.
Discussion about this post