Ron DeSantis' lost summer
In the all-important state of Iowa, the GOP primary hasn't moved much. New Hampshire looks like Gone Girl.
The good news for Ron DeSantis is that despite a hellfire summer of awkward in-person campaign moments, staff upheaval, donor doubts and a diminishing political stature, he hasn’t completely bottomed out in Iowa, the lead-off cornfield caucus state.
The bad news for Ron DeSantis is that since launching his campaign nearly four months ago, he hasn’t gained an inch on the Republican front-runner and has wasted away a summer, fumbling for the precise messaging to dent Donald Trump.
Public Opinion Strategies is a reputable GOP pollster working on behalf of DeSantis, but also conducting surveys for other entities. Just taking their polling alone, the data bears out a stagnant race, with Trump sitting on a lead of about 20 points or more in Iowa, which votes on January 15, 2024.
On June 1, just about a week after DeSantis formally entered the race POS pushed out a survey showing Trump’s Iowa lead at +15 (46%-31%); by July 15, the POS read on the race had Trump ticking up to +21 in Iowa (43%-22%). The day after the 1st GOP debate in August, POS handed a snap-poll to Fox that measured Trump still up by 20 over DeSantis (41%-21%). The Fox article blindly frames the piece as DeSantis getting a bump out of the debate Trump declined to partake in, but the numbers actually reveal that POS previously tracked DeSantis’ Iowa support down to 14% sometime between late July and August. All the debate did was get him back to his 20-point deficit. Then on Sept. 6, a fresh POS poll placed Trump +22 in Iowa (46%-24%), ostensibly retrieving the few points he lost immediately following the debate.
To be clear, other pollsters — like Emerson and Civiqs — give Trump an even larger Iowa lead, in the mid-30s. But for the sake of argument and giving DeSantis the benefit of the doubt, even his own team is saying he remains down by at least 22 points with less than four months before the voting starts. And his Iowa deficit has remained remarkably stable throughout.
To be clear, that’s not an impossible shortfall to recover from. Both Ted Cruz (in 2015) and Mike Huckabee (in 2007) were still in single digits at similar points in their eventual Iowa-winning cycles with lower percentages than DeSantis.
But even if DeSantis climbs back in Iowa, New Hampshire looks like a taller order for him. The Florida governor’s deficit in the Granite State is even larger and if he falls to Trump in Iowa by double-digits, there’s little reason to think that’ll serve as fuel for a “Comeback Kid” scenario in New Hampshire.
POS — the DeSantis-aligned pollster produced two polls of the New Hampshire primary electorate in June. On June 1, it showed Trump’s advantage at +21 over DeSantis (43%-22%). By June 22, it was +28 (45%-17%).
Late June and into July in New Hampshire is where DeSantis felt the most precipitous decline. Trump’s leads measured between 20 and 30 points in most polls. POS hasn’t put out a survey of New Hampshire since those June numbers. No hand-held leaks to Fox or Newsmax, which probably tells you all you need to know.
DeSantis’ August numbers in New Hampshire are even worse. Two pollsters — Emerson and Echelon — actually placed Chris Christie in second place, calculating Trump’s lead between 20 and 40 points.
Whereas some observers believe DeSantis at least stopped the bleeding with a competent first debate performance, there’s no evidence of that in New Hampshire. The Trump super PAC pollster — Fabrizio, Lee & Associates — put out a poll of 800 primary voters handing Trump a gargantuan 37-point lead after the debate. NBM Research matched their number, posting the embarrassing gap of Trump 47%, DeSantis 10%.
If it’s true that DeSantis’ team and allies are trying to reshape the narrative by strategically leaking their own polling numbers, they haven’t done so in New Hampshire. Where’s the POS pushback on +37?
You likely haven’t seen one because there isn’t one available. Pollsters can grill numbers up nicely to their patrons liking, but reputable souls aren’t going to serve up burned patties.
Looking more comparatively at Iowa and New Hampshire, it occurs to me just how important Iowa is for DeSantis and that this single caucus state may determine his fate. In New Hampshire, you have a greater set of independent, libertarian and even socially liberal voters who may come out for Christie or even Nikki Haley, lowering DeSantis’ support pool and propelling Trump to a win with 40-something percent and useful muddle behind him.
Pitching a more culturally conservative audience that has already rejected Trump once, Iowa makes for DeSantis’ best shot at a revival — a revival which is necessary because of a summer that exposed the inherent weaknesses of an overrated candidate out of the gate.
DeSantis now needs to make up three touchdowns in the next four months.
It’s not clear to me how he does it without appreciably improving as a campaigner and composing a more crisp and compelling contrast with Trump — and quickly — but then again, they tell me Iowa hosts a field of dreams.