Challengers gain attention, support, but Trump still far ahead

This week: The Briefing, Vol. XI, Issue 34

  • GOP debate helped all participants marginally, but no one is close to beating Trump
  • Trump lost some support after not participating
  • DeSantis now leads in being “considered,” but is that worth anything?

President 2024

Tucker-Trump: Tucker Carlson’s clever decision to broadcast his Trump interview at the same time as the Republican presidential debate resulted in the most watched interview in social media history. On the other hand, Trump’s decision not to participate does not seem to have helped him.

To be sure, Trump still dominates the GOP race. But a number of indicators point to his non-participation having set him back. The clearest is his abrupt fall, by six points (from 56 percent to 50 percent), in Emerson College’s national poll of the Republican field from before to after the debate. This might seem like a modest drop for a candidate who towers over the field. Indeed, it barely registers as statistically significant. Still, any long-term loss of support for Trump, if it does occur, will not all occur overnight. It would have to start like this, in dribs and drabs, as doubts arise and other candidates gain the paid and earned media attention they have lacked up until now.

In the Tucker interview, Trump was his usual rambling and hard-to-quote self. The questions steered clear of material related too closely to his indictments, but he did hit upon a couple of important issues related to his GOP rivals.

Of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, his closest challenger in most polls, he said his former friend is a “lost cause.” Of former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, arguably his main irritant and attacker in the GOP field, Trump accurately pointed out that the former New Jersey governor was loathed within his own state after eight years in power. This is something people might otherwise forget about Christie given the coverage now. During the debate, he made a big deal about the fact that he was the only Republican on stage to have defeated a Democratic incumbent. This is true, but he would likely not be able to defeat a Democrat today.

FiveThirtyEight’s polling of debate-watchers shows a contest in which Trump should thrive. The top two issues for respondents are two where he can build a credible case for himself and against incumbent President Joe Biden (D): the economy and inflation come first, (52 percent), and his longtime signature issue of immigration comes in second (44 percent). These issues come far ahead of worries about wokeness (29 percent) and the candidate’s ability to defeat Biden (27 percent).

GOP debate: Tech entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy dominated in two important senses. First, he was the focus of much of the debate, and second he was the focus of most of the pre- and post-debate conversation. He was also successful in that he got the second most time talking during the debate, after former Vice President Mike Pence.. 

However, that isn’t necessarily all good news for him. His bizarre comments about 9/11, and his attempt to worm out of them, are at least puzzling and concerning. He was arguably also talked about more negatively than anyone else present at the debate, with insult-hurler Christie accusing him of sounding like “Chat GPT.” In the time since the debate, his failure to vote in previous Republican primaries has come up as well.

DeSantis did not have the breakout performance that most people thought he needed. However, he did well and he seems to have gained some support as a result of it. In the Emerson poll referenced above, he reclaimed a sole second place from Ramaswamy. Post-debate polling by FiveThirtyEight suggests that he had the best performance in the minds of GOP primary voters who watched (28 percent). There were in fact four Republicans (including Nikki Haley, Tim Scott and Ramaswamy) whom respondents characterized as “above average” or better. Less than 10 percent of respondents said that DeSantis had the worst performance. 

Christie’s performance was viewed as “worst” by the most respondents (22 percent). This and the boos he received onstage serve as an apparent confirmation that a campaign of strategic negativity (and this is exactly what Christie is running, openly, even) will harm any candidate’s image.

The post-debate bump in DeSantis’s campaign’s Iowa polling (from 14 to 21 percent) could point to narrowcasting for the right local audience. But this still puts him on roughly half of Trump’s support total in the Hawkeye State. It could be considered progress, but it’s slow going. And Trump’s numbers are not coming down as they must for anyone else to win. If the former president does indeed get 41 or 42 percent in Iowa, he will win the caucuses and surely become the nominee.

The silver lining for DeSantis comes in the form of a highly debatable finding in the FiveThirtyEight coverage. DeSantis actually took the lead among GOP primary voters who watched the debate in the very carefully worded category of whether they are “considering” voting for each candidate. DeSantis gained and Trump lost about five points in this category, with the result that DeSantis is now being “considered” by 67.5 percent and Trump by only 61.4 percent. 

But the real question is whether this number is actually worth anything. Trump, after all, continues to lead in the topline ballot contest by huge margins in every poll available. Is it actually meaningful that a slightly larger number of Republican voters are “considering” DeSantis, if a much larger number are actually planning to vote for Trump?

Again, here is one way of thinking about this: If there’s a storyline where DeSantis eventually does beat Trump, then it has to start with something like this. Gradually, fewer Republican primary voters have to “consider” voting for Trump, and more of them have to “consider” someone else. So far, that isn’t happening quickly enough for anyone to overtake Trump before Iowa. That doesn’t mean it won’t or can’t happen.

Incidentally, the candidate who gained the most “considering” voters in the debate was Haley, who jumped from 30 percent to 47 percent “considering.” The candidate who gained the most in percentage terms (for what that’s worth) was North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum, who jumped from 5 percent to 12 percent. 

The lesson is that, overall, participation in the debate was a plus if you bothered to show up, despite Trump’s interview, and even despite Christie’s poor performance.. 

Hurricane Idalia: No Florida governor has ever been president — indeed, no Florida resident has been elected, since Trump was a New York resident in 2016 — in spite of the state’s importance in 21st Century presidential elections. One reason is that there is one serious drawback to serving in the position of governor of Florida. 

This week, Tropical Storm Idalia will prevent DeSantis from camapaigning in South Carolina as planned. The storm could hit the Tampa and Jacksonville areas relatively hard as a Category 2 hurricane. DeSantis has generally handled his first four hurricane seasons well as governor, but it isn’t difficult to make a mistake, and even slight missteps can be politically costly.

Senate 2024

Florida: Former Rep. Debbie Mucarsel-Powell (D) has followed up and jumped into the race against Sen. Rick Scott (R), the first serious Democratic candidate to do so. Scott remains the favorite for now, but Democrats had to get someone credible into the race, just in case he falters.

Nevada: An early poll has veteran and purple heart recipient Sam Brown (R) leading the GOP primary field, 33 percent to 15 percent for former state Rep. Jim Marchant (R). Both state and national Republicans are eager to avoid nominating Marchant, who has asserted and maintained that the 2020 election in Nevada was stolen. Brown, the conservative insurgent in the 2022 race, has won over the establishment this time.