Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has spent the last six months campaigning to the right in preparation for his projected entry into the Republican presidential primary race in 2024. From passing a six-week abortion ban into law to battling Disney, the governor has prioritized pleasing his party’s conservative base.
So yet, such efforts have not paid off in Republican primary polling, with DeSantis sliding further behind the current frontrunner, former President Donald Trump.
Things have gotten so bad for DeSantis that a new Fox News poll has him at 21%, which is equal to the 19% received by Robert F. Kennedy Jr., who has promoted disproved conspiracy theories regarding vaccine safety on the Democratic side.
In Fox’s February survey, DeSantis received 28% of the vote, trailing Trump by 15 points. In the two Fox surveys since the Florida governor’s support has declined, and he is currently behind the former president by 32 points.
Early voting issues
The Fox poll is not the only one that shows DeSantis flailing. According to the most recent national poll average, he has dropped from the low 30s to the low 20s.
Even while it might not seem significant, early polling has historically been a good predictor of how presidential contenders will perform in the primary the following year. Candidates who scored about 30% in early primary polls (as DeSantis did in February) have gone on to become their party’s choices around 40% of the time in primary elections without incumbents running since 1972. Candidates who now poll as well as DeSantis have won around 20% of the time.
Of course, I’ll point out that 20% is not insignificant. DeSantis still has a chance to win. The comparison to Kennedy is meant to highlight DeSantis’ vulnerability rather than Kennedy’s strength.
There is no precedent in the history of an incumbent in President Joe Biden’s current position (more than 60% in the most recent Fox poll) losing a primary. Bill Clinton was polling roughly where Biden is currently at this stage in 1995, and he easily won the Democratic primary the following year.
Jesse Jackson was polling near 20% in several early Clinton polls during the same campaign. So, for the time being, what we’re seeing from Kennedy isn’t a historical anomaly.
Jackson did not compete in that 1996 race. The power of incumbency is strong enough to prevent most competitors.
At this time in primary polling, the last three incumbents to either lose state primary elections (when on the ballot) or withdraw out of the race – Lyndon Johnson in 1968, Gerald Ford in 1976, and Jimmy Carter in 1980 – had less than 40% of the vote or were up by less than 10 points.
The good news for DeSantis is that he does not have to defeat an incumbent, though one might argue that Trump is polling like one.
DeSantis’ decline is due, at least in part, to Trump’s surge. The former president, who has been charged with felony criminal charges in New York, has risen from the low to mid-40s to above 50% in average 2024 polls. (Trump has pled not guilty to the allegations.)
However, one could argue that DeSantis is not helping his cause. He has yet to formally announce his 2024 candidacy; most previous nominees had already done so or had filed with the Federal Election Commission at this time in the race. And the governor’s move to the right is inconsistent with the Republican Party’s anti-Trump forces.
Trump has consistently performed poorly among the party’s moderates. According to a Quinnipiac University survey released at the end of March, he received 61% of support from very conservative Republicans while receiving only 30% from moderate and liberal Republicans.
The conservative faction of the party is the one that is least likely to support a six-week abortion ban. Late last year, a KFF poll found that moderate and liberal Republicans were evenly divided on whether they supported a ban on six-week abortions.
This is not a small group. According to the Quinnipiac poll, moderates and liberals made up around 30% of possible Republican primary voters.
Indeed, according to a Reuters/Ipsos poll from last week, DeSantis’ other major newsworthy incident—his legal battle with Disney—has succeeded in splintering the GOP as well. 36% of Republicans disagree with the governor, even though a clear majority (64%) did.
As a point of reference, in a Fox poll conducted last month, more than 80% of Republicans claimed that Trump had not committed any crimes that would justify the criminal charges brought against him in New York.
DeSantis is not currently constructing a base. He is causing friction among Republicans and letting Trump take the mantle of electability. His stance on Disney and a six-week abortion ban continue to be unpopular with the broader people.
We’ll watch to see if that changes if his poll numbers rise following the official start of his campaign. Given Biden and Trump’s significant advantages, this could end up being one of the most dull presidential primary seasons in recent history if it doesn’t.
In terms of polling, it is difficult to compare Ron DeSantis and Robert F. Kennedy Jr. directly as they are in different political contexts and running for different positions. Robert F. Kennedy Jr. is not currently running for any political office, while Ron DeSantis is the current Governor of Florida and a potential candidate for the Republican Party’s nomination for the 2024 U.S. presidential election.
As of April 2023, there is no public polling data available for a potential 2024 presidential race featuring Ron DeSantis as a candidate. However, there have been some recent polls conducted on Ron DeSantis’ approval rating as Governor of Florida. According to a recent poll conducted by Quinnipiac University in April 2023, Ron DeSantis has a 44% approval rating among Florida voters, while 47% disapprove of his job performance.
It is worth noting that approval ratings can fluctuate over time, and it is still early in the 2024 election cycle. Therefore, it is difficult to predict what Ron DeSantis’ polling numbers will be like in the future.