Can Ron DeSantis win the Republican nomination?

Patrick Flynn

6 June 2023

Florida governor Ron DeSantis launched his long-anticipated presidential campaign at the end of May after four months of sliding poll numbers.

Towards the end of last year, DeSantis was making ground on front-runner Donald Trump and some head-to-head polls showed him beating the former president. However, with DeSantis now languishing at around 20% on average and Trump way ahead on over 50%, the former’s path to victory seems to be narrowing and historical data suggests he faces an uphill struggle.

One of the main arguments in DeSantis’ favour is the lingering uncertainty about the front-runner. While Trump’s judicial woes don’t disqualify him from the presidency, if things escalate for him legally and he ends up dropping out, DeSantis is the clear second choice of a large chunk of Trump supporters (47% according to the latest Morning Consult poll).

However, I have analysed primary polling data from the last 50 years compiled by FiveThirtyEight and found that, after accounting for name recognition, candidates polling where DeSantis is at the moment win their party’s nomination around 20% of the time. 

This only considers a candidate’s share independently, though, and DeSantis also faces the issue of Trump’s unusually high polling numbers, which rank third-highest out of all presidential primaries over the last 50 years.

We very rarely see presidential primaries with someone polling over 50% at this stage. Using the same model as above, candidates polling this high win about 85% of the time. Now, obviously Trump and DeSantis’ combined figure can’t exceed 100% and there are other candidates in the race, so that takes DeSantis from 1-in-5 to something like a 1-in-8 chance based on polls alone.

While many big-money donors are backing his campaign, DeSantis also looks like a poor retail politician and has already shown himself to be pretty thin-skinned and awkward when interacting with voters and journalists alike. Looking the part is particularly important in US politics (you have to go back to 1900 to find a presidential winner shorter than the average male American, for example!), and a crabby DeSantis may come unstuck by the crowd-pleasing former TV host in any primary debates that take place.

Trump’s 33-point lead in national polls falls to around 25 in head-to-heads against DeSantis. While the Florida governor may take some comfort in the fact he takes the lion’s share of the non-Trump vote, getting the race down to two will be a race against time. The Republican primary system makes use of many winner-takes-all primaries, which gives a huge advantage to the leading candidate, so DeSantis will need most of the other candidates to drop out as early as possible. The Republican field is already extremely crowded - the more candidates that join the race, the more difficult DeSantis’ task becomes.

Mere exposure won’t help him, either, and there’s no untapped pool of voters waiting to be shored up. Only 15% of Republican primary voters have no opinion on DeSantis, and just 20% have an unfavourable opinion of Trump. If DeSantis is to win, he will need to convince those who like the former president that he’s the better choice. The two candidates are fishing for votes in the same pond and Trump is winning that battle at the moment.

Based on historic polling and my impressions of DeSantis as a politician, I don’t see him beating Trump head-to-head. The Florida governor will likely need a significant escalation in Trump’s legal situation or a health scare to dent the former president’s chances or cause him to drop out.

Trump managed to bounce back after the midterms when candidates he backed fared terribly, and even rose in the polls after being indicted. Republican voters don’t seem all that bothered about electability or criminality, and when you reach a stage like that, it becomes hard to see a scenario in which Trump loses.

Patrick Flynn

6 June 2023

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