Should Anti-Trump Republicans Clear The Field For DeSantis?

Welcome to FiveThirtyEight’s politics chat. The transcript below has been lightly edited.

nrakich (Nathaniel Rakich, senior elections analyst): Former UN Ambassador Nikki Haley is running for president. Former Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan decided not to. Sen. Tim Scott is reportedly nearing an announcement. Former Vice President Mike Pence certainly sounds like a candidate

All of these Republicans have something in common: They don’t want former President Donald Trump to be their party’s nominee in 2024. But they’re clearly taking very different approaches toward accomplishing that goal. Some, like Haley, apparently think it’s best to face him head on; on the other hand, Hogan specifically said he wanted to avoid “another multicar pileup that could potentially help Mr. Trump recapture the nomination.” 

So for this week’s FiveThirtyEight politics chat, we’re debating what the best strategy is. If you’re a Republican who wants a new direction for the party, should you try to lead the party in that direction yourself? Or should you throw your support behind the non-Trump candidate who currently appears to have the best shot of winning the nomination, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis?

alex (Alex Samuels, politics reporter): I think DeSantis’s appeal to that wing of the party is that … he might be their only option? No other Republican seems capable of giving Trump a run for his money — at least not right now. And if you don’t want a rematch of 2020, then, sure, DeSantis looks like the least of three evils (the third being another term for President Biden).

But if you’re a voter who rejects Trump and his approach to politics, then why would an equally Trumpy candidate be the solution? It’s easy to argue that Trump and DeSantis are two different sides of the same coin.

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nrakich: So you’re saying Haley/Hogan/Scott/Pence should run, Alex? And try to open up a third lane in the primary?

alex: The more the merrier, in my opinion. 😇 I understand the fear never-Trumpers have, especially given your reporting, Nathaniel, that Trump leads a multi-candidate field but would be in trouble in a two-way race against DeSantis.

I guess the flip side is: Do never-Trumpers actually want a candidate like DeSantis? It’s not clear to me that he would run a wildly different primary campaign than Trump — at least in terms of the message he’s touting. And I can’t imagine that DeSantis’s “own the libs” culture-war messaging will appeal to the moderate wing of the GOP. 

geoffrey.skelley (Geoffrey Skelley, senior elections analyst): I think two different things are in tension for Republican primary voters. If you don’t want a Trump-like direction for the GOP, DeSantis isn’t who you want — he’s largely doubling down on Trump’s approach to politics while trying to put a more winning gloss on it. (Whereas Trump lost reelection in 2020 and contributed to Republicans’ underperformance in the 2022 midterms, DeSantis won a landslide reelection victory in Florida, which at least until recently was viewed as a clear swing state.) 

But if you don’t want Trump to win, DeSantis is clearly your best choice. It’s still early, of course, and things could change, but early polls are decently predictive of how candidates perform in primaries, and DeSantis today is polling in the mid-to-high 20s in multi-candidate surveys. That puts him in a clear second position at this point.

And the good news for DeSantis is that most Republican voters probably want a Trumpy party, even if they choose someone else to lead it. Take Morning Consult’s primary poll tracker: Trump (54 percent) and DeSantis (26 percent) combine for 80 percent of the primary vote. And based on second-choice preferences, voters don’t view them as intractably opposed choices, but rather as two sides of the same coin. The leading second-choice candidate for Trump voters is DeSantis with 46 percent (Pence gets 17 percent), and the leading second choice for DeSantis voters is …Trump with 43 percent (Pence is at 16 percent). 

So do you want a certain approach to politics or do you want to stop Trump? The latter seems more likely to bring about Trump’s defeat than the former, in part because GOP primary voters prefer a Trumpian approach.

alex: I get that, Geoffrey! Never-Trumpers can make the case (as some Democrats have) that Trump is uniquely anti-democratic, so anyone who isn’t Trump is marginally better. But I feel like just being slightly better than Trump won’t be enough for them.

nrakich: Interesting. So there’s a distinction between wanting to stop Trump vs. wanting to stop Trumpism.

geoffrey.skelley: Right. And because the GOP has been remade in Trump’s image, it makes sense that most Republicans would like to choose either him again or someone like him.

alex: That said, I also think it’s too early to dismiss the possible alternatives to both DeSantis and Trump! Yes, DeSantis is doing well in the polls right now, but he’s been slipping as of late. And there’s evidence that people don’t really know who he is — or are still making up their minds about him. That could change, though, especially as he becomes more of a household name.

Trump, meanwhile, could self-destruct at any moment — remember, he might get indicted in any number of investigations.

geoffrey.skelley: Alex, I do think there’s not necessarily any harm in these other candidates getting into the race to see how things go. After all, we’re more than nine months away from actual voting in the 2024 Republican presidential primary. But if Republicans remain worried about Trump damaging the party in the general election and want to rally to one candidate, the also-rans need to get out of the way by late 2023. 

This could definitely change, but Trump holds a pretty clear lead in primary polls that included at least him, DeSantis, Pence and Haley. So the fears that some Republicans have about Trump winning with plurality support once we get to the actual voting are certainly well-founded. After all, he did it in 2016.

But it’s also not a given that DeSantis can beat him head to head. While DeSantis briefly took a slight lead in polls that only included the two of them just after the midterm elections, Trump has regained a clear edge there, too. 

However, DeSantis trails Trump by a bit more than 15 percentage points head-to-head, versus more than 20 points across the multi-candidate polls. So that’s an argument in favor of getting out of the way if you want to derail Trump.

alex: Yeah, I think there might be a path to the nomination — albeit a narrow one — for candidates like Haley and Scott, who have been somewhat measured in how they talk about the former president. But I don’t think there’s a path for folks like Hogan or former Rep. Liz Cheney, who have openly denounced Trump. (I could make the same argument against Pence, too.) 

nrakich: Yeah, Hogan hasn’t polled above 1 percent in any national poll this year (one of which was taken after he announced he was not running). So what would have been the argument for him to run?

geoffrey.skelley: To me, the reason for someone like Hogan or Cheney to run is not to win. That’s not gonna happen. It’s to make the case for a different sort of Republican Party. It’s certainly a losing battle right now, but despite the short-term nature of politics, arguments about the direction of political parties are won over the course of decades, not years.

Just consider how long it took for the conservative wing of the GOP to truly capture the party. Sure, the party nominated Barry Goldwater in 1964, but then you get Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford. It’s not until Ronald Reagan wins in 1980 that it’s clear that conservatives have taken over the GOP.

alex: Would “someone like Hogan or Cheney” also include Scott and Haley, Geoff? Or do you think they occupy a different lane?

geoffrey.skelley: I definitely view Scott and Haley as different from Hogan or Cheney. Scott and Haley have largely avoided being overly critical of Trump, whereas Hogan and Cheney have been publicly critical of Trump. Cheney voted to impeach Trump in his second impeachment trial and lost her primary because of it. Hogan supported that impeachment, too. 

nrakich: Yeah, being anti-Trump like Hogan or Cheney puts a ceiling on your support in a GOP primary. But being kinda “Trump-neutral” means you could, theoretically, steal some of that support from Trump or DeSantis.

alex: Running for president also helps raise your profile! And it’s possible, too, that Scott and Haley (neither of whom is super well known) either want to lay the groundwork for a presidential run in 2028 or 2032 and/or are running for vice president. 

I think that former point is especially true for someone like Scott. But I really hate the “running for vice president” line, as I think it’s often used in a cheap way to marginalize both women and candidates of color.

geoffrey.skelley: And to get back to the “it doesn’t hurt to run at this point” argument, DeSantis remains at least somewhat unproven. What if he pulls a 2012 Rick Perry and has a really rough debate performance that casts doubt on his ability to truly challenge Trump for the nomination? You don’t know until you’re in it.

nrakich: I think there are three reasons why DeSantis could be weaker than he seems. He’s unproven on the national stage, he’s been slipping in the polls and the, uh … what’s the third one? 

geoffrey.skelley: Haha, Nathaniel! Yeah, I think if there’s another question about DeSantis, it’s his ability to play to the audience on the stump or in a crowd. I do think some of the coverage we’ve seen of that is frankly overwrought and just the media looking for anything to grab onto as everyone waits for DeSantis to announce. To be fair, it also reflects a higher level of scrutiny of DeSantis as a national candidate. Still, it’s easier to write that story than dig into the nuts and bolts of things like DeSantis’s “don’t say gay” legislation in Florida. But there could be something to it. 

nrakich: OK, so I admit, I went into this chat thinking that we would conclude it was a fool’s errand for non-Trump-or-DeSantis Republicans to jump into the presidential race. But you guys have convinced me that it actually doesn’t hurt so much if your goal is to move the party away from Trumpism.

But what if all you care about is stopping Trump himself? (Like, say, if you think Trump would lose the general election to Biden but another Republican wouldn’t.) In that case, isn’t it pretty clear that everyone else should get out of DeSantis’s way?

geoffrey.skelley: Come fall, if polls aren’t too different from where they are now, then yes. Someone polling at like 5 percent in national polls in November 2023 ain’t winning this thing.

But it’s also on DeSantis to win over voters who like Trumpism but are ready to give someone else the job of winning the presidency because they’re worried about Trump losing — or because they like what DeSantis has been doing in Florida. With DeSantis polling well as the second choice among Trump voters, you can see how that path could develop. 

And if the people who are supporting the Haleys, Pences and Scotts of the world rally to the Trump alternative, that’ll also help DeSantis. As Henry Olsen has noted at The Washington Post, much could depend on where an important group of GOP primary voters — the “somewhat conservatives” — end up moving once we get beyond the early states. They’ve traditionally decided Republican nominees. In 2016, they opted for Trump over former Ohio Gov. John Kasich (too moderate) and Sen. Ted Cruz (too conservative). This time around, it looks like “very conservative” voters may prefer Trump. So will “somewhat conservatives” latch onto DeSantis as a leading alternative? They could. 

alex: Yeah, I think the argument for someone in that camp is that DeSantis doesn’t have Trump’s baggage, but his credentials are just as — if not more — ideologically conservative. So in that case, sure, why not DeSantis! And he’s currently the only Republican who’s competitive with Trump in the polls, so there’s an easy argument for why he’s the best non-Trump Trump opponent. 

nrakich: Are there any non-electoral reasons for anti-Trump candidates to keep their powder dry?

[Editor’s note: Several minutes pass. 🦗]

alex: Seems like everyone jumped in the “more the merrier” camp! 😜

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