Why is Desantis trailing much of the GOP field?
BYRON YORK Byron York is chief political correspondent for the Washington Examiner and a Fox News contributor.
The Gazette, Colorado Springs
A new poll Wednesday from the University of New Hampshire shook up the world of political obsessives who watch each twist and turn in the race for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination. No, there was no change at the top — former President Donald Trump is in the lead in New Hampshire, 26 points ahead of the nearest competitor. The news was that Gov. Ron Desantis, R-fla., for a long time Trump’s chief rival, has slipped to fifth place in New Hampshire, the second state to vote in the GOP primary contest. Fifth place! How did that happen? How did Desantis come to trail not only Trump, with 39% of the vote, but, in order, entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy, with 13%; former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, with 12%; and former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, with 11%? Desantis’ 10% of the vote in New Hampshire puts him at what might be called the bottom of the second tier. The first tier, of course, is Trump. The second tier is the group from Ramaswamy to Desantis. After that, the third tier is Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., with 6%, former Vice President Mike Pence, with 2%, and Gov. Doug Burgum, R-N.D., and former Texas Rep. Will Hurd, with 1% each. The first thing to consider is whether the new Granite State poll is an outlier. It appears not. There haven’t been many polls in New Hampshire — just one this month, two in August, and three in July — but Desantis has been bobbing around between 8% and 11% since the summer. Before that, in polls going back to January, he was significantly higher. What appears to be happening in the new poll is that Desantis is stuck in the 10% range, while others, especially Ramaswamy and Haley, and even Christie a little bit, have risen and narrowly overtaken him. So what is going on? “The biggest problem I see for Desantis is that the cultural campaign he has been waging simply doesn’t resonate with New Hampshire Republicans,” said Andrew Smith, director of the University of New Hampshire Survey Center, which conducts the Granite State Poll. “I am still surprised he’s pushing anti-woke rhetoric in New Hampshire. He also peaked too early and became a target of Trump, which prevented him from peeling off some Trump supporters.” A veteran New Hampshire Republican political operative offers more. “Desantis has zero on-the-ground presence,” he said. “His national flailings, drama, and message windmilling have scared off folks with little hope of attracting new folks. The Reagan Library debate has to be his breakout moment or ...” One of the good things about starting the Republican primaries with Iowa, then New Hampshire, and then South Carolina is that the three states are very different. There are different kinds of GOP voters in each, which means a candidate must know how to appeal to different kinds of GOP voters, which is, of course, a prerequisite for winning the nomination and being elected president. For a lot of reasons, Desantis has decided to push hard in Iowa. It’s the first state, and if he doesn’t do well there, he will be under tremendous pressure to do better quickly or drop out. Iowa also has more Republican evangelical conservatives who have been a bit more oriented toward the culture war aspect of Desantis’ campaign. And to the degree that Desantis has crafted his campaign in the image of Trump, Iowa is a Trumpier state. The former president won Iowa 53%-45% over Joe Biden in 2020, while Trump lost New Hampshire 45%-52%. So Desantis has made the calculation many other candidates past and present, especially those who are struggling, have made: go allin in Iowa while still keeping a presence in New Hampshire. For Desantis, this is a these-are-the-times-that-try-men’s-souls moment. If any candidate needed to keep his head about him and not panic, it is Desantis. Here’s the thing: He remains perhaps the most capable candidate in the race. He occupies an important office, is at the top of his abilities, and at one time, before Trump’s indictments set the campaign on a weird and unprecedented trajectory, was the clear non-trump successor to the nomination. Even now, Desantis was second only to Trump when Granite State Poll questioners asked which GOP candidate had the best chance to win the 2024 general election. Still, the campaign has exposed Desantis’ weaknesses. You know those candidates who are naturals in front of an audience or mingling with supporters? He is not one of them. The Granite State Poll asked respondents to name their three most important issues in deciding which candidate to support. The top ones, the issues named by 10% or more of the voters, were: the border/immigration, with 66% naming it one of their top three; jobs and the economy, with 62% naming it one of their top three; foreign policy, named by 28%; the cost of living, 17%; energy, 15%; taxes, budget, or debt, 11%; and crime or drugs, 10%. Some other issues that are the topic of heated discussion, especially online, were much lower. Culture wars/stopping wokeism was named by 3%. Election integrity was named by 1%. That’s a good bit different from the impression one might get on social media. Desantis has no choice but to improve and hang on. That’s all any non-trump GOP candidate can do now. If present conditions continue and Trump maintains his huge lead through next year’s caucuses and primaries, well, it’s over — Trump will be the nominee. But if the many events that will take place between now and then change the dynamics of the race, Desantis needs to be in position to capitalize on it.