In the half century of modern presidential primaries, no candidate who led his or her nearest rival by at least 20 points at this stage has ever lost a party nomination.
Today, Donald Trump’s lead over Ron DeSantis is nearly twice as large: 37 points, according to a New York Times/Siena College poll of the likely Republican primary electorate released Monday morning.
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Of course, there’s still plenty of time left before the Iowa caucuses in January. The candidates haven’t even set foot on a debate stage. And while no candidate has ever lost a nomination with so much support, no candidate with so much support has faced so many criminal indictments and investigations, either.
But even if it might be a mistake to call Trump “inevitable,” the Times/Siena data suggests that he commands a seemingly unshakable base of loyal supporters, representing more than one-third of the Republican electorate. Alone, their support is not enough for Trump to win the primary. But it is large enough to make him extremely hard to defeat — perhaps every bit as hard as the historical record suggests.
Here’s what we know about the depth of the support — and opposition — to Trump from our poll, and why it’s so hard to beat the former president.
The MAGA Base, Defined
It’s populist. It’s conservative. It’s blue collar. It’s convinced the nation is on the verge of catastrophe. And it’s exceptionally loyal to Trump.
As defined here, members of Trump’s MAGA base represent 37% of the Republican electorate. They “strongly” support him in the Republican primary and have a ”very favorable” view of him.
The MAGA base doesn’t support Trump despite his flaws. It supports him because it doesn’t seem to believe he has flaws.
Zero percent — not a single one of the 319 respondents in this MAGA category — said he had committed serious federal crimes. A mere 2% said he “did something wrong” in his handling of classified documents. More than 90% said Republicans needed to stand behind him in the face of the investigations.
Perhaps DeSantis or another Republican will peel away a few of these voters, but realistically this group isn’t going anywhere, maybe not even if Trump winds up being imprisoned. This group is probably about the same as the voters — 37% — who supported Trump in the polls on Super Tuesday in 2016. It’s probably about the same as the group of Republicans — 41% — who supported him at his low point in January, in the wake of last November’s midterm elections.
This is an impressive base of support, but it still is not quite a majority of the Republican primary electorate. Most of the Republican electorate either doesn’t strongly support Trump in the primary or doesn’t support him at all. Most don’t have a “very favorable” view of the former president, either. In theory, it means there’s an opening for another candidate.
But with so much of the GOP electorate seemingly devoted to Trump, the path to defeating him is exceptionally narrow. It requires a candidate to consolidate the preponderance of the rest of the Republican electorate, and the rest of the Republican electorate is not easy to unify.
The Divided Republican Party
The MAGA base lends itself to easy description. The rest of the Republican electorate does not.
But broadly speaking, the rest of the Republican electorate can be divided into two groups.
There’s the group of voters who may not love Trump, but who remain open to him in the primary and in some cases support him over the alternatives. It’s a group that’s broadly reflective of the Republican electorate as a whole: It’s somewhat conservative, somewhat favorable toward Trump, somewhat favorable toward DeSantis, and split on whether to support the former president, at least for now.
There’s also a second group of voters who probably won’t support Trump. They represent about one-quarter of the primary electorate and they say they’re not considering him in the primary. These voters tend to be educated, affluent, moderate, and they’re often more than just Trump skeptics. A majority of these voters view him unfavorably, say he’s committed crimes and don’t even back him in the general election against President Joe Biden, whether that’s because they actually prefer Biden or simply wouldn’t vote.
These two groups of voters don’t just differ on Trump; they disagree on the issues as well. Trump’s skeptics support additional military and economic aid to Ukraine, and comprehensive immigration reform, while they oppose a six-week abortion ban. The persuadable voters, on the other hand, take the opposite view on all of those issues.
Yet to beat Trump, a candidate must somehow hold nearly all of these voters together.
The DeSantis Challenge
It would be hard for any candidate to consolidate the fractious opposition to Trump.
It has certainly been hard for DeSantis, the Florida governor.
At the start of the year, it seemed he figured out how to win both conservative and moderate skeptics of Trump by focusing on a new set of issues — the fight against “woke” and freedom from coronavirus restrictions. This seemed to excite establishment donors and even some independents every bit as much as conservative activists and Fox News hosts.
It hasn’t turned out that way. The fight against woke has offered few opportunities to attack Trump — strange social media videos notwithstanding — while COVID has faded from political relevance.
Without these issues, DeSantis has become a very familiar kind of conservative Republican. As with the Ted Cruz campaign in 2016, DeSantis has run to Trump’s right on every issue. In doing so, he has struggled to appeal to the moderate voters who represent the natural base of a viable opposition to Trump.
DeSantis is faring poorly enough among Trump skeptics to give other candidates an opening, much as Cruz’s conservative brand created a space for the ultimately nonviable John Kasich, Marco Rubio and Jeb Bush candidacies.
Overall, DeSantis holds just 32% of voters who aren’t considering Trump, with the likes of Chris Christie, Tim Scott, Mike Pence, Nikki Haley and Vivek Ramaswamy each attracting between 5% and 10% of the vote.
Among the “Never Trump” group of voters who don’t support Trump against Biden in a hypothetical general election rematch, DeSantis only narrowly leads Christie, 16% to 13%.
Of course, DeSantis’ challenge runs even deeper than divisions among his potential supporters. Republican primary voters don’t even believe he would do better than Trump in the general election against Biden, overturning an advantage that DeSantis backers might have taken for granted six months ago.
And DeSantis would face an entirely different set of challenges if he aimed his appeal at Trump’s deepest skeptics. He might alienate the mainstream conservative center of the Republican Party if he started to speak the moderate and anti-Trump language of Trump’s critics — and meet the same fate as Rubio and Kasich.
The promise of the DeSantis campaign was that he could appeal to the otherwise disparate Trump-skeptics factions of the Republican Party, and avoid the challenges that doomed Trump’s opponents eight years ago. So far, it hasn’t worked.
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