A Fox News survey showing former President Trump leading Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis by 15 points among Republican presidential primary voters is the latest cause for heartburn among Senate Republicans who don’t think Trump can win a general election match-up against President Biden.
Predictions by key Senate Republicans that Trump would fade as the 2024 election approached are being upended, putting pressure on party leaders in Washington to consider embracing the former president once again.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and other Republicans blamed the “chaos” surrounding Trump for the party’s disappointing performance in the 2022 midterm election. Some thought it would be the final straw to keep Trump off the presidential ticket next year.
And McConnell had privately told several Senate GOP colleagues that Trump’s political strength would fade the more time he spent outside the Oval Office, according to two Republican senators who spoke to The Hill.
Minority Leader Mitch McConnell told Senate GOP colleagues that former President Trump’s political strength would fade the longer he was out of office. (Greg Nash)
Yet a Fox News poll of 1,006 registered voters nationwide found Trump leading DeSantis 43 percent to 28 percent among GOP primary voters in a hypothetical match-up.
Republican strategists say the poll shows Trump is more resilient than many party insiders expected. And they warn that Republican senators and other party establishment figures who have ramped up their criticism of Trump since he lost the 2020 election would be wise to carefully reconsider his chances of winning the presidential nomination next year.
“I think Trump’s position is stronger than I thought it was,” said Vin Weber, a GOP strategist and former member of the House GOP leadership.
He cited reports Trump has put together a more professional campaign operation than what he had previously.
“If those articles are true, then Trump is running a very different campaign than he ran in 2016 or 2020. A formidable campaign with a disciplined candidate and 15-point lead in the polls today is more important than just a 15-point lead in the polls,” he said.
Weber said “whatever doubts people may have about Trump’s inevitability … that should not be confused with a presumption that he’s not going to win.”
“I think the Republicans that proceed on the assumption that Donald Trump will not be our candidate are taking a huge risk,” he added.
A recent Fox News poll has former President Trump leading Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis 43 to 28 percent in a hypothetical matchup. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson)
Senate Republican Whip John Thune (S.D.), who has criticized Trump from time to time and faced the former president’s wrath as a result, acknowledged Monday Trump still has a good chance of winning the party’s presidential nomination.
“I think it’s possible he could be the nominee but I also think there are other people who could be the nominee. It’s very early on. The field isn’t even close to being set,” he said.
Asked if he is surprised by Trump’s political resilience, Thune responded, “he’s got a very loyal, hardcore base of support and the other candidates aren’t that well known yet.”
Sen. John Cornyn (Texas), a member of the Senate GOP leadership team, said national polls don’t necessarily reflect how Trump will do in individual state contests — but the polling shows he could do well if GOP votes are split among many candidates.
“National polls don’t mean to much,” he said. “I just don’t think we know who’s going to be in contention. If there are a lot of people running, that probably will benefit President Trump.”
Sen. John Thune (Greg Nash)
One Republican senator who requested anonymity to discuss the GOP presidential primary pointed out that Trump has maintained a solid lead among white working-class conservative voters who don’t have college degrees.
“DeSantis’s problem is this: Trump still has self-identified very conservative primary voters and working-class voters, folks who don’t have a four-year college degree. He has really substantial leads among those folks,” the senator said.
“When you break down DeSantis’s support, it’s almost from self-identified moderates and then Never-Trumpers, which is fine but you’re not going to win a primary with that. So he’s got to make some inroads,” the senator added.
The Fox poll found Trump beating DeSantis by double digits among white Republican voters without a college degree, primary voters earning less than $50,000, white rural voters and white evangelical voters.
DeSantis led Trump 37 percent to 30 percent among white GOP voters with college degrees and they were virtually tied among suburban GOP voters, according to the survey.
NBC News reported Monday that DeSantis will skip the Conservative Political Action Conference in Maryland this week, a large annual gathering of conservative activists.
“It’s clear that Trump is the front-runner and Republicans in Washington need to get used to that idea,” Brian Darling, a GOP strategist and former Senate aide, said.
“The Fox News poll does indicate that Ron DeSantis is a very strong candidate but that’s it. None of the other candidates are showing the strength to challenge Trump,” he said. “Right now, the race is Donald Trump’s to lose.
“If you’re [New Hampshire Gov.] Chris Sununu or [former Maryland Gov.] Larry Hogan or [former South Carolina Gov.] Nikki Haley, these polls are not good news for you,” he added.
Darling said Trump’s critics in the party establishment are feeling heartburn over the former president’s popularity with GOP voters.
“He is showing more strength as he gets more active which should give the congressional delegation of Never Trumpers some pause,” he added. “He’s always going to have that very strong base of support.”
But Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-La.), who was one of seven Senate Republicans to vote to convict Trump on an impeachment charge related to the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol, said he still doesn’t think the former president can win a general election.
“The issue is, ‘Can he win?’ and I don’t think he can,” he said. “Under President Trump, we lost the House, we lost the presidency and then we lost the Senate.”
Cassidy attributed Trump’s lead in the polls to name recognition but emphasized “ultimately it comes down to, ‘Can you win?’ and over six years we’ve learned no.”
Sen. Bill Cassidy said he doesn’t think former President Trump can win a general election. (Greg Nash)
Still, the Fox poll is the latest of a long string of national polls showing Trump with a comfortable lead over DeSantis, despite an unceasing flood of unflattering media reports about Trump’s legal problems and jabs from former members of his inner circle, such as former Vice President Mike Pence and former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
Trump has a comfortable 13-point lead over DeSantis in the national polling average calculated by RealClearPolitics.com.
A Harvard Center for American Political Studies—Harris Poll survey of 1,838 registered voters last month showed Trump ahead of DeSantis by 23 points while a Reuters/Ipsos poll showed Trump with a 12-point lead over DeSantis in early February.
Jim McLaughlin, Trump’s pollster, said polls are “consistent” in showing that Trump is the clear front-runner for the nomination.
“President Trump’s unique selling point is he has the ability to say, ‘You know all these problems you have right now, whether it’s the economy, it’s inflation, it’s immigration, it’s war and peace? I solved all this stuff, we didn’t have those problems.’ Every day he looks better and better versus Joe Biden,” he said.
McLaughlin said “one of the reasons DeSantis has the popularity that he has is because he’s viewed as Donald Trump,” pointing to the tough-guy approach DeSantis has taken with the media and other liberal causes as well as Trump’s pivotal endorsement of DeSantis in the 2018 Florida governor’s race.
Explaining Trump’s greater popularity among Republican base voters including non-college educated White, evangelical and rural voters, McLaughlin said “it’s like why would want to go to Trump-lite, which is what they view DeSantis as, when I can get the real thing in Donald Trump.”
“It’s the old Coke versus New Coke, people want their old Coke,” he added. “They look at Trump and said he did this stuff, he solved these problems.”