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Ron DeSantis’s problem is not that Donald Trump is famous

Back in August, the guy running a super PAC backing Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’s bid for the 2024 Republican primary insisted that the governor’s window to overtake Donald Trump was closing — 60 days, to be precise.

That was more than 60 days ago. DeSantis, as you may be aware, has not overtaken Trump.

In fairness, that was not the DeSantis team setting the deadline. (Speaking in New Hampshire this week, DeSantis said of the comment that “I don’t think very many people think that that was a very smart thing to do.”) But it is a useful metric specifically because it serves as a reminder that DeSantis has gained no ground since the first debate, the occasion on which the 60-day target was set. Then, DeSantis was at 15 percent in 538′s polling average and trailed Trump by 36 points. Now he’s at 14 percent and down by more than 40.

But in an interview with CNN on Thursday, the Florida governor offered a new explanation for his failure to gain ground: Trump is just too darn famous.

That the interview was occurring was a mark of how DeSantis’s campaign has been languishing. He and his team have long featured antagonism to the traditional press as an organizing tactic; now scrambling for support, he’s reconsidered that approach. So he sat down with the cable news channel’s Kaitlan Collins, who very pointedly asked why he was not faring better.

“Why is [your] message not resonating with voters?” Collins asked.

“I think it is,” the governor replied, launching into a typical explanation of how individual voters with whom he’d spoken seemed to be convinced.

“That’s what you got to do,” he said. “You got to show up. Donald Trump’s not willing to show up. He’s missing-in-action right now. He doesn’t show up. When he does show up, he reads off the teleprompter, for 50 minutes. And then he gets back on the plane and goes home.”

DeSantis told Collins that, soon, Trump would not be able to get away with “not putting in the work.”

“Well,” she responded, “right now, he is getting away with what you say is not putting in the work. I mean, he’s leading the polls.”

“Yes,” DeSantis replied, “but that’s because he’s the most famous person running, a 100 percent name ID. He’s the person people know.” He claimed that in some early states, a lot of Trump’s support was soft — and then offered more anecdotes about individual voters.

There are two problems with DeSantis’s argument here. The first is that, as Collins points out, there is no indication that Trump not “putting in the work” is actually hurting him. The second is that DeSantis’s argument about Trump’s name ID is wrong. That’s not why he’s leading the polls — just as it wasn’t why he was leading in the polls at this point in 2015.

At the outset of that race, Trump was viewed very negatively by Republicans. But his rhetoric and his recitation of themes from right-wing media turned that around. He was better known, but he managed to convince Republicans to support his candidacy.

So let’s consider the current moment. Polling conducted by YouGov for the Economist shows that DeSantis is viewed more unfavorably than favorably by Americans overall — but favorably by about three-quarters of Republicans. More Republicans (and more Americans) do have an opinion of Trump, and those opinions are stronger: most Republicans view Trump very favorably while about half the country views him very unfavorably. (Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell is included for reasons that will become clear in a moment.)

See the gaps between the two sides of those graphs? That’s the percentage of respondents who didn’t have an opinion, generally because they don’t know enough about the candidates. So we see that 97 percent of Americans and fully 99 percent of Republicans have an opinion of Donald Trump — but 91 percent of Republicans also have an opinion of DeSantis.

Only 9 percent say they don’t. McConnell, who has been the leader of the Senate Republican caucus for more than eight years, has nearly twice as many Republicans who don’t have a formulated opinion of him.

In other words, Trump has a name ID advantage — but nearly every Republican also knows who DeSantis is. They just like him less than Trump.

YouGov’s poll of Republicans’ primary preferences shows a similar dynamic. Trump is the choice of nearly 6 in 10 likely primary voters, with two-thirds identifying him as their first or second choice. Only 1 in 8 Republicans say DeSantis is their first pick, though just under half have him as their first or second pick.

Again, this is from a pool of respondents in which almost all have an opinion of both candidates.

DeSantis’s argument that there are Republicans whose support for Trump might be soft is certainly fair. In national polling conducted by PRRI, more than half of Trump supporters said there was theoretically something the former president could do to cause them to drop their support. What that thing is isn’t clear; for the past eight years, he’s done lots of things without seeming to do much damage to himself.

It’s also fair to say that early-state voters might change their minds in the next few months. Maybe DeSantis has polling showing that Trump’s support is soft; maybe they’re implementing a plan to leverage that. The question then becomes: Well, why hasn’t it worked yet? At the time of the first debate, Trump was up 32 points in 538′s average in Iowa. Now he’s up 42 points. Is DeSantis’s effort in the state not having an effect? Or … did Trump’s name recognition go up?

These are the things that flailing candidates say. They say things like “we’re going to turn it around” or “the voters aren’t paying attention yet” or “the only poll that matters is the one on Election Day.” Then they usually lose or drop out.

Tell you what: Let’s give DeSantis 60 more days and see what happens.

This post appeared first on The Washington Post

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