Donald Trump might be in legal trouble, but in the world of Republican politics, he’s still the top dog. Polls consistently not only show him leading in the race to become the Republican nominee but also indicate that his domination over rivals such as Florida Governor Ron DeSantis and former vice president Mike Pence is actually increasing. This is evident in both polling aggregations such as Morning Consult and individual polls such as Monmouth’s. As New York Times reporter Nate Cohn noted on Wednesday,
Monmouth shows Trump continuing to gain in the presidential primary, with Trump up 41-27. This is longest-long-term trend from a high-quality poll in the race. Since December, Trump has gained 15 points while DeSantis has lost 12 points.
The trend line on the Monmouth poll is striking, because in the past it has been one of the polls most favorable to DeSantis. The cross tabulations on the poll were particularly brutal for DeSantis, because they show Trump leading with some crucial Republican demographics, notably voters who describe themselves as very conservative (where Trump has a 25-point edge), evangelical voters (Trump by nine), and non-college voters (Trump by 25 points). Simply put, the coalition that made Trump the Republican nominee is still ready to back him again.
Trump’s growing lead has come during a period when he’s escalated his rhetoric against the Florida governor, whom he has nicknamed “Ron Sanctimonious.” Trump has repeatedly posted photos allegedly showing DeSantis having drinks with female students when he was a high school teacher. The unstated implication is that DeSantis is vulnerable to accusations of sexual grooming. DeSantis, for his part, responded to Trump’s legal troubles by cattily remarking, “I don’t know what goes into paying hush money to a porn star to secure silence over some type of alleged affair. I just I can’t speak to that.”
One way to understand why DeSantis is falling behind is to look at another underperforming potential candidate in the primaries: ex-veep Pence. The Monmouth poll has Pence running at a dismal 1 percent (down from 2 percent in December). That puts him in the basement with other no-hopers such as Ted Cruz and Rand Paul. This is lower than other polls, which usually show Pence running third with somewhere between 7 and 10 percent. Still, given the fact that he’s a former vice president in an administration that enjoyed high approval among Republican voters, Pence might have been expected to be doing better. In essence, Pence and DeSantis are running with overlapping pitches, offering Trump’s policies without his outlandish personality.
Pence is running as a man who as vice president pushed the same policies as Trump—but is also a devout evangelical Christian. DeSantis is running as someone who as governor of Florida is enacting a Trumpist agenda—but without the Trump’s penchant for vulgar personal and political drama. In the spirit of Trump’s nicknaming of DeSantis, we might label the former vice president “Pious Pence.”
But if polls are to be trusted, a critical plurality (and perhaps a majority) of Republican primary voters want Trumpism with Trump’s personality. They don’t want a more polite and respectable Trump; they want the real deal. They see his personality as a crucial part of his political achievement: Trump’s vulgarity is a way of sticking it to the establishment; his crude insults are proof of a fighting spirit. Even his personal debauchery is evidence of his masculine prowess. For voters like this, the fact that Trump had an affair with Stormy Daniels only makes him more appealing.
Atlantic writer McKay Coppins got some insight into Pence’s political problems by listening in on focus groups featuring Republican voters. What he found was that Pence fell between two stools: Voters who liked Trump distrusted Pence because he didn’t participate in the January 6, 2021, scheme to invalidate the election results. Republicans who didn’t like Trump find Pence to be too servile to the former president. So Pence is caught in an impossible trap: not Trump enough for hard-core MAGA, and too Trumpy for non-MAGA conservatives. The comments of these voters were brutal. One said, “He’s only gonna get the vote from his family, and I’m not even sure if they like him.” Another remarked, “He has alienated every Republican and Democrat.… It’s over. It’s retirement time.”
Coppins notes, “When Pence was added to the ticket in 2016, his chief function was to vouch for Trump with mainstream Republicans, especially conservative Christian voters. Pence’s reputation as a devout evangelical gave him a certain moral credibility when he defended Trump amid scandal and outrage.” But Pence performed his task as Trump validator so well that he undermined his own status. Highlighting the contradictions of Pence’s position, Coppins observes, “In creating a permission structure for voters to excuse Trump’s defective character and flouting of religious values, Pence was unwittingly making himself irrelevant. In effect, he spent four years convincing conservative Christian voters that the very thing he had to offer them didn’t matter.”
After four years of Trump’s presidency, many evangelicals and hard-line right-wingers have decided that what the moment needs is not Prayerful Pence but Fighting Don.
DeSantis has the advantage of not being associated with what many Republicans see as the betrayal by the RINOs on January 6, 2021. Still, DeSantis is caught in the same trap as Pence: He is both a Trump validator and a Trump rival—contradictory positions that cancel each other out. By mimicking Trump’s policy stances so closely, DeSantis is admitting he thinks Trump was a good president. And as Trump faces legal challenges, he is in the awkward position of having to defend the party line that the former president is the victim of a political witch hunt. Despite his jibe about Trump’s “paying hush money to a porn star,” DeSantis has also said that the case against Trump is a “manufactured circus by some Soros-DA.”
DeSantis wants to have it both ways: to take a swipe at Trump for his sordidness, while gaining the votes of those who see Trump as a fighter against the evil left. But voters can see through the contradictions of this stance, as can be seen in DeSantis’s falling poll numbers. DeSantis is running as a watered-down copycat when the real thing is available. Why settle for a weak imitation?