A Turning Point for Trump’s 2024 Prospects?
[Editor’s note: “The Focus Group” is back for a new season. In this excerpt from a conversation about The Bulwark’s first-ever poll, pollster Whit Ayres and Bulwark publisher Sarah Longwell discuss the Trump troubles that have created an opening for candidate DeSantis.]
Sarah Longwell: The open-ended questions [in the poll] are really interesting, just because they totally reflect what we hear from the focus group participants about why they think Trump is not electable. And that is—it’s not that they dislike Trump. They’re not even saying that they disagree with his behavior. They think other people disagree with his behavior.
Whit Ayres: Right.
Longwell: They think his baggage makes other people not vote for him, and so they have these concerns about his electability. I hear it all the time in the focus groups. Let’s listen.
Focus Group Participant #1: I’d like to say flat out that I would vote for him, because I do think that he does what he says he’s gonna do. But at this point, there’s so many people that don’t like him. And I have friends that have the same feelings that I do, when it comes to politics, but they despise him, you know. And it’s not because of what he did, they like what he did, they just don’t like his attitude.
Focus Group Participant #2: You still got a lot of people holding on to “the election was stolen” and blah, blah, blah. Maybe it was, but you know, you can’t move on until you let go of this.
Focus Group Participant #3: You know, if he was president, that’d be great, because I like the policies. But honestly, I consider that he’s lost the last two elections. I mean, midterms for him—whether or not he does a good job when he’s in there, part of his role as leader of the party is getting others elected within the party. We lost a lot of seats in 2018; 2020 he lost. A lot of his candidates he endorsed lost the midterms.
Focus Group Participant #4: Don’t get me wrong, I love Donald Trump and everything he stands for, but I mean, you look at him and people just across the U.S., and even some Republicans, I mean, they just look at the guy and [are] just disgusted by him for stupid reasons. I love Donald Trump, but I think DeSantis would be better for the country as a whole.
Longwell: If you ask people about the 2020 election, and if they’re sort of tired of hearing about it, they’ll definitely say yes. As time’s gone on, they’ve gotten more and more annoyed by Trump focusing on, like, looking back on 2020. But when they offer reasons, it often has to do much more with electability and their concerns that they don’t think that Donald Trump can win.
And one of the things that I noticed—. . . when I saw the drop off begin to occur, it was during the January 6th Committee. Like, prior to that we had always had, in any group of two-time Trump voters . . . at least half the group wanting Trump to run again. But during the January 6th Committee is when we started to see groups with zero people—like, multiple groups with zero people wanting him to run again. And that was really unusual, and it really raised some bells for us. I don’t think it was the January 6th Committee per se, because it wasn’t like they were sitting there watching the January 6th Committee hearings and being like, Oh boy, Trump did some really bad things. I’m not gonna vote for him anymore. It was raising the specter of this idea of Trump has too much baggage.
But the other thing that was happening was the rise of Ron DeSantis. There was like this Ron DeSantis boomlet, and I feel like, these Maybe Trump people . . . they don’t think that Trump’s necessarily electable, but they have somebody else that they do think is electable. Like, I think you and I would like it to be that people see Trump for who he is, and they’re breaking with him. But it’s pretty clear that’s not what’s happening.
Longwell: Right? The drift is more I want somebody like Trump, but I’m not sure Trump the man is it anymore, right?
Ayres: Yeah, there’s no question DeSantis had a great year in 2022. I mean, a thumping re-election in what had been a very close swing state. And he is very, very popular in Florida. So, a lot of the people who like Trump, they also like DeSantis. And so, some of them believe that with DeSantis, you get the policies that they liked about Trump without the craziness, so that he is a more electable version of Donald Trump.
Now, that being said, a lot of them don’t know very much about Governor DeSantis. And we’re going to have to see how he performs in these sort of living room-to-living room discussions that occur in Iowa and New Hampshire. But he has had a very, very good year, he’s raised a ton of money, and he’s developed a very effective national reputation among the Republican party base.