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Schoen: Will we see Trump vs. DeSantis in the 2024 GOP primaries?

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Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis gestures during a news conference after announcing a $20 million dollar program to create cybersecurity opportunities through the Florida Center for Cybersecurity at the University of South Florida Wednesday, March 2, 2022, in Tampa, Fla. (AP Photo/Chris O'Meara)Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis gestures during a news conference after announcing a $20 million dollar program to create cybersecurity opportunities through the Florida Center for Cybersecurity at the University of South Florida Wednesday, March 2, 2022, in Tampa, Fla. (AP Photo/Chris O’Meara)

Last week, news broke that Donald Trump is considering announcing a 2024 presidential run as soon as this summer.

The former president is reportedly teasing an early entrance into the race in an effort to divert attention away from his greatest political (and legal) vulnerability — the Jan. 6 hearings — and from his biggest intraparty political rival — Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis — who appears increasingly viable as a 2024 presidential candidate.

Ultimately, while Trump is clearly the dominant frontrunner for the 2024 GOP nomination — should he choose to run — DeSantis is attracting donors, generating momentum and benefiting from the fact that he is not Trump.

The prospect of Trump declaring his candidacy before November has the Republican establishment on edge, as it could disrupt the party’s midterm messaging about the economy and give Democrats an opportunity to turn the midterms into a referendum on Trump — which, absent a unifying or coherent message of their own, the left is eager to do.

Candidly, the GOP establishment would likely welcome the chance to put Trump behind them in 2024, as many of these members acknowledge privately that the party’s future political prospects will be in jeopardy if they continue to focus on Trump’s priorities — namely, his “Big Lie” — rather than on their agenda for the future.

But much to the chagrin of the Republican rank-and-file, Trump is still by far the favorite to win the nomination if he does decide to run. With 55% of the vote, Trump holds a commanding 35-point lead over DeSantis, who ranks in second place with 20%, per recent polling by Emerson College.

Further, the former president’s endorsement track record in primaries this year — though not perfect — indicates that he still retains a good amount of influence with Republican voters.

Despite facing setbacks in Georgia, where Trump’s revenge plays against the incumbent governor and secretary of state didn’t play out, his endorsements of three U.S. Senate candidates — J.D. Vance in Ohio, Tedd Budd in North Carolina, and Mehmet Oz in Pennsylvania — were essential to their victories.

And unless Trump is charged with a crime by the Justice Department, it’s unlikely that the Jan. 6 revelations will significantly weaken his standing with Republican voters — notwithstanding the broader significance of the committee’s findings for the country.

Indeed, less than one-fifth (17%) of Republicans believe Trump bears “a lot” or “some” responsibility for the attempted insurrection, according to polling taken after former White House aide Cassidy Hutchinson’s explosive testimony last week.

While it would ultimately be a mistake to dismiss Trump’s pre-eminence with Republican voters, it’s clear that Ron DeSantis’ influence and stature within the party is rapidly growing.

DeSantis is climbing in national and early state polls, and is becoming the quiet favorite of the party’s establishment, elites and donors, who see the Florida Governor as less brash, more experienced and more policy-oriented than Trump.

To that end, more than 42 billionaires are backing DeSantis’ gubernatorial re-election bid, which has enabled him to amass a campaign war chest of more than $100 million. It is also reasonable to interpret DeSantis’ reluctance to obtain an endorsement from Trump in his 2022 race as a power play.

Notably, DeSantis is gaining momentum in the first two primary states: Iowa and New Hampshire. This is a troubling development for Trump, as showing weakness in one or both of these key early states could present a serious challenge for him during a primary campaign.

A recent poll from the University of New Hampshire garnered a great deal of media attention, as it shows DeSantis leading Trump in the Granite State by 2 points, 39% to 37%. Importantly, DeSantis has undoubtedly become the establishment choice, as he leads among Fox News watchers by 14 points and with conservative radio listeners by 16 points.

Moreover, the poll showed a 27-point swing from Trump to DeSantis in terms of likely GOP voters’ first choice for president since October 2021. DeSantis is also viewed favorably by two-thirds of likely primary voters (66%), while less than half view Trump favorably (46%).

In Iowa — the first state to hold their Republican primary — recent polling commissioned by a conservative PAC finds DeSantis gaining ground over Trump, whose support in the state has weakened considerably over the last several months.

Though Trump holds a 21-point lead over DeSantis among likely Republican voters (38% to 17%), that is less than half of the 44-point lead (56% to 12%) he enjoyed in November 2021.

While DeSantis is clearly making gains, until Trump makes his intentions clear, the presidential ambitions of DeSantis — or of any other Republican planning on running in 2024 — will remain on hold.

Of course, much of this is speculation — as neither Trump nor DeSantis has declared, and the 2024 primaries are still well over one year away.

However, the Republican Party appears to be on track to see a 2024 battle between Donald Trump and his seeming heir-apparent, Ron DeSantis.

Douglas Schoen is a longtime political consultant.

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