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The GOP Must Get in the Swing (State) of Things
Polls show that who the GOP nominee is will matter a great deal to 2024’s battleground states
By Jon Gabriel
Six months into primary season, the race for a Republican presidential nominee hasn’t changed a whole lot. A baker’s dozen of new candidates have entered the fray, but only Donald Trump and Ron DeSantis have cracked the double-digits. It remains a two-man race.
The RealClearPolitics national polling average has the former president in the lead with 52.4% support among Republicans, while Florida’s governor is at 21.5%. This spread hasn’t varied much over the past few months, despite the late entry of powerhouses like Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson (0.8%), North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum (0.2%) and Miami Mayor Francis Suarez (nil).
That persistent gap between first and second place has panicked pundits not thrilled about a Donald Trump-Joe Biden rematch. Some even have declared the race over—both the primary and the general elections.
Not so fast.
The first ballots won’t be cast for another six months, and average voters haven’t begun to pay attention. Besides, state-by-state polls reveal far more about the ultimate outcome of any presidential contest than nationwide polls do. Back in 2016, the national polling was accurate, with Hillary Clinton winning the popular vote by 2%. But she lost that crucial handful of battleground states, giving Trump the White House. Four years later, Trump lost those key states, ending his administration after one term.
That leaves us with a big lesson for Republicans going into 2024: If Republicans want to defeat the unpopular incumbent—a proposition that remains in question—they need a candidate who can compete in swing states such as Arizona, Georgia and Pennsylvania. And that’s where the polling gets interesting as we look ahead to next year’s presidential contest.
The Current Political Landscape
We can say of recent elections that as swing states go, so goes the nation. Trump won Arizona, Georgia and Pennsylvania in 2016 on his way to the presidency, but he lost all three in 2020. And recent polling indicates the former president will do no better in 2024. A June 20 Public Opinion Strategies survey shows Biden leading Trump in Arizona by 3%. The same goes for Georgia, while Pennsylvania shows a 4% Biden victory.
These results track with the 2022 midterm results, in which MAGA candidates such as Arizona’s Kari Lake, Georgia’s Herschel Walker and Pennsylvania’s Mehmet Oz were rejected by an electorate exhausted with Trumpian turmoil. Exit polls showed independents swinging further against the impeached ex-president, who’s also been abandoned by young voters, female Republicans and the college educated.
Another swing state should be noted, as North Carolina is trending along with the others. Trump eked out a 2020 victory in the Tar Heel State, but he faces longer odds the next time around. A Civitas Poll survey showed Biden defeating Trump by 2% percent, while DeSantis leads Biden by 2.6%. As North Carolina adds an electoral vote in 2024, it’s a crucial hold for Republicans.
Since the 2022 midterms, the Department of Justice has indicted the not-so-distinguished gentleman from Mar-a-Lago, deepening the anti-Trump mood among key demographics. There’s also widespread contempt for another Trump-Biden matchup, with 60% of Americans wanting the 77-year-old Republican to drop out, while 70% want the 80-year-old Democrat to retire.
The New Florida Man
The battleground states reject Trump, but the results look much different for a governor who won reelection by nearly 20% in 2022. The new Florida Man defeats Biden in all these states.
In Arizona, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis leads Biden, 46% to 40%, in Public Opinion Strategies’ poll—a nine-point swing from the Trump match-up. In Georgia, it’s DeSantis at 48% to Biden at 45%, a six-point improvement. Pennsylvania also adds six points to the Republican column, with DeSantis at 47% and Biden at 45%. North Carolina follows suit with a two-point improvement for DeSantis over Trump. An NBC News swing-state poll taken a week later agrees, showing DeSantis defeating Biden by 6%, and Trump losing to Biden by 2%.
The former president may currently lead national primary polls, but an untold number of Republicans still on the Trump Train are checking the exits. A recent Associated Press poll found that 38% of Republicans have an unfavorable view of Trump, an uptick from 30% in April.
“You have basically three people at this point that are credible in this whole thing — Biden, Trump and me,” DeSantis told donors, according to The New York Times. “And I think of those three, two have a chance to get elected president—Biden and me—based on all the data in the swing states, which is not great for the former president and probably insurmountable because people aren’t going to change their view of him.”
A lot of Republicans still endorse the culture of losing, like those insisting Trump actually won in 2020, or that Kari Lake actually won in 2022. Whether they feel that way a year from now remains an open question. Conservatives in Arizona, Georgia and Pennsylvania certainly saw enough of it in the midterms.
So where do Republicans’ current chances of winning stand? Unclear. Since the start of the primary campaign, DeSantis has taken the fight to Biden, “woke excesses” and the progressive project in general. Meanwhile, everyone else trains their fire on the governor—most of all Trump, whose hourly all-caps tirades against “Meatball Ron” read like first-draft North Korean propaganda.
Trump understands that DeSantis has never lost a race. And for all of Trump’s bluster, he can’t change the fact that he lost to Joseph Robinette Biden, of all people. He seems eager to do it again.
A key reason Donald Trump even won the 2016 nomination was the massive primary field. Scarred by tangling with the frontrunner, Republicans trained their fire on The Donald’s top challenger at any given time during the campaign. Chris Christie kneecapped Marco Rubio, John Kasich blasted Ted Cruz and Jeb! ended his campaign high-fiving Trump on the debate stage. Like a bucket of crabs, GOP hopefuls pulled down anyone trying to escape, leaving Trump the lone survivor. For some reason, today’s single-digit nobodies think it will turn out differently if they drag DeSantis back into the bucket.
Spoiler alert: It won’t. Not only is Florida’s governor the only hope to defeat Trump, but he also provides a striking contrast with his opponents in both parties. He would be the first president with executive governmental experience since George W. Bush. DeSantis retired as a lieutenant commander in the U.S. Navy, which would make him the first president to have served in a major military branch since George H.W. Bush. (Neither Trump nor Biden ever served.)
Then there’s the age question. Biden is 80 years old and shows every year of it. Trump is 77 and can’t draw the crowds he used to. DeSantis is 44 and arguably has achieved more big policy reforms as chief executive than either one of them.
As always, the choice is up to right-leaning primary voters, who remain a tough crowd to read. Does the GOP want to defeat Biden at the polls, or spend another four years pretending that they won while a Democrat lives in the White House?
Do Republicans want to keep whining about stolen elections, losing court cases and falling for conspiracy theories? Or do they want to support a president improving the economy, fixing the border and reducing governmental interference in their daily lives? There’s a final question they need to ask themselves: “Remember how you felt on Election Night 2016. Then remember how you felt in 2018, 2020 and 2022. Which did you prefer?”
As in every presidential contest, the victor needs to gain votes state by state. It worked for the GOP in 2016 and failed miserably in 2020. As is usual, the next election will be decided by the battleground states. Early polling clearly shows that among Republican candidates, only Ron DeSantis can defeat Joe Biden in places such as Arizona, Georgia, North Carolina and Pennsylvania.
National polls didn’t help Hillary Clinton win the White House in 2016, nor will they choose our next president. The road to the White House goes through the swing states. Unless the Republican candidate wins those states, the GOP doesn’t have a chance.