It’s been a tough few months for Ron DeSantis.
Donald J. Trump and his allies have blasted him as “Meatball Ron,” “Ron DeSanctimonious,” a “groomer,” disloyal and a supporter of cutting entitlement programs. Now, he’s getting criticism from many mainstream conservatives for calling Russia’s invasion of Ukraine a “territorial dispute.”
Is all of this making a difference in the polls? There are signs the answer is yes.
In surveys taken since the Trump offensive began two months ago, Mr. DeSantis, the Florida governor, has steadily lost ground against Mr. Trump, whose own numbers have increased.
It can be hard to track who’s up and who’s down in the Republican race, since different pollsters have had such wildly divergent takes on Mr. Trump’s strength. In just the last few days, a CNN/SSRS poll showed a tight race, with Mr. DeSantis at 39 percent and Mr. Trump at 37 percent among registered voters, while a Morning Consult poll found Mr. Trump with nearly a two-to-one lead, 52 percent to 28 percent.
In this situation, the best way to get a clear read on recent trends is to compare surveys by the same pollsters over time.
Over the last two months, we’ve gotten about a dozen polls from pollsters who had surveyed the Republican race over the previous two months. These polls aren’t necessarily of high quality or representative, so don’t focus on the average across these polls. It’s the trend that’s important, and the trend is unequivocal: Every single one of these polls has shown Mr. DeSantis faring worse than before, and Mr. Trump faring better.
Sometimes it’s hard to explain why the polls move the way they do. This doesn’t seem to be one of those cases. It’s easy to tell a tidy story about why Mr. DeSantis has slipped.
The DeSantis election bump is over. In the aftermath of the midterms, Mr. DeSantis benefited from extensive media coverage of his landslide win in Florida and Mr. Trump’s role in the G.O.P.’s disappointing showing.
Trump went on offense. Beginning in mid-to-late January, Mr. Trump began testing various lines of attack, criticizing Mr. DeSantis’s loyalty and his consistency on Covid issues. In early February on his Truth Social site, Mr. Trump shared a photo and posts suggesting Mr. DeSantis was “grooming” female students when he was a high school teacher two decades ago. He has kept up the pressure ever since.
DeSantis is on the sideline. When Mr. Trump attacked him, there was not much of a defense by Mr. DeSantis or counterattacks on Mr. Trump, whether by Mr. DeSantis or his allies. Mr. DeSantis hasn’t even declared his candidacy yet.
It’s a little hard to figure out which of these explanations matters most. Looking more carefully at the data, there’s reason to think all of these factors play a role.
For instance, there’s decent evidence that Mr. DeSantis was slipping even before Mr. Trump’s attacks began in earnest. A Monmouth University poll from Jan. 26 to Feb. 2 showed a significant deterioration in Mr. DeSantis’s support compared with a poll from early December. At this early point, the shift in the Monmouth poll and other surveys looks more like a fading post-midterm bounce than the effect of Mr. Trump’s attacks.
But Mr. DeSantis has kept losing ground in more recent polls, long after his midterm bump should have dissipated. This week, a Quinnipiac survey showed Mr. Trump making big gains over just the last month, with his lead growing by 12 points.
On average, Mr. DeSantis has lost four points in polls taken over the last month compared with polls by the same pollster between Jan. 15 and Feb. 15.
How important is it that Mr. DeSantis is losing ground? It may wind up not mattering much in itself, but it could say something important about the challenges facing the DeSantis campaign.
So far, there’s little evidence that Mr. DeSantis has suffered serious or irreparable damage, even if he’s lost ground against Mr. Trump. His favorability ratings, for instance, remain strong: The new Quinnipiac survey showed him with an exceptional 72-6 favorability rating among Republicans. If the media conversation becomes more favorable, his position against Mr. Trump could easily rebound.
But there is a chance this episode betrays a deeper problem for Mr. DeSantis, even if the attacks themselves haven’t been especially harmful. He and his team have failed to respond to the attacks or shift the conversation, and it’s possible that’s because he and his allies don’t think they can safely engage the former president. It would help explain why Mr. Trump’s attacks have largely gone uncontested. It would help explain their effort to narrow areas of substantive disagreement with Mr. Trump, including on a topic like Ukraine in which Mr. DeSantis is now at odds with around half of his own likeliest supporters.
It wouldn’t be surprising if the DeSantis team was hesitant to engage someone who remains popular among Republicans and who has, shall we say, an ability to engage asymmetrically, as his “groomer” attacks highlighted. That’s a lesson a few former presidential candidates from Florida learned all too well in 2016.
But if attacking Mr. Trump carries risks, so does allowing him to punch without a vigorous defense or a counterpunch. If you need proof, you can just look at Mr. DeSantis’s slipping poll numbers.