Would Democrats Rather Face Donald Trump Or Ron DeSantis in 2024?
Who would Democrats rather see as the GOP’s 2024 presidential nominee — Donald Trump or Ron DeSantis?
Yes, I know Democratic voters largely won’t have a say here,1 nor can they make the Republican electorate vote a certain way. And it’s still early to speculate about who will win the Republican presidential primary, much less the general election — DeSantis isn’t even officially in the race! — but as we’ve written before, early polls shouldn’t necessarily get tossed aside.
Late last year, a series of polls from The Economist/YouGov asked Americans who they wanted to be the Republican nominee in 2024, and among Democrats, DeSantis had an edge over Trump — particularly when respondents were given only those two candidates to choose from.2 When it comes to the broader electorate, an average of FiveThirtyEight’s polling of imperfect, hypothetical, head-to-head matchups of each man against President Biden, meanwhile, shows DeSantis with a slightly better chance than Trump.3
So what gives? Do Democrats want their own party to face a tougher fight next year?
Democrats’ slight preference for DeSantis over Trump — even if DeSantis might currently be better positioned to beat Biden — could be about one simple thing: Democrats really, really don’t want to deal with the former president again and might not currently be thinking in terms of who’s more beatable.
“I think most Democrats would be terrified of another Trump presidency, but I also think that most Democrats would not be happy about a DeSantis presidency and maybe think DeSantis is a lot like Trump but ‘more competent’ or something,” said Hans Noel, a professor of government at Georgetown University. “I don’t know if that’s the right interpretation, but it’s definitely one that a lot of Democrats have.”
Who do Democrats want to win the 2024 GOP primary? | FiveThirtyEight Politics Podcast
Of course, we shouldn’t jump to conclusions about Democrats’ preferred challenger based on surveys conducted months ago. And let’s remember — this isn’t about Democrats liking DeSantis more, or even knowing much about him at all. A more recent YouGov survey, from late February, showed that Democrats had a slightly more favorable (28 percent) and unfavorable (67 percent) opinion of Trump than they did for DeSantis (25 percent favorable, 60 percent unfavorable), suggesting that many Democrats simply haven’t made up their minds about the Florida governor. Indeed, 15 percent of Democrats didn’t have an opinion on DeSantis in the poll, while only 4 percent had no opinion of Trump. We see similar numbers in other polls as well. It’s possible, then, that Democrats’ preferences are squishy at this point and will continue changing as they learn more about DeSantis after his expected presidential campaign officially kicks off.
But when it comes to a head-to-head matchup between the two Republicans, it’s not hard to see why Democrats might have a slight preference for DeSantis being the GOP nominee, particularly at this early stage in the 2024 campaign.
For one, it’s possible that Democrats just aren’t aware of his (current) formidability against Biden, and think of DeSantis as more beatable than Trump, who scarred them in 2016 by pulling out that “impossible” win. Plus, Noel told me that DeSantis might be seen as a somewhat welcome alternative to Trump, particularly to voters who are convinced that the former president is “uniquely anti-democratic or uniquely a threat to American democracy.” Unlike Trump, DeSantis doesn’t have the baggage of the Jan. 6, 2021, Capitol riot or multiple investigations looming over him.
In other words, if Democrats really do prefer DeSantis at this stage, it could be more tied to their dislike for Trump rather than DeSantis’s special appeal. And as DeSantis draws more of the national spotlight, and especially if he acts like Trump during the primary (as I’ve predicted he will), Democrats could sour on him quickly.
“DeSantis is more of a mainstream politician. So you might not expect him to undermine norms and encourage violence. But we’ll have to see how things play out as we learn more and more about him,” Noel told me. “In order to win the primary, he’ll need to outflank Trump on some of these culture-war issues that the MAGA constituency wants. But the more that he makes appeals to those voters, the more likely it is that he alienates Democrats in the process.”
Why is Biden moving to the political center? | FiveThirtyEight
The question is whether Democrats will change their minds as the primary goes on, especially if they perceive Trump as a weaker general-election candidate (although he was perceived that way in 2016, too, and we all know what happened then). There’s plenty of reason to think that might be the case: Trump-led Republicans have now endured three bad elections in rapid succession. In 2018, they lost the House. In 2020, they lost the presidency and the Senate. And in 2022, while they won the House by a slim margin, they otherwise failed to score the gains that we’ve come to expect of the opposition party in a midterm year.
A growing number of Republicans pointed their fingers at him for their party’s disappointments in last year’s midterms, in which Trump-backed candidates were defeated across the country — all while DeSantis sailed to reelection, flipping a historically Democratic county along the way. Indeed, there’s plenty of reason now to believe that DeSantis or another Republican contender would be a harder challenge for Biden than Trump would be.
It’s also possible that Democrats just don’t want a redux of the 2020 election. In those three The Economist/YouGov surveys from last year, less than half of Democrats said they wanted Biden to run for president again in 2024, though more recent polling hints that they think their party has a better chance of retaining the White House if he’s the nominee. This lines up with other reporting and surveys that suggest that while Democrats seem ready to move on from Biden, there’s no consensus on who they want to run in his place. But that complicates the lens through which we should examine Democrats’ perceived early preference for DeSantis over Trump as their party’s opponent. For example, Democrats who want Biden to be their party’s 2024 nominee might prefer an opponent different than preferred by Democrats who want someone other than Biden to run.
And of course, the Republican primary won’t just be between Trump and DeSantis. Nikki Haley, the former South Carolina governor and United Nations ambassador, is already in the race. But in at least two The Economist/YouGov surveys that gave respondents more choices than just Trump and DeSantis (including Haley, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and former Vice President Mike Pence, among others), no Republican candidate netted more than 15 percent support among Democrats. In fact, a plurality of Democrats in both polls (38 percent) said that they were not sure.
All that’s to say that public opinion on this matter is not solid. As more Republicans enter the race, Democrats’s opinions of their preferred opponent will no doubt develop. But right now, at least, it seems that Democrats just want to keep the former president in the rearview mirror.