One of my earliest political memories is an advertising campaign that ran across Michigan during the 2010 Republican gubernatorial primary. Rick Snyder, an Ann Arbor businessman unknown to most of the state’s voters, was facing a host of rivals with big names and impressive political support. Awkward, geeky, and bookish—“one tough nerd”—Snyder didn’t run away from his persona. Instead, he bought a Super Bowl ad noting that he had begun reading Fortune magazine at age eight, graduated from the University of Michigan with three degrees by 23, and had a policy plan “so detailed that, well, it’s likely no politician could even understand it.” Snyder went on to win the governorship.
Thirteen years later, amid stories criticizing his likability and allegedly cringe-inducing videos of interactions with voters circulating on social media, the second-place candidate in the GOP primary for president is being attacked as too awkward to lead. Regardless of whether Florida governor Ron DeSantis—a Division 1 college baseball team captain and the only military veteran in the 2024 race—is actually stiff, the label has stuck. And so far, at least, DeSantis hasn’t embraced the portrayal or creatively justified it as an asset for the job he is seeking to fill.
The challenge facing DeSantis—and Tim Scott, Nikki Haley, and the array of GOP candidates running in the primary—is a difficult one. As polling from the New York Times points out, one of the attributes DeSantis scores lowest on relative to Trump is “fun.” The Times survey shows that national Republican primary voters view DeSantis as slightly more “likable” and significantly more “moral” than Trump, but the former president is still dominating DeSantis in the ballot test by 37 points. No other candidate cracks higher than 3 percent support.
There exists virtually no modern precedent for a candidate with a lead of Trump’s size going on to lose the nomination. Non-Trump hopefuls must build a clunky coalition of voters outside of the loyalist MAGA base but varying widely in their ideological disposition and feelings about the former president. Trump cannot be beaten by replicating the failed Ted Cruz 2016 strategy of reflexively outflanking your opponent to the right on every issue. But if Trump remains a heavy favorite to carry the party’s nomination, an opening might exist for a challenger who can both sound the correct notes and exhibit innovation on public policy—in short, someone who leans into his nerdiness and sells it.
Newly released Manhattan Institute polling on the 2024 GOP primary and policies shaping the contest confirms Trump’s large lead. Still, the survey indicates a slightly tighter race in the early primary states. The data show that DeSantis’s base of support has a disproportionately large amount of both “somewhat conservative” and “very conservative” voters, but not enough of either group to run competitively with the former president yet.
The Iowa caucuses take place in five months, a lifetime in electoral politics. A challenger could still conceivably make up ground against Trump, just as Barack Obama did against Hillary Clinton when she was far ahead in the Democratic presidential polls throughout 2007. Roughly one in four Trump supporters in the early primary states of Iowa, South Carolina, and New Hampshire say that they may change their minds and back another candidate.
But it’s increasingly evident that attempting to out-Trump Trump is not an effective method for capturing those votes. And running to the right on everything is unlikely to work with the 41 percent of likely GOP primary voters in Iowa, 36 percent in South Carolina, and 53 percent in New Hampshire who are not backing either Trump or DeSantis at this stage.
Challengers could instead focus on voters’ policy preferences. Given DeSantis’s widely reported penchant for substantive discussions over the small talk that retail politics calls for, it is surprising that his campaign website does not feature a section devoted to his positions on issues. (The Trump campaign site does.) One reason for avoiding certain policy disputes may be the major debates playing out among conservative leaders over economic and foreign policy. Yet the Manhattan Institute poll indicates that what is most intensely controversial among D.C.’s conservative chattering class is not always so among Republican primary voters.
By a wide margin, GOP voters believe that deregulation and tax cuts are a more effective way for the federal government to help grow American manufacturing than an industrial policy approach of regulations, tariffs, and subsidies. Overwhelming majorities support increasing trade with ally nations, believe President Biden has been too weak in punishing Russia for the invasion of Ukraine, think Vladimir Putin is a war criminal, and feel the federal government is spending too little on national security and the military. Republicans are divided on wedge issues—such as continuing financial support for Ukraine or reforming entitlements—but grassroots revulsion on these matters is less pervasive than certain talking heads suppose.
The data also suggest that aggressively prosecuting the war on wokeness is a good strategy. The share of primary voters who say that they are “very conservative” on race and gender issues is considerably larger than the faction that says the same about politics generally, economics, or such social issues as abortion and guns. Republican voters are strongly enthusiastic about banning affirmative action and mandatory diversity trainings at public universities. Support for heartbeat bills to limit abortion is softer and more varied by state. Surprisingly, they firmly endorse certain proposals that would toughen gun laws, including universal background checks, mental-health checks on gun buyers, and allowing police temporarily to take guns away from people who have been shown to be a danger to themselves or others.
Where does this leave the candidates? The anti-woke crusade, shrewd technocratic governance, and resistance to the federal bureaucracy’s Covid guidelines formed the basis for DeSantis’s dominant midterm performance in an otherwise difficult year for Republicans. The problem for the Florida governor and others who have oriented their candidacies around opposing wokeness, such as entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy, is that while these issues unify disparate ideological factions of the GOP primary electorate, they are not a top priority for voters in this year’s nominating contest. Concerns over the economy, taxes, government spending, and immigration take priority.
DeSantis may be getting the message. As part of a broader campaign reset announced last week, the governor outlined an economic plan in New Hampshire on Monday. Incorporating ideas from both populists and free-marketeers, the plan indicated that DeSantis is getting back in touch with his wonkier side. It attempts to address the more complex policy issues that GOP voters regularly indicate are most important to them, while incorporating anti-woke themes in the forms of ending ESG standards and instructing relevant agencies to root out discrimination operating under the false guise of diversity, equity, and inclusion. One omitted policy proposal that would have fit in nicely, and which polls highly with early-state primary participants, is banning the government from using affirmative action in federal contracting, a practice that actually grew during the Trump years.
The DeSantis economic plan also calls for securing the border and limiting unskilled immigration, though it did not address how a President DeSantis would deal with high-skilled immigrants. The Manhattan Institute data suggest that the lion’s share of GOP primary voters, though gravely concerned about the porous southern border, would support easing the legal immigration process for professionals with advanced degrees in STEM fields and immediate family members of U.S. citizens, so long as they do not need to rely on public welfare benefits.
The Florida governor does significantly better against Trump in a head-to-head race in the early primary states than he does when the full field of candidates is listed. Still, he does not come out on top. DeSantis does better yet on the question of who is best positioned to defeat Biden, but even there he does not outperform Trump. The only metric from the Manhattan Institute poll where Republicans prefer DeSantis to Trump is on his handling of Covid-related matters.
DeSantis made a name for himself on the national political stage by leaning into his nerdiness but remaining tough. He pored over medical journals and scientific research in establishing his state’s counterintuitive methodology to dealing with the pandemic. While elected officials less intellectually equipped to do their own homework relied on the recommendations of the scientific establishment, DeSantis recited facts and statistics from memory when hostile journalists challenged his no-lockdown, anti-mandate approach. Florida voters rewarded him; voters around the country clearly remember it.
DeSantis isn’t the only presidential hopeful who aims to strike a contrast with Trump. Senator Tim Scott is garnering attention with a more optimistic message, former UN ambassador Nikki Haley is touting her foreign-policy chops, and former New Jersey governor Chris Christie is eager to agressively challenge the former president’s 2020 election claims head-on. But Trump’s supernova personality and endless controversies might ultimately blot out the sun. Facing multiple indictments, the former president seems intent to turn the GOP primary—and the general election—into a polarizing referendum on him alone.
Or maybe public policy still matters. Almost two-thirds of Republican primary voters believe that America’s problems are so bad that it is in danger of failing as a nation. If that is the case, then one might assume that voters would opt for a candidate who can—and is willing to—speak capably about solutions to these challenges. Despite running in a consistent second place, DeSantis holds a higher net favorability rating among Republicans than Trump in all the early primary states.
As one South Carolina voter who flipped her support from Trump to DeSantis put it at a recent campaign event, Trump has already won the hearts of GOP voters. The best path his challengers may have to securing the nomination is to win their minds.
Photos by Scott Olson/Getty Images (left), SERGIO FLORES/AFP via Getty Images (right)