We are all for trying new things in the generally staid business of polling. And this week, we encountered that.
The National Review wrote about a survey from a pollster aligned with Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) that gets at a key question: How much better off would the GOP be with DeSantis as its nominee? We have, of course, seen DeSantis generally performing better in the general election than Donald Trump. But this poll looked at the down-ballot effects for the Republican Party. And it showed the GOP doing better under DeSantis there, as well.
The WPA Intelligence poll tested the “generic ballot” — would you vote for a generic Republican or a generic Democrat for Congress? — with both DeSantis and Trump at the top of the ticket. While a Trump-led GOP was tied on the generic ballot (44 percent to 44 percent), a DeSantis-led one was ahead by five points (47-42).
This comes with caveats, the first being that this, again, was a DeSantis-aligned pollster (though the survey itself wasn’t conducted for DeSantis’s super PAC). Even if the polls themselves are solid, such pollsters can pick and choose which surveys they release, and they’ll often release the ones that make their candidate look good. Another is that the questions were asked of split samples — that is, different representative groups of people were asked with Trump leading the ballot than were asked with DeSantis leading it.
But this isn’t the only poll showing this dynamic. Nor is it the only evidence that Trump has hurt and could continue to hurt the GOP down ballot.
The idea appears to have been borrowed from another Republican pollster, Public Opinion Strategies. The latter recently released polls showing a similar dynamic in Arizona and Georgia: Trump costing the GOP 10 points on the generic ballot in Arizona and eight points in Georgia, relative to DeSantis.
Were Trump to truly hurt the GOP like this in swing states — or even just a handful of points nationally — that would be a big deal.
It turns out Public Opinion Strategies asked the question in other key swing states, and it found a more muted effect — albeit still being favorable to DeSantis on the whole. According to data shared with The Washington Post, a DeSantis-led GOP did better in Pennsylvania (by five points), in Michigan (by three points) and in Wisconsin (by one point), but it did one point worse in Nevada.
(Public Opinion Strategies doesn’t have a formal relationship with DeSantis, but it has repeatedly conducted polling for outside groups that shows DeSantis performing better than Trump. These polls were conducted for a little-known group called the Citizen Awareness Project.)
So all told, that’s seven polls showing a DeSantis-led GOP performing an average of more than four points better than a Trump-led one. It’s certainly something other pollsters could test and see if they get similar results.
But it would make sense.
The first reason is that Republicans have had three straight bad elections under Trump. And the evidence that this had to do with Trump and Trumpism is compelling. For instance, from our recap of Philip Wallach’s 2022 study:
This is about Trump’s endorsements rather than Trump’s broader impact on the party, but it gets at how his style of candidacy isn’t good for the party as a whole. The “coattail effect” of presidential candidates is also well established. And even if it’s just Trump doing worse than DeSantis in the presidential race, it would stand to reason that would bleed into other races.
The second is that we’ve actually seen this dynamic before.
After the “Access Hollywood” tape was released in October 2016, it wasn’t just Trump who suffered; it was the GOP as a whole. As another GOP pollster, the Tarrance Group, noted at the time:
And then there is what happened as Trump was securing the nomination in early 2016. What had been a consistent GOP advantage on the presidential generic ballot rather quickly became a consistent deficit.
Things turned out okay for the GOP in 2016, despite all that polling. But that was owing in part to Hillary Clinton’s own problems as a candidate and the difficulty of a party’s holding the White House after a two-term presidency. Trump wound up losing the popular vote but winning the electoral college thanks to his big advantage among the inordinate number of people who didn’t like either major-party nominee.
Everything since then confirms this was hardly a resounding affirmation of Trump’s political skills and broad appeal. And the idea that his party might do better with the political middle without him — both at the presidential level and down ballot — shouldn’t be too surprising.