DeSantis is the top second choice for GOP voters — does that matter?

Election 2024 DeSantis
An insect flies near Republican presidential candidate Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis as he speaks to reporters during a campaign stop at the Field of Dreams movie site, Thursday, Aug. 24, 2023, in Dyersville, Iowa. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall) Charlie Neibergall/AP

DeSantis is the top second choice for GOP voters — does that matter?

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Former President Donald Trump remains the far-and-away front-runner in the Republican primary contest, with a double-digit lead over all opponents.

But Gov. Ron DeSantis (R-FL) is the top second choice of Republican likely voters. The contest becomes much closer when factoring in the number of voters who are still considering DeSantis and those who see him as their second choice.


“What that says is that, in terms of traction, or in terms of the presence — active presence in the caucus-going community, those two are pretty close together — closer than just that first choice metric would suggest,” pollster Ann Selzer said, referring to DeSantis and Trump.

Selzer’s polling firm, Selzer & Co, recently conducted the Des Moines Register-NBC News-Mediacom Iowa poll, which showed DeSantis doing better in the state than in national measures. It also showed Trump’s support as being below 50%, while the former president still maintained a plurality of Iowans.

Her firm invented a metric referred to as a candidate’s “footprint.” And when Trump and DeSantis’s footprints were compared, they were almost equal, with Trump at 63% and DeSantis at 61%. According to Selzer, the “footprint” is determined by adding together “the percentage who said the candidate was their first choice and the candidate who is their second choice, and if not a first or second choice, whether the respondent was actively considering the candidate.”

Its purpose is to determine whether candidates are getting traction or not.

“That’s one thing that indicates that Ron DeSantis has some upside potential to grow,” she said.

Pollster Doug Usher, a partner at Forbes Tate Partners, explained, “The second pick is an important measure, especially when there’s a close race at the top.”

“But when one candidate is up by so much as Trump is, it’s less valuable a measure,” he added.

For the second choice of voters to matter more, he said, DeSantis or another candidate would need to present more of a challenge to Trump in the polls. “If [DeSantis] remains the second choice and he’s down by 10, as opposed to 25 or 30, then that becomes extremely important,” Usher said.

Kyle Kondik, managing editor of Sabato’s Crystal Ball at the University of Virginia Center for Politics, agreed that the metric is only really relevant in the case that Trump’s stature is weakened in the polls. “Monitoring the second choice of Republican voters can give us a sense of who might stand to benefit if Trump falls off. But of course it only matters if indeed Trump does fall off, which does not seem very likely at this point,” he said.

The metric would be important in determining who might succeed DeSantis as second in the polls and thereby pose a challenge to Trump if his numbers decreased, Kondik indicated.

According to Chris Jackson, Ipsos senior vice president of public affairs, similar metrics have the potential to mean more as the United States is in “uncharted territory” as it heads into an election cycle where the likely Republican nominee is a former president who has been indicted in four cases. He also indicated that trial dates could affect the outcome of the primary and general elections. Several of Trump’s cases have yet to receive a trial date.

Ipsos does not measure the second choice of respondents, but it does measure who they are still considering. This metric “actually gives us a good sense of who’s in Republicans’ sort of set,” he said.

“Sure, Trump is the one most of them prefer, but, like, who else is in the mix?” Jackson asked.

In terms of how significant second choices are, he said, “I think it’s an interesting data point, but at the end of the day, people only have one vote.”

But, he reiterated, “We don’t know what’s going to happen,” referencing the unprecedented indictments of Trump.

“That second choice number, that ‘Who else are you considering?’ number is good and important information to sort of have a bit of understanding of things that we can’t anticipate in the poll,” he explained. “A poll can’t really tell you if Trump’s gonna drop out of the race or not — we just can’t measure that.”

These metrics give pollsters an understanding of who might benefit in a scenario where Trump drops out of the race “or if anyone else were to drop out of the race.”

Robert Blizzard, a partner at Public Opinion Strategies, said, “Despite the online click rates that ballot trail heats receive, the most important metrics in polling right now are the images of the candidates and whether voters would consider supporting them or not.”

Blizzard has been commissioned to do work for the DeSantis campaign in the past.

According to the pollster, “Right now, DeSantis has the best image of the field in Iowa. In fact, all the evidence out of recent Iowa polling and in the aftermath of the first debate is that DeSantis is being actively considered by a similar percentage of voters as Trump, and more so than any other candidate.”

Director of the University of New Hampshire Survey Center Andrew Smith agreed that image, and the metrics that define it, is perhaps the best lens to view the race through as it stands now.

“I think it is a better thing to do to look at somebody’s broader measures of public opinion,” he said. “Their net favorability ratings, for example. The percentage who say they would be a second choice.”

“One of the questions that I like to use is, which candidate would you not vote for under any circumstances?” he added.

But Smith warned against using these combined metrics to predict the primary result “because there’s still so much name recognition now among an electorate that’s not fully engaged.”

Part of why Selzer considers these metrics to be valuable in Iowa is because of its caucus format. “Things can change in the room on caucus night,” she said. “That is, people walk in expecting to do something, but they might be persuaded to do something else.”

While she believes this is particularly important to consider in Iowa, she said it could also be important data in other early states.

Blizzard further pointed out that candidates have months to make an impression on Republican voters before the tone-setting Iowa caucuses. “We are still five months away from the first votes being cast, and nearly half of Iowa caucusgoers won’t decide who they will caucus for until January,” he explained.

According to Smith, these data are important, especially at this point in the primary race, when voters are not paying an enormous amount of attention. He said the various metrics could reveal a much closer race than that shown by first choices alone. “It certainly paints a broader picture of what the race is actually like right now,” he noted.

“Looking at these other metrics indicates there’s other things out there that we should be paying attention to,” Smith said. “Does it mean that Donald Trump is going to lose the nomination this time? Not necessarily.”

“In fact, I’d probably say he’s got a better chance than anybody, but it also points out that people are not as locked in,” he continued.

When it comes to voters being decided on a particular candidate already, Selzer said, “It’s always helpful to know for a front-runner how locked in is that vote. And of the people who support Donald Trump, the 42% who say he’s their first choice, two out of three say their mind is made up.”

Her survey also asked, “What’s the proper role that you’ve seen for Donald Trump in terms of the future of the Republican Party?” which she believes is another valuable data point.

“There are more who resisted the idea — the idea that he should continue to lead the party,” she noted.

According to Selzer, “That’s useful. That gives you some idea of the malleability of how the rank order is going to go.”

In a normal election year, Jackson explained, he might consider a race of this nature close to being over due to Trump’s lead. But with so many unpredictable variables, “I think DeSantis and everyone else is still in play,” he said.


The Iowa caucuses, which are expected to set the tone for the rest of the nation’s primary contests, are set for Jan. 15. South Carolina will take place on Feb. 24. The South Carolina Republican Party set that date, which is roughly one week before Super Tuesday, as to extend the campaigning time for candidates in the state.

Trump’s availability on the campaign trail is expected to be affected by his multiple indictments, also potentially giving opportunities to other candidates.

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