Republican presidential candidates are asking donors and voters not to be guided by the polls, assuring them they have unreported advantages in key early primary states that could present a turning point in the 2024 primary battle.
Former President Donald Trump holds a commanding double-digit lead over every Republican competitor in the polls. His lead has only grown in recent weeks as other candidates duked it out at the Republican primary debates, which he skipped. In the most recent Morning Consult poll, Trump garnered 61% of potential Republican primary voters, while his closest competitor, Gov. Ron DeSantis (R-FL), received just 13%.
Before DeSantis’s entrance to the 2024 race earlier this year, the Florida governor was polling increasingly close to Trump on average in a hypothetical primary, coming within 14 percentage points of the former president. But since launching his campaign and amid Trump’s subsequent indictments, DeSantis has lost traction while Trump surged.
Fox News host Dana Perino touched on this during the second Republican debate, asking him, “What is your mathematical path, Gov. DeSantis, in order to try to beat President Trump, who has a commanding and enduring lead in this race?”
“Polls don’t elect presidents. Voters elect presidents,” DeSantis said. “And we’re going to take the case to the people in these early states. We’re going to do it in a state-by-state direction. And why? Because, as Reagan said, in his day, this is our time for choosing.”
DeSantis’s campaign is banking on Iowa, which hosts the first Republican presidential caucuses in the nation, to propel the Florida Republican. Trump has spent relatively little time on the campaign trail, particularly in Iowa, a state he lost in the 2016 primary. On the other hand, DeSantis has spent a significant amount of the primary campaign in the Hawkeye State, where he has committed to visiting every county. Current polling in the state shows DeSantis with a higher share of support than he boasts nationally. It also shows Trump’s support dipping below 50%. Further, a footprint metric invented by a prominent Iowa pollster puts interest in DeSantis nearly equal to that in Trump.
Iowa’s caucuses are just over three months away.
“We are not getting a mulligan on the 2024 election,” DeSantis told Perino during the debate. “Republicans have lost three straight elections in a row. We were supposed to have a red wave with inflation at 9%. It crashed and burned. Not in Florida, it didn’t. We delivered it in Florida.”
“We’ve got to choose right. We’ve got to win. And we need somebody that’s going to be able to serve two terms, so, in January of , they’ll be able to address the nation, saying, ‘We turned the economy around and we secured the border and we fended off the threat from Communist China.’ As your president, I will get that job done,” DeSantis continued.
As the Florida Republican made his case against the polls, former Vice President Mike Pence apparently agreed with his sentiment, saying, “That’s right.”
According to the director of the University of New Hampshire Survey Center, Andrew Smith, there is some validity to this ask of donors to hold on a little longer — however, “not much,” he said. “And time is slipping away.”
“Early primary states, especially [New Hampshire], have a huge impact on the nominee, but there are too many Republicans splitting up the GOP electorate to get either Scott or DeSantis over the top,” he said.
The plea for voters and donors to rely less on current polling isn’t limited to DeSantis and Pence. In fact, Sen. Tim Scott’s (R-SC) campaign is urging donors to hang on until South Carolina’s primary, where they expect Scott to win. By asking donors to keep faith in Scott until South Carolina, they’re asking them to stick around through February, just shy of Super Tuesday.
In a confident pitch to donors in a recent call, Scott’s campaign predicted strong performances across the board. “We’re gonna win Iowa, we’re gonna do well in New Hampshire, and we’re gonna come down here and South Carolina’s gonna change the world,” said national finance co-chair Mikee Johnson. “We have the momentum. We can feel it down here.”
“It shouldn’t be lost from us that we’re still gonna win the votes in South Carolina,” Johnson added. “And this is where we make the difference, right? We make the difference when we win South Carolina.”
South Carolina’s primaries have a history of accurately selecting candidates that become their party’s nominees and eventual presidents. Specifically among Republicans, the state has a successful track record selecting the eventual GOP nominee in every single primary since 1980, except former House Speaker Newt Gingrich in 2012.
Scott performs better in his home state of South Carolina than he does nationally, as does former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley, but Trump still leads the state by a significant margin. But Scott has more time to build his support in the Palmetto State than DeSantis has in Iowa, as South Carolina’s primary isn’t until Feb. 24, 2024.
“The early states have influence because they are the first states candidates can win and because both Iowa and New Hampshire are ideal locations for unexpected outcomes,” pollster Ann Selzer said. “They are small enough that candidates do not need to deplete their war chests completely to be competitive. So yes, they are designed to be turning points.”
Dissuading supporters from putting too much trust in polls isn’t new. This is something Trump himself did in 2016, and he was correct, as polls of the 2016 election between Hillary Clinton and Trump were consistently incorrect. But Trump’s campaign seems to be more convinced of polls of the 2024 primary race.
Of candidates guiding donors away from polls, Trump campaign spokesman Steven Cheung said, “Sounds like a pathetic strategy from 2024 candidates who can’t come to grips with reality while their consultants bleed them dry of money.”
Several donors appear to agree with Smith’s conclusion that too many candidates are dividing the non-Trump supporting electorate.
To address this and consolidate support behind one candidate sooner rather than later, a group of billionaire Republican donors is hosting the presidential campaigns of DeSantis and Haley in October, where they will pitch their candidate as the one who can topple Trump. While DeSantis remains the second-place candidate to Trump in most surveys, Haley has seen an impressive upward trend in key measures, particularly in New Hampshire. Debate performances in particular have bolstered her campaign. She is notably one of the few candidates seeing increases in polling as DeSantis continues to lose traction.