It was shocking, really. And while it was only a straw poll years before the next presidential contest, one could not help but sit up and take notice of someone, anyone, finishing ahead of Donald Trump among conservative activists.
After all, the former president became a transcendent figure during his years in the White House. He blazed a trail of independent populism fused with long-standing conservative principles which changed the course of history – a record worthy of a second term in the eyes of the overwhelming majority of GOP voters. But the advent of the ultimate black swan event, an election year pandemic, allowed leftists to swing at Trump like a piñata, taking him down by mercilessly blaming him for the deaths of hundreds of thousands at no cost to themselves.
Few, if any, presidents could survive under those circumstances. Republicans understand that, and though many have been disoriented by the ugly turn of events on January 6, Trump continued to overwhelm the present pool of alternatives in the immediate aftermath of his four years in the Oval Office – beating Florida Governor Ron DeSantis and everyone else by some 30 points in the first post-presidential poll of Republicans conducted at the CPAC conference in February.
But four months later, that may all have changed.
Still Swinging Big
Understand that it’s not like Trump has suddenly been diminished in the eyes of conservatives. But if it was not clear before, it is now, that another man is rising quickly to Trumpian heights in the hearts and minds of Republicans/conservatives/MAGA partisans everywhere. In fact, Ron DeSantis has become the first potential presidential candidate to not only come close to the former president’s popularity within the GOP, but to actually score higher than Trump in what amounts to a beauty contest.
At the Western Conservative Summit over last weekend, the organizers allowed respondents to check off all the candidates of which they approve for the 2024 race for the White House. And while Trump came in at 71%, more or less what you might expect, DeSantis actually surpassed the 45th president with a whopping 74% approval of his prospective candidacy. No candidate other than Trump came within 30 points of the Florida governor.
There are a number of notable trends evident in these results. While the soaring approval numbers for DeSantis put him squarely in the driver’s seat among non-Trump hopefuls, the three others who made the top five, Sens. Ted Cruz (R-TX) and Tim Scott (R-SC), and former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, are also rock-ribbed conservatives and/or MAGA-friendly candidates.
No Country for Never-Trumpers
But the reverse angle is equally revealing. Nikki Haley, a well-known GOP stalwart who served as Trump’s U.N. ambassador for a time but who is widely perceived as the preferred choice of the party establishment, finished dead last among the 13 candidates worthy of mention.
The stampede away from the neoconservative past of the Republican Party and toward an America First vision of the future is now unmistakable. Liz Cheney and her diminishing band of Never-Trump officeholders have been steamrolled into virtual oblivion – except in the Trump-deranged elite media, which single-handedly props them up as somehow representative of Republicans everywhere. This informal poll demonstrates just how wrong they are.
It’s one thing for Trump himself to remain popular. It’s quite another when his former acolyte actually surpasses Trump in favorability. It demonstrates just how scandalous, not to mention inaccurate, has been the media’s depiction of the Trump faithful as a cult of personality akin to those surrounding Jim Jones or Sun Myung Moon.
In the end, what this poll uncovers in spades is that Trump’s popularity is based not on his persona, but his attitude and agenda – strikingly similar between Trump and DeSantis. Relatively few Republicans might fall on their sword for the sake of Trump the man, but it is now obvious many would for the sake of his America First agenda. DeSantis has risen to the position of frontrunner (absent Trump) by exhibiting a Trumpian take-no-prisoners approach to leftist excesses, especially in the social and legacy media, and priorities almost indistinguishable from Donald Trump.
Will Trump feel emboldened or threatened by this result? On the one hand, it is a ringing endorsement of his agenda. On the other hand, he must now accept the reality that he may have created a monster in his own ranks who could upend his own plans for another run at the top spot. The next step in the process of sorting out the GOP presidential field will be gauging the reaction of the 45th president – whether he embraces or talks down the freshly empowered governor of Florida.
Perhaps we will even start hearing music to MAGA ears: a Trump-DeSantis ticket.
Read more from Tim Donner.