Democrats have recently had a good run. Their resounding victory in the Wisconsin state Supreme Court race was especially welcome. One liberal pundit went so far as to say: “It is hard to imagine any Republican presidential candidate carrying Wisconsin in 2024, and that pattern is likely to hold in other key Midwestern states.” This seems premature. Democrats won a similar race in 2020 by an almost identical margin – indeed, they were running against the very same Republican. But President Biden carried the Badger State later that year by only six-tenths of a point. I wouldn’t call Wisconsin in the bag yet.
No, what is driving Democratic exuberance is the belief that Donald Trump will be the GOP nominee. And it is true that Trump has been polling strongly in Republican primary trial heats. His New York indictment has so improved his standing that his margin over Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis among Republicans is now averaging around 24 points. But none of that guarantees that Trump will be the Republican nominee. He is viewed far less favorably by Republican voters today than he was as president, when his “strongly favorable” number pushed 70 percent. About one-third of Republicans now say they are Trump-first Republicans; when he was in office, half of Republicans commonly described themselves that way. Much will depend on how Republicans value the question of electability as the race takes shape; the more they do so, the more it opens the door for non-Trump candidates. The most obvious of these is DeSantis, who has yet to declare his candidacy but might do so in May. Could DeSantis beat Biden and, if so, what might his coalition look like?
Start with Biden’s weaknesses. The latest CNN poll found only 37 percent approving of how Biden is faring on helping the middle class, while 62 percent disapproved. That’s a net negative rating of 25 points. Among Hispanics, Biden was 32 points underwater on this measure; among all non-college-educated voters, he was minus 37 points; and among White non-college-educated voters, his net negative rating reached an astonishing 51 points. These numbers will change, most likely, but they are not trivial challenges. Meanwhile, DeSantis is also beating Biden in trial polls. In the RealClearPolitics running average, he’s ahead of Biden by a couple of points and was ahead or tied in every poll since the beginning of March. DeSantis has been leaning hard into culture-war issues with his “war on woke,” from legislation restricting discussions of gender and sexuality issues for public school children to reconfiguring curriculums at some public universities. This is generally viewed as an effort to capture hard-right and evangelical votes in the Republican primaries. But there might be more to it than that. For college-educated Democrats, these moves are simply authoritarian, if not fascist, and could not possibly appeal to any but a fringe of the most reactionary voters. But their views might not correspond to how many ordinary non-college-educated voters see such policies.
For example, across the two March polls where relevant data are available (Marquette Law School and Harvard-Harris), DeSantis averaged a 12-point advantage over Biden among non-college-educated voters. That compares with Trump’s modest four-point advantage among non-college-educated voters in 2020. Modeled estimates show that an improvement of five points in the Republican share of the working-class vote (and a corresponding five-point decline in the Democratic vote share) would – all else equal – produce a solid 312-226 GOP electoral vote majority in 2024. The states that move into the GOP column are Michigan, Pennsylvania and Nevada by three points, Arizona and Georgia by four points and Wisconsin by five points. Among Hispanic voters, DeSantis’s relative strength against Biden might prove to be greater. In March polls, DeSantis was losing Hispanics by seven points to Biden compared with Trump’s deficit of 25 points – a difference of 18 points. And consider his track record. In 2020, Biden won the Hispanic vote in Florida by nine points. But in the 2022 gubernatorial election, DeSantis carried the Hispanic vote in the state by 13 points. DeSantis won heavily Hispanic Miami-Dade County, historically the Democrats’ firewall, by 11 points. He carried Osceola County by almost seven points – a county where Puerto Ricans, once a dependable Democratic vote, loom large. Statewide, DeSantis split the Puerto Rican vote nearly 50-50 with Democratic gubernatorial nominee Charlie Crist.
Significant improvement by DeSantis over Trump among Hispanics could endanger Biden in some key states in 2024. DeSantis would not need to carry Hispanics in these states but just continue to erode the Democrats’ advantage among these voters. In Nevada in 2020, the Democrats’ margin among Hispanics declined by 16 points; in Arizona, it declined by 10 points. If DeSantis continues these trends – as current data suggest is possible – Democrats’ tenuous hold on these states could slip. Can DeSantis really pull enough working-class and Hispanic votes to beat Biden? We don’t know, of course. The race has hardly begun, and DeSantis’s initial outings have been so shaky that some of his donors are having second thoughts. But Democrats, lulled into complacency by the prospect of running against Trump yet again, would be wise to take DeSantis seriously and plan accordingly.
The Washington Post