Based on the chatter in Washington, the race for the Republican nomination is already over. Former President Donald Trump, who looked vulnerable in the immediate aftermath of the 2022 midterms, has regained his footing in spite of (or thanks to) an indictment and more potential legal fallout in the coming weeks. 

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, flying high in the wake of a successful 2022 reelection campaign, has squandered that momentum and is now languishing far behind Trump in buzz and the polls. He’s flubbed on foreign policy and has been outmaneuvered by Disney. Meanwhile, Trump has effectively undercut DeSantis’ MAGA bonafides with attacks on the governor’s support for Paul Ryan-era entitlement reforms while a member of Congress.  

I’m not convinced that we should assume this race is over. Trump is the favorite for the nomination. But it is not a given.

First, there’s always a risk in holding the frontrunner mantle this early in a campaign cycle. Especially when — as is the case with DeSantis — you have yet to officially launch a campaign. This has left DeSantis exposed to the sniping and attacks from his rivals and scrutiny from the media with no way to effectively respond. A super PAC backing DeSantis’ nascent bid for president, “Never Back Down,” has tried to provide him some cover with strategically placed TV ads and a mailer to voters in early primary states. 

The real test of a candidate’s strength, however, isn’t whether they can fly above the trouble, but whether they can come back from getting knocked down. Or, as one GOP strategist mused to me earlier this year, “Every candidate gets their time in the barrel. We’ll have to see how DeSantis deals with his time there.”

The first opportunity to see how DeSantis deals with his turn of fortune will be when his campaign rolls out in May or June. There are few opportunities for a candidate to control the narrative of a political contest. This is one of them. For most GOP voters, it is also the first opportunity for them to hear directly from the Florida governor about why he wants to be president. Will it be compelling? Will it sound genuine? Does it meet the moment? 

Then there’s the August debate in Milwaukee. Debates are where the “theory” of the campaign meets reality. Plenty of candidates have seen their electability theory crash upon the shoals of a poor debate performance. Rick Perry. Marco Rubio. Mike Bloomberg. 

Polling suggests that the pathway to victory for a candidate not named Trump is to win over the significant group of voters who like Trump but are also open to an alternative. A survey done earlier this year by GOP pollster Whit Ayers for the Bulwark found a GOP electorate divided into three categories: 30% or so are “Always Trump”; 10-15% are “Never Trump”; and the rest fall into the “Sometimes Trump” bucket. The “Always Trump” voters are sticking with the former president no matter what. The “Never Trump” voter is attracted to a more traditional or pre-Trump-era politician. The “Sometimes Trump” — or as I call them, “alternative curious” — GOP voter, isn’t looking to move beyond Trump. What they are looking for is a newer or more refined model. This is the group that will decide the GOP nomination. 

More recently, the GOP firm Echelon Insights divided the GOP electorate into four categories: 25% say they’d vote for Trump but not DeSantis; 22% would support DeSantis but not Trump; 15% said they’d support neither DeSantis nor Trump; and 39% said they could support Trump and DeSantis.

With Trump and DeSantis getting a similar percentage of committed voters, the key group for both men is that 39% who are open to voting for either. 

And, when Echelon divided these groups by policy, DeSantis’ attacks on ‘woke’ businesses and schools were more popular with the 39% of “both” voters than with the overall GOP electorate. For example, when asked if “businesses should be held accountable if they are too focused on being woke” or if, instead, “businesses should be able to operate however they like as long as they don’t break the law,” a bare majority (50%) of GOP voters choose the “businesses should do as they like” approach while 41% pick the “too woke” option. However, those open to voting for Trump and DeSantis are evenly divided on this question. 

The anti-ESG (environmental, social and corporate governance) position, described in the survey as “private companies shouldn’t be trying to do their own Green New Deal or profit off climate alarmism,” isn’t as popular as you would assume given how much time and energy conservative media and politicians spend on the topic. According to Echelon, 54% say they “don’t mind when private companies want to be environmentally friendly or reduce carbon emissions.” Overall, the anti-ESG position is underwater by 20 points. But among those open to both Trump and DeSantis, the position is less unpopular (underwater by 10 points). 

On social issues overall, DeSantis’ crackdown on the teaching of sexual and gender identity issues is more popular with these swing primary voters than with the overall GOP electorate. Forty-eight percent of GOP voters overall agree that “issues like radical gender and racial ideologies from the left are the biggest social challenge we face today” compared to just 38% who say that “abortion and religious liberty are the biggest social challenges we face.” Among the 39% swing group, the “gender/racial” ideology statement is twice as popular.  

In other words, the overall DeSantis message isn’t the problem. But a good message only matters if the messenger is believable and appealing. That is the challenge confronting DeSantis today. As the Washington Post’s Olivier Knox astutely pointed out the other day, “it’s still an open question whether GOP primary voters will truly want to move on from Trump. If they don’t, it may not matter much what DeSantis does.”

More from the Cook Political Report