By any reasonable measure, the news this summer hasn’t been slow.
Congress and the White House agreed on a debt ceiling deal in early June. Two weeks later, Special Counsel Jack Smith announced a 37-count indictment against Donald Trump for mishandling classified documents. In late June, President Biden’s son Hunter pled guilty to two tax misdemeanors and struck a deal with federal prosecutors to resolve a felony gun charge. This week, President Biden, fresh off a successful NATO summit, returns to the U.S., where inflation continues to cool, dropping to its lowest level since March 2021.
Twenty years ago, these events would have had a meaningful impact on voters’ opinions of the president and the former president and current GOP frontrunner.
Today, however, with most voters permanently locked into their partisan identity, opinions of political figures remain stable, regardless of events. Biden’s current job approval rating (-15), doesn’t look much different from May when it was at -12. Opinions of Trump have remained relatively unchanged as well: back in May, his favorable/unfavorable rating was at -13. Today it’s just a bit higher at -16.
The race for the GOP nomination has felt just as immobile. Two indictments and the possibility of more coming down the pike, have done nothing to dent Donald Trump’s lead in the polls. Meanwhile, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, who earlier in the year looked as if he might overtake Trump as the frontrunner for the nomination, has seen his standing (and favorability ratings) slowly slip.
But, here are three things to watch for this summer that may shake things up in the GOP primary.
It’s hard to believe that voters who have stuck with Trump through all of his current legal troubles — including two indictments and a battery and defamation lawsuit — are going to suddenly abandon him if a Georgia grand jury indicts him later this summer for alleged voter interference in the 2020 election.
However, some Republican strategists I’ve spoken with argue that the weight of Trump’s legal troubles is taking an unseen toll. Republicans are rallying behind Trump because they see him being unfairly attacked. But, defending him is different from voting for him. Many of these GOP voters are weary of the chaos and the drama that engulfs the former president. And, every new indictment, court appearance or controversy reminds those voters that if they vote for Trump, this is exactly what they will get for another four years.
The first official Republican primary debate is scheduled for August 23. Trump has openly discussed skipping the debate, while DeSantis recently squashed rumors that he might forgo the debate as well, telling Fox News that he’d “be there regardless” of whatever Trump decides to do. At least four other candidates, former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, businessman Vivek Ramaswamy, former UN Ambassador Nikki Haley, and Sen. Tim Scott, all say they’ve reached the 40,000 individual donor threshold requirement to qualify for inclusion in the debate.
Trump has every reason to be a no-show. No front-running candidate wants to give their lower-polling challengers an opportunity to attack and/or embarrass them.
DeSantis’ situation, however, is a bit more complicated.
Without Trump on stage, DeSantis is the obvious target for the lower polling contenders. Everyone there wants to dethrone DeSantis from his second-place perch. Why give them the chance to do that?
At the same time, with his support slipping among voters, the donor class and even Rupert Murdoch, DeSantis needs to prove he deserves to be seen as the most likely successor to Trump. He has to prove that he can both take a punch, and throw them too.
It’s hard to understate the importance of these debates for DeSantis. His performance either solidifies his place as the top challenger to Trump, or it dethrones him and offers another candidate a chance to get into the coveted second place slot.
The Hawkeye State has been notoriously bad at picking the GOP nominee. The last winner of a GOP caucus to go on to win the nomination was George W. Bush in 2000. However, Trump’s rivals understand that if Trump wins here, it may be impossible to stop his roll to the nomination. This is why you are seeing most of the GOP field camped out in the state.
According to the Des Moines Register candidate tracker, the three candidates who have spent the most days in the state are Ramaswamy with 20, Haley at 13 and former Vice President Mike Pence at 11 days.
While Scott (7 days) and DeSantis (3 days) haven’t spent as many days physically in the state, the SuperPACs supporting their candidacies have been very active, outspending all the other candidates and SuperPACs thus far. The pro-DeSantis super PAC, Never Back Down, has knocked on over 160,000 doors in the state and, according to data from AdImpact has spent $4.1M on TV/radio ads. Meanwhile, the Tim Scott campaign and the super PAC supporting him (Trust In The Mission) have spent $3.4M thus far on advertising in the state.
Despite all the activity in the state, there’s been very little public polling to measure whether it is having an impact.
That’s why we are all waiting with bated breath for the next Iowa Poll, the gold standard survey conducted by Ann Selzer for the Des Moines Register, to be released. The last Iowa Poll, conducted in March, didn’t include any horse-race matchups, but it did show Trump’s overall approval rating among GOP voters in the state slipping.
If history is any guide, we will likely see an Iowa poll drop in late August or Labor Day. This will be our first chance to check in on whether all the money and attention that candidates like DeSantis and Scott have put into Iowa have moved numbers or if it shows Trump’s staying power to be as sturdy as ever.
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