Donald Trump’s ability to play kingmaker in a Republican primary is pretty much taken as a given these days, and it’s not hard to see why: The president has inserted himself into dozens of nominating contests this year, and the overwhelming majority of his picks have prevailed, including in a handful of the most watched GOP contests in the country.
So one might assume that Trump’s favored candidate for Florida governor, U.S. Rep. Ron DeSantis, is a lock to win his primary on Tuesday. DeSantis, after all, appeared to surge in the polls this summer when Trump endorsed him online and then followed up with an IRL rally in Tampa. But a closer look at the available evidence suggests that Trump’s sway on Republican voters isn’t absolute, and DeSantis’ victory, while still likely, isn’t assured.
DeSantis currently leads state agriculture commissioner Adam Putnam by 6.7 percentage points in RealClearPolitics’ polling average, a solid margin but one that obscures the fact that the four underlying surveys paint two very different pictures. Gravis, which surveyed the state late last week, and Mason Dixon, which did so late last month, both found DeSantis up 12 points. The other two polls, however, show a race that is within the margin of error: Florida Atlantic University had DeSantis up 1 point last week, after having him up 9 points last month, and SurveyUSA saw DeSantis up 2 points when it looked at the race for the first time two weeks ago.
Another reason to wonder whether political pundits and reporters—myself included—have been overestimating Trump’s kingmaking ability: what happened in Wyoming last Tuesday while everyone was, understandably, focused on Paul Manafort’s conviction and Michael Cohen’s guilty plea in courtrooms back east. That day, Trump urged Republicans to vote for conservative megadonor Foster Friess in the gubernatorial primary, only to watch Freiss go on to lose the contest by about 7 points to state treasurer Mark Gordon, after very limited polling had the two running neck and neck. Friess’ loss was the first for a Trump-endorsed candidate in a GOP primary this year.
Can we safely conclude, then, that Trump is losing his sway with Republican voters? Hardly. The news of Friess’ defeat was lost amid the Manafort/Cohen coverage, but so too was Trump’s endorsement in the first place. In the case of Florida, meanwhile, it’s not entirely clear DeSantis was ever the prohibitive front-runner he seemed in the immediate wake of Trump’s June endorsement.
It was a pair of unrelated polls taken on either side of Trump’s “full Endorsement” that first created the perception that the president had delivered the nomination to DeSantis. A few days before Trump’s tweet, Fox News had Putnam up 15 points; a few days after, Remington Research Group saw DeSantis up 17 points. DeSantis’ team then showed its own internal polling to local media that, conveniently, seemed to confirm the narrative that Trump had effectively ended the race.
That was easy to believe given what we’d already seen elsewhere, like in South Carolina, where Trump appeared to take down Rep. Mark Sanford (R-“Appalachian Trail”) with a tweet, and what we’ve seen since, like in Georgia, where Trump seemed to propel Brian Kemp from a distant second in his primary to a runaway winner in the GOP gubernatorial runoff. But it’s worth repeating: The apparent swing in Florida occurred between different polls taken by different pollsters with different methodologies—apples to apples, this was not. And Putnam’s 15-point lead in the pre-endorsement Fox News survey looks far less solid when you dig down and discover only 32 percent of respondents picked Putnam versus 39 percent who were still undecided. Meanwhile, DeSantis’ lead failed to crack double digits in either of the two RCP-aggregated polls that followed Remington’s finding of a 17-point margin. Trump, then, may have tilted the race in DeSantis’ favor, but there’s good reason to doubt he turned it into a landslide.
Some of Trump’s most-hyped endorsement victories also don’t look as impressive upon further scrutiny. When the president backed Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach over interim Gov. Jeff Colyer the day before their primary earlier this month, it was, in the words of the Washington Post, Trump’s “riskiest endorsement yet,” given the contest appeared to be a toss-up at the time. But what had looked like a nail-biter before Trump’s endorsement remained a nail-biter after it. Colyer was trailing by just 345 votes out of more than 300,000 cast when he conceded the following week. Trump’s endorsement may have tilted the race in Kobach’s favor, but it’s hard to believe it did so drastically given that the limited primary polling suggested Kobach was already in a statistical dead heat with Colyer.
Similarly, Trump jumped in late in West Virginia earlier this year to prevent Don Blankenship from winning his party’s Senate nomination. But the pre-primary narrative that Blankenship was threatening to play spoiler was being driven mostly by internal campaign polls, which are worth what you pay for them. Again, it’s likely that Trump really did hurt Blankenship by endorsing against him, but it’s far from certain it was the fatal blow.
None of this is to suggest Trump doesn’t have the Republican Party and its voters firmly in his grip. He does, and he will continue to even if DeSantis falls in Florida on Tuesday. Trump’s gravitational pull on the right is evident far beyond his win-loss record in primaries. Nearly every GOP nominating contest this year has turned into a race to see who can embrace him the hardest, and those Republican incumbents unwilling to bow to him have mostly called it quits rather than risk the consequences. But in those cases, Trump’s power comes from convincing everyone he has that power in the first place. It’s worth wondering, then, if he really does.