The fight between Trump and DeSantis for the presidential nomination 3:34
(CNN) -- Ron DeSantis has to catch up. Florida's governor entered the 2024 presidential race last week with polls showing him about 30 points behind Donald Trump in the GOP primary. At the end of last year, DeSantis was 10 points behind.
The former president has something to do with DeSantis' troubles, but it's not all Trump's fault. DeSantis himself has a bit of a "charm" problem among Republican voters.
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One of the key metrics I look at to understand the decisions of primary voters is how many of them have "strongly favorable" or "very favorable" opinions of the candidates. Most primary voters will like most candidates because they are all from the same party. The key to differentiating yourself in a primary is to be charming (i.e., have a strongly favorable high rating).
DeSantis saw his numbers drop in this regard. In December, 40% of Republican voters in a Fox News poll had a strongly favorable opinion of Florida's governor. That figure was close to Trump's 43%.
Last month, the same poll found that the percentage of strongly favorable support for DeSantis fell to 33%. Trump's, meanwhile, jumped to 50% and widened the gap between the two candidates' strongly favorable ratings from 3 points to 17 points. In the average of the polls, Trump's lead over DeSantis in the poll soared by about 20 points over the same period.
Republicans' disenchantment with DeSantis could be their downfall. Recall that Trump had relatively low "overall" favorability ratings compared to other Republicans in the 2016 primaries, but he was able to win because his "very favorable" ratings were on par or in many cases better than those of his competitors.
DeSantis' overall favorability ratings among Republicans remain largely unchanged on average. This might indicate that he is no less unfriendly than he was before, but Republicans may not see him as someone they would be willing to bat for.
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This coincides with some surveys on the degree of voter satisfaction with a particular candidate. It's a slightly broader measure, but it comes to how happy voters would be with the candidate who is capable of winning the primary.
An ABC News/Washington Post poll released earlier this month found that 68% of Republican voters would be satisfied if DeSantis were the nominee. Only 22% would be dissatisfied. These are good figures for him, but he has two problems.
First, Trump did even better. A broad 76% of Republican voters would be satisfied with the former president as their nominee, while 21% would be dissatisfied.
Second, DeSantis' numbers are going in the wrong direction. In December, it led the satisfaction score in the Monmouth University survey. A staggering 79% of Republicans said they would be satisfied with him as a candidate, while 10% would be dissatisfied.
Trump trailed behind, split 67% satisfied versus 31% dissatisfied.
Chasing Trump's base
Digging a little deeper into the numbers, it seems DeSantis' problem is that Trump's base turned against him to some degree. Although satisfaction among Republican college graduates with DeSantis as a candidate remains stable (about 80%), the percentage among non-college graduates dropped by 20 points (about 60%).
Trump has a big lead among non-college graduates when compared to other Republicans on an election test.
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This is perhaps what makes DeSantis' strategy since announcing his campaign quite interesting. It is pursuing Trump more aggressively than in the past. That makes sense in that he feels he has to bring down Trump, given the former president's huge lead in the polls.
The problem, however, is that Republican voters generally adore Trump, and anyone attacking their man isn't known to make them switch votes. If anything, it could make Trump supporters have a more negative opinion of the person attacking.
I'm not entirely sure what the best strategy might be for DeSantis. He could use the argument of electability to say that he would be a stronger candidate than Trump in the general election. Polls are conflicting on whether Republicans care about that, but the thesis that DeSantis would be a better candidate than Trump in November 2024 isn't as strong as you might think.
We know that Republican-sponsored state polls generally show DeSantis doing better than Trump against President Joe Biden, but national public polls are more complex. In nonpartisan polls that meet CNN's standards for publication, DeSantis is only 2 points better than Trump against Biden. Several of these polls don't fare any better for DeSantis.
A difference of 2 points is almost negligible at this early stage of the campaign.
The fact that there is so much time until voting begins is key for DeSantis. His official campaign is quite young compared to Trump's. Perhaps being on the road will remind Republican voters of what they loved about DeSantis in the first place: his efforts to deal with "woke" forces back home in Florida.
If DeSantis is there making that argument instead of allowing Trump to set the terms of the engagement, he may be able to flip the script. Because if there's one thing we know right now, it's that what DeSantis has been doing over the past few months hasn't worked.
Republican HopefulsRon DeSantis