DeSantis vs Trump Voters: Insights Into GOP Primary Divide : The NPR Politics Podcast President Biden is gaining in popularity — how much of his decision to run again is driven by Vice President Harris' lackluster support among key groups of voters? And Donald Trump is seeing his support among Republicans flag — but with a potentially crowded primary field, he could have a path to the nomination anyway.

This episode: White House correspondent Scott Detrow, politics correspondent Susan Davis, and senior political editor and correspondent Domenico Montanaro.

This episode was produced by Elena Moore and Casey Morell. It was edited by Eric McDaniel. Our executive producer is Muthoni Muturi. Research and fact-checking by Devin Speak.

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DeSantis vs Trump Voters: Insights Into GOP Primary Divide

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AYET: This is Ayet (ph) and my cat, Hanako (ph)...


AYET: ...Calling from the beautiful neighborhood of Riverdale in the Bronx. After 13 years, 11 roommates and eight rental apartments, I'm proud to say that we are homeowners. This podcast was recorded at...


It is 1:07 Eastern on Thursday, February 23.

AYET: Things may have changed by the time you hear this, but I will still be unpacking all of these boxes in my new place. All right, here's the show.


DETROW: Congrats.

SUSAN DAVIS, BYLINE: Moving is the worst, but congrats.

DOMENICO MONTANARO, BYLINE: But owning a home is a really good feeling.

DAVIS: That's true.


DETROW: Hey there, it's the NPR POLITICS PODCAST. I am Scott Detrow. I cover the White House.

DAVIS: I'm Susan Davis. I cover politics.

MONTANARO: And I'm Domenico Montanaro, senior political editor and correspondent.

DETROW: Domenico, when I hear your name, I hear P-O-L-L-S - polls, polls, polls.

MONTANARO: Oh, I thought you said Polis for a second, and I was like - I can't spell.

DETROW: (Laughter).

MONTANARO: I'm not the governor of Colorado (laughter).

DETROW: That is true. That is true. This is the most sports-talky (ph) combination of people we have these days on the podcast. That was a compliment.


DETROW: Well, this has really gone off the rails.


DETROW: Yeah. We have a new NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll. You helped conduct it, and it shows lots of things. We're going to talk about them all. One of the things it shows - President Joe Biden is enjoying his highest approval rating since his first year in office.

MONTANARO: Yeah, Biden's approval rating is up to 46% with all adults in the poll - all respondents - about 1,300 respondents in the survey. Of the 1,200 registered voters, he's actually up to 49%, which is really high for Biden, especially in these hyperpartisan political times.


MONTANARO: Forty-six is the highest he's been in a year. Forty-nine - he hasn't been at that since before the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan.

DETROW: Do we have a sense what caused the boost?

MONTANARO: I mean, you can look at, obviously, inflation coming down a bit over the past year. His State of the Union address that he delivered was really targeted at the center. And when we look inside the numbers, those Democratic-leaning independents and more of those blue-collar Democrats are the ones who are really lending themselves to this increase in not just approval rating for Biden, but also whether or not they think they have their best chance in 2024 with Biden on the ticket...


MONTANARO: ...Which now 50% of Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents say is the case, as opposed to - frankly, just in November, only 30-something percent said that they thought Biden was the best candidate and gave them the best shot in 2024.

DAVIS: One of the fascinating things to me about the Biden presidency - it's not surprising - right? - that Republicans don't like him in a hyperpolarized time, but that so many self-identified Democrats have sort of a lukewarm feeling about the guy. Like, there's just not a lot of Biden enthusiasm, even among a lot of the party's faithful.


DETROW: And that was even the case when he ran away with the party's nomination by the widest margin we had seen in a very long time. And that's been the case throughout the ups and downs of his first term that led to - you know, as we've talked so much about - like, a much, much, much better-than-historical-norm midterm for his party.

DAVIS: Sure.

MONTANARO: You know, let's not tiptoe around it. I mean, this is largely about Biden's age. I mean, he's 80 years old. He's the oldest person to serve in the office of the presidency. And he never really had, like, a lot of warmth with the sort of Bernie Sanders wing of the party. He won. A lot of what fueled his win was an anti-Trumpism on the left, and they coalesced. And we're seeing some of that coalescing, I think, again now, as it's become pretty obvious that Biden is going to run for reelection.

DETROW: I mean, there's that factor, and there's something else - and, with a reminder, we talked at length about this in last Friday's weekly roundup - but one of the things that has always been a strength for Biden is the comparative aspect of elections, right? He feels like - his team feels like he does a lot better when it's Joe Biden versus Donald Trump than just Joe Biden in a vacuum. That's also the case with Joe Biden as the Democratic nominee versus any other alternatives. Domenico, we've talked a lot about how there's not been a clear-cut alternative. That's part of the issue for the Democratic Party. What did this poll ask about, and what did it find when it comes to the other Democrats out there?

MONTANARO: I mean, that's been the case since I've been hearing about, you know, Democrats, you know, kind of not being thrilled with the Biden presidency and looking around for someone else. And then - so the obvious question is, who else? And the two people who always come up are Vice President Kamala Harris and Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg. And neither of them polls as well as Biden does among Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents.

Just for context here, Biden gets an 83% favorable rating, with 13% unfavorable. That's a plus-70 - pretty high. Buttigieg is pretty well liked, at 63% favorable, 12% unfavorable. About a quarter, though, are unsure about him and aren't quite sure, you know, if they would want him to be the nominee or not. Harris gets an almost-equal 63-21 favorability rating. But her real issue, when you look inside these numbers, is with Democratic-leaning independents. She really, really struggles with them. Only 43% give her a favorable rating - 39% do not. And that is way, way lower than both Biden and Buttigieg.

DETROW: And let's focus in on Harris a little bit here because, you know, as the vice president to a sitting president, she is the next person you would look to, whether or not Biden runs again or when you're asking what happens to the Democratic Party next. When a vice president is running for an open nomination, they almost always end up as the nominee. But in this case, there's a lot of weakness there, and it's something that Democrats have been talking about more and more lately.

MONTANARO: Yeah, definitely.

DAVIS: What is the why behind Vice President Harris' low approval ratings? - because she - her brand is one that doesn't really seem to have grown within the party since they've taken office, and frankly, you know, when Joe Biden tapped her back in 2020, the expectation was that he was kind of building the next generation of Democratic presidential nominee.

MONTANARO: Yeah, I mean, some of this is moving into speculative territory, but when I talked to Democratic strategists about the why here, you know, some of what they say - No. 1 is this appeal to Democratic-leaning independents - that she just doesn't have that appeal. They think that she really struggled in the 2020 presidential campaign with not really having a core message...

DAVIS: Or constituency, really.

MONTANARO: Right, a core message or constituency. I mean, we saw that in interviews with her where she said that she is a problem-solver. And she kind of looked like somebody who Democrats wanted to like upfront, but then when they dug into her standing on positions, it didn't feel like she had, like, a solid place to stand on. And when it comes to her role as vice president, it's been hard for her to stand out.

DETROW: The one thing I keep thinking about - you know, I covered Harris back when she was the attorney general of California, and it feels to me like - when you see people go from the state level to the national level, oftentimes it feels like they expand.

DAVIS: Yeah.

DETROW: They're larger personalities than they were before, and to me, it feels the opposite. It feels like her - in a way that was a little similar to when she was running for president. It feels like her message, her focus is shifting from day to day. It feels like she's never really found a clear lane in the Biden presidency, and I think there's a lot of reasons that we could talk about. One of them is it's probably a lot harder to be the vice president to somebody who's been on the national scene for 50 years, has really keyed in relationships on Capitol Hill, has really keyed in relationships around the world. I mean, those are the two things that Biden, for example, brought to the Obama presidency - relationships in D.C., world relationships. Biden doesn't need that help, so the question is - what is the role for his vice president? And it seems like the White House is still trying to figure that out.

MONTANARO: And Obama on his own, obviously, had a massive personality...

DETROW: Yeah. Yeah, yeah.

MONTANARO: ...And needed a Biden to be a liaison.

DAVIS: You also have to imagine that on some level, this has to factor into Joe Biden's own selfish calculations...


DAVIS: ...About whether he wants to run again in 2024. And, again, his age is a factor, but he wants the Democratic Party to win, and he might not have the confidence that Kamala Harris can do it when you look at numbers like this.

MONTANARO: Yeah, I mean, we're not the only ones who conduct polls.

DAVIS: Yeah.

MONTANARO: Each of these candidates do.

DAVIS: I'm pretty sure the White House is doing some polling on this, too.

MONTANARO: The White House absolutely does.


MONTANARO: This is the thing that strategists have been talking about behind the scenes for more than a year and a half.

DETROW: All right. Time for a quick break. When we come back, we will talk about the Republican side of this latest poll.

We are back, and Domenico, how do Republicans feel about Donald Trump right now?

MONTANARO: Well, what's fascinating here is the picture's not quite as rosy for Donald Trump as it might be a little bit for Biden, or at least an improving picture for Biden. Here we have 54% of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents continuing to say that they would have a better chance in 2024 with someone other than Trump, which means that clearly there is an opening. There's a lane here for a different kind of candidate who's maybe an anti-Trump. But when you look inside those numbers, it's pretty clear the type of person we're talking about - the type of voter we're talking about - and this is really white-collar voters in the Republican Party, voters with college degrees, ones who make $50,000 a year or more, parents with children under 18 - they're all far more likely to say they're better off with someone else by 20 points or more, in some cases.


DETROW: And these are all the types of voters who bled to the Democratic Party in recent years and helped Democrats retake the House of Representatives and do well in the last presidential election.

MONTANARO: Yeah, whether they voted for Biden or whether they stayed home and didn't vote for a Republican.

DETROW: Right.

DAVIS: Nikki Haley is in the race, but frankly, the Republican that there's so much conversation around is Florida Governor Ron DeSantis. What did the polls say about him, and how does his support compare to Trump's among those core constituencies?

MONTANARO: Yeah, and I really like asking about favorability ratings. We're sort of staying away from, like, the horse race stuff...

DAVIS: Right.

MONTANARO: I like to know, like, what's the temperature sort of reading that people have on these folks because it gives you a sense of whether or not they have some real standing with people. And DeSantis actually is, by a net margin, better liked than Trump within the party. And that's mostly because Trump has more than double the unfavorable rating of DeSantis. So Trump has a 68% favorable rating. Twenty-five percent of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents have an unfavorable view of him. DeSantis is 66-11; so very similar favorable, lower unfavorable rating. And their supporters, or the people who like them best, are, like, mirror images of each other.

DETROW: So does that give us any clues on the big question of how much of this early support for Ron DeSantis is about - I like Ron DeSantis as a candidate; or I don't want Donald Trump to be the nominee, and this is the other guy who's gotten the most attention?

MONTANARO: Well, clearly, here we do see that people like DeSantis. Now, whether or not that's because he's just the name who seems to be floating to the top right now - I mean, we've - were all covering the 2016 campaign when we saw Governor Scott Walker not become president, even though he was, like, the heir apparent. But that didn't happen, and Trump was able to win out. And I think there's clearly a lane here. And if you look at who DeSantis is best liked by and who Trump is best liked by, Trump does best with white evangelical Christians, whites without degrees, those who live in small towns or rural areas, lower-income voters. These are all, like, that blue-collar populist...

DAVIS: Yeah.

MONTANARO: ...Appeal, right? DeSantis - best liked by college grads, people who make more than $50,000 a year, live in big cities or suburbs and Republican-leaning independents. And that's another key place that people are looking at. Whether or not DeSantis can maintain that, if he does decide to run, is an open question.

DAVIS: That's fascinating to me because that DeSantis coalition is sort of like the Republican Party of the days of old...


DAVIS: ...You know, like the realignment between the two, but that's more of a classic Republican stronghold type of voter.

MONTANARO: Yeah. And I think we see that even though they still have a favorable opinion of Trump, for the most part, they're growing more uncomfortable. The problem that I think this sort of other-than-Trump group is going to have is how many Republicans potentially wind up getting in. I mean, we're talking about not just Nikki Haley, the former governor of South Carolina and U.N. ambassador under Trump, who's already announced in the race, but potentially former Vice President Mike Pence, former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, you know, Senator Tim Scott of South Carolina - all people who are potentially in, and they would all be people filling that lane of non-Trump.

DAVIS: And if you're Trump, you're like, get on in, everybody.


DAVIS: Divide up that vote as much as possible.

MONTANARO: Yeah. A multi-candidate field undoubtedly helps Trump quite a bit to help secure a path to his nomination.

DETROW: But to go back to those two bases for a second before we shift gears and talk about some of the issues in this poll, I mean, if a Republican was somehow able to keep the blue-collar, MAGA-type base and even add just a fraction of that higher-income, you know, independent-leaning, higher educated voter, then they win. I mean, look at the last two cycles in Arizona. Look at the last two cycles in Georgia. Look at where those races were decided. I'd throw Pennsylvania in there as well, even though it was a larger margin in the midterms just now. Just a little bit of the suburbs coming back and you're talking about, you know, flips to those states again.

MONTANARO: But the problem is Trump is the one with that blue-collar populist support.


MONTANARO: And only 7% in this survey say that they are unsure of Trump. So he doesn't really have a lot of room to grow. You know, some of the other candidates are the ones with the room to grow. But how able are they to peel into Trump's appeal? I think it's sort of the inverse of what you're talking about. It's going to be a candidate who can get those white-collar voters and maybe peel off some of those other voters who Trump has because they think that that other candidate gives them the best shot in 2024.

DETROW: Talk about some other issues. It's been a little bit since we talked about it on the podcast, but obviously the big, looming issue coming down the pike in Congress is the debt ceiling. I know you asked about that. The poll asked about that. What did you find?

MONTANARO: Yeah, people are split 52-46. Registered voters say that they support raising the debt ceiling. Whether people know what the debt ceiling is exactly is probably an open question, and a lot of this is filtered through their own partisan lens. But I think when we look back at the trend here in 2011, the last time the U.S. was sort of facing this pitched battle and saw its credit downgraded because of it, only 24% of people said that they supported raising the debt ceiling. So there's clearly been an education over the last decade on the importance of this. And what we're also seeing, and I think is really interesting, is this market shift to the left on economics among younger voters. Millennials, Gen Z - they are way more likely to say that they're in favor of raising the debt ceiling, raising taxes and being in favor of raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour.

DETROW: Interesting.

DAVIS: Isn't that more consistent, though, with just trends over time? - that young voters, regardless of the generation, tend to be more supportive of things like higher tax rates and more aggressive economic policies and that those viewpoints can shift as people age out of a generation.

MONTANARO: Yes, but this group of younger voters is more likely to say that than the past group of younger voters...

DAVIS: Oh, that's interesting.

MONTANARO: ...Which is what I thought was fascinating - to see that jump.

DETROW: All right. That is it for today. I'm Scott Detrow. I cover the White House.

DAVIS: I'm Susan Davis. I cover politics.

MONTANARO: And I'm Domenico Montanaro, senior political editor and correspondent.

DETROW: Thank you for listening to the NPR POLITICS PODCAST.


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