Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis attends a UFC event at the VyStar Veterans Memorial Arena in Jacksonville on April 9, 2022.
CNN  — 

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has championed controversial stances that have catapulted him into GOP stardom. From Covid-19 vaccines to critical race theory to the law critics have dubbed “Don’t Say Gay,” DeSantis has annoyed Democrats (and many medical professionals) and delighted his fellow Republicans.

He’s played to the GOP base – something you may not expect for a governor of a competitive state running for reelection this year.

But guess what? It’s working for DeSantis. His polling has improved since last summer, and he finds himself as the strongest possible competitor of former President Donald Trump for the 2024 GOP presidential nomination.

Take a look at where DeSantis stood last summer. He was receiving a lot of negative press for standing against vaccine mandates in hospitals and mask mandates in schools. If you look at an aggregate of polling information available at the time, his approval rating was in the high 40s among Floridians and his disapproval numbers were in the mid-40s.

Today, DeSantis is in a considerably stronger position. His approval rating in Florida has risen into the mid-50s, while his disapproval rating has dropped to about 40%.

Governors with approval ratings above 50% in states their party won in the previous presidential election are in an enviable position.

Indeed, DeSantis’ numbers against potential 2022 opponents have improved too.

He and US Rep. Charlie Crist, the current Democratic front-runner and a former Republican governor, were in a dead heat in August. Today, DeSantis has a lead over Crist in the high single digits. Historically, most gubernatorial candidates in DeSantis’ polling position, even at this early point, have gone on to win.

A governor ahead of his time

We don’t exactly know why DeSantis is doing better. Part of it may be that the national political environment has turned in favor of Republicans and against Democrats, as President Joe Biden’s approval rating has declined by double digits.

But that may not be giving DeSantis enough credit.

Consider, for example, that the national environment has also shifted considerably on issues surrounding the coronavirus. Polls show that masking levels are at an all-time low. Public opinion has turned against most mask and vaccine mandates.

DeSantis was, arguably, ahead of his time.

(The polling on the law dubbed “Don’t Say Gay,” which bans certain instruction about sexual orientation and gender identity in the classroom, is more clouded, as a lot of issue polling is. But it’s not clear that’s a political loser either.)

The truth is that DeSantis is likely helped by Biden’s unpopularity and, at the very least, hasn’t done anything to greatly harm his own popularity among the general electorate in Florida.

At the same time, the governor has burnished his own hopes ahead of 2024.

If Trump runs, you could make the case that DeSantis would have a better-than-negligible chance of defeating him. This is true even if Trump’s numbers are somewhat daunting at first glance.

Trump is polling above 50% in national primary polls. His favorable rating is at around 80% among Republicans.

DeSantis is in a distant second place in national primary polls, and his favorable rating is only around 60% with national Republicans.

Trump, though, isn’t anywhere nearly as beloved as he was before the 2020 election. His “very favorable” rating among Republicans (i.e. those who love, not just like, him) is currently in the low 50s, down 19 points from before that election. And he has universal name recognition.

DeSantis, not surprisingly, is considerably less known. A little less than 70% of Republicans had an opinion of DeSantis in a March poll by the Marquette University Law School.

DeSantis vs. Trump

An interesting thing happened among voters who had an opinion of both DeSantis and Trump in the Marquette poll: DeSantis’ favorable rating with this group was in the high 80s; Trump’s favorable numbers lagged in the low 80s.

In other words, Republicans who are aware of both men like DeSantis more.

Name recognition is a strength. Just ask Trump, who used it to his advantage in a very crowded 2016 Republican presidential field.

It’s hard to separate any national ambitions DeSantis may have from his actions as governor. He has shown an ability to generate press to raise his name recognition by proposing and signing into law controversial legislation.

Over the last six months, his name has been mentioned on Fox News more than 700 times. Potential 2024 rivals such as Texas Sen. Ted Cruz (a little more than 400 mentions), former Vice President Mike Pence (a little more than 200 mentions) and former UN Ambassador Nikki Haley (a little more than 100 mentions) all trailed.

Again, it’s working for DeSantis. When Trump is not included in 2024 polling, DeSantis leads the GOP field with support in the mid-20s (or similar to where Biden was polling for much of the 2020 primary cycle).

If DeSantis does, in fact, go on to win reelection this fall, it will only help his 2024 argument.