Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks at an event in Peoria, Illinois, on May 12, 2023.
CNN  — 

Ron DeSantis has some catching up to do.

The Florida governor entered the 2024 presidential race last week with polls showing him down about 30 points on average to Donald Trump in the GOP primary. DeSantis had trailed by closer to 10 points at the end of last year.

The former president has had something to do with DeSantis’ problems, but it’s not all on Trump. DeSantis, himself, has a bit of a “lovability” problem among Republican voters.

One of the key metrics I look at to understand choices made by primary voters is how many of them hold “strongly favorable” or “very favorable” views of the candidates. Most primary voters will like the majority of candidates because they’re all of the same party. The key to differentiate yourself in a primary is to be beloved (i.e., have a high strongly favorable rating).

DeSantis has seen his numbers decline on this score. Back in December, 40% of Republican voters in a Fox News poll had a strongly favorable opinion of the Florida governor. That was right near Trump’s 43%.

Last month, the same poll found DeSantis’ share of strongly favorable support dropping to 33%. Trump’s, meanwhile, jumped to 50%, extending the gap between the two candidates’ strongly favorable ratings from 3 points to 17 points. In the average of surveys, Trump’s lead over DeSantis in the horse race polling ballooned by about 20 points over the same period.

Republicans falling out of love with DeSantis could prove to be his downfall. Recall that Trump had relatively low “overall” favorability ratings compared with other Republicans in the 2016 primary, but he was able to win because his “very favorable” ratings were on par or in many cases better than his competitors.

DeSantis’ overall favorability ratings among Republicans remain mostly unchanged on average. This could indicate he’s not any less disliked than he was before, but Republicans may not see him as someone they’d be willing to go to bat for.

This jibes with some of the polling on how satisfied voters would be with a particular nominee. It’s a somewhat broader measure, but it gets at how happy voters would be with the candidate who is able to win 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 numbers for him, but he has two problems.

One, Trump did even better. A larger 76% of Republican voters would be satisfied with the former president as their nominee, while 21% would be dissatisfied.

Secondly, DeSantis’ numbers are going in the wrong direction. Back in December, he led on the satisfaction score in Monmouth University polling. An astounding 79% of Republicans said they would be satisfied with him as the nominee, while 10% would be dissatisfied.

Trump trailed him, with a split of 67% satisfied to 31% dissatisfied.

Poking the Trump base

Digging into the numbers a bit more, it seems DeSantis’ problem is that the Trump base has turned against him to a degree. Although satisfaction among Republican college graduates with DeSantis as the nominee has remained stable (around 80%), the percentage among non-college graduates has dropped by 20 points (to around 60%).

Trump, of course, sports a massive advantage among non-college graduates when matched up against other Republicans in a ballot test.

This perhaps is what makes DeSantis’ strategy since announcing his campaign rather interesting. He’s going more aggressively after Trump than he has in the past. That makes sense in that he feels he has to take Trump down a notch, given the former president’s massive lead in the polls.

The issue, however, is that Republican voters overall love Trump, and it’s not clear that someone attacking their guy will make them change their votes. If anything, it could cause Trump backers to hold a more negative view of the person doing the attacking.

I’m not entirely sure what DeSantis’ best strategy might be. He could make the electability argument to say he’d be a stronger general election candidate than Trump. Polling is mixed 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 polling has generally shown DeSantis doing better than Trump against President Joe Biden, but the public national polling is more murky. In nonpartisan polls that meet CNN’s standards for publication, DeSantis does just 2 points better than Trump against Biden. A number of these polls have DeSantis doing no better.

A 2-point difference is mostly meaningless at this early stage in the campaign.

The fact that there is so much time till voting begins is key for DeSantis. His official campaign is quite young compared with Trump’s. Maybe being on the trail will remind Republican voters what they loved about DeSantis in the first place – his efforts to take on the “woke” forces back home in Florida.

If DeSantis is out there making that argument instead of allowing Trump to set the terms of 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 couple of months has not been working.