Since June 2015, no one in the Republican Party has known how to beat Donald Trump.

At first, it was because they didn’t think that they needed to any more than they needed to come up with a strategy to outmaneuver, say, former Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal. Then it was because everything that they tried failed: calling him too extreme, criticizing his inexperience, attacking his indifference to how such things normally work. Republican voters just kept on preferring Trump, and he kept doing everything in his power to make sure they did.

After mid-2016, that was fine with the party. Trump was president, and he mostly stayed out of actual policy stuff. But then he lost in 2020 and declared his candidacy for 2024, and the party is back where it was.

No group is more focused on how Trump might come up short in his current bid than Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and his advisers. On Tuesday, Jeff Roe — a veteran of Sen. Ted Cruz’s failed 2016 effort to slip past Trump and adviser to a pro-DeSantis super PAC — explained to Axios how they thought this could be accomplished.

“The fight for the soul of the party isn’t about tax cuts or trade deals,” Roe said. “It is this cultural combat that we have as a country.” Republicans, he added, are angrier now than in 2016 and “know that DeSantis is a culture warrior for this time.”

It is, by itself, a very Trumpian approach to campaigning. Trump, too, set aside policy details and the mechanics of the presidency in favor of stoking the anger his base already exhibited. But it is also an admission that DeSantis’s path to the nomination necessarily means doing more than being the not-Trump candidate.

We used to talk about the various lanes that candidates could take to win the Republican nomination: moderates or evangelicals or budget hawks, etc. 2016 established that there are two lanes: Trump and not Trump. This description is useful for comprehension, but it’s also a bit misleading. The Trump lane, after all, isn’t really a Trump lane but a fringe-right, culture-war lane that Trump happens to have dominated for eight years. And polling shows that despite DeSantis’s status as a non-Trump, he is also stuck behind Trump in the lane that the former president dominates.

Since FiveThirtyEight began tracking 2024 Republican primary polling in March, Trump has gained support and DeSantis has lost it. But the combined support for the two has remained remarkably static: Three-quarters of Republican primary voters like either Trump or DeSantis. That’s the Trump lane, and Trump’s gains since March have come at DeSantis’s expense.

This suggests exactly what Roe articulates: that DeSantis needs to peel support away from Trump. And, he argues, the way to do that is by hyping the “cultural combat” DeSantis has been engaged in.

There are two problems with that. First, that DeSantis’s support isn’t only Trump-lane support. Second, that his approach to winning that fight seems flawed.

The problem with this “lanes” stuff is that it is necessarily reductionist. Obviously there are complex reasons people line up behind candidates that don’t always comport with simplistic categories. In DeSantis’s case, he’s not just Trump Jr. but also still an anti-Trump candidate, the (at this point) only candidate who could conceivably defeat the former president.

Polling conducted by YouGov for Yahoo last month showed how that works for DeSantis. In a head-to-head matchup, Trump gets 55 percent of support compared with 31 percent for DeSantis. For Trump, that’s about what he gets when all the likely or announced Republican candidates are included; DeSantis gains six points when other candidates are eliminated.

Put another way: Only 80 percent of those who back DeSantis in a one-on-one matchup with Trump prefer him in the full field. For Trump, 94 percent of those who like him in the one-on-one also prefer him against the full field. Eight percent of those who prefer DeSantis against Trump in the one-on-one contest actually prefer Sen. Tim Scott (S.C.) in the full-field question. That does not suggest that DeSantis’s core support is hard-right. (That he often fares better with independents suggests the same thing.)

But you can’t easily win the Republican primary if Trump is vacuuming up 50-plus percent of the vote nationally. So DeSantis (and allies such as Roe) want to hype his record of culture-war legislation to position him as the true fringe-right candidate, hopefully without losing too much of that non-Trump support.

YouGov asked voters to indicate how supportive they were of DeSantis’s policy moves as governor, moves explicitly aimed at bolstering his credentials to a right-wing primary electorate. Usually, there wasn’t much difference in how favorably the ideas were viewed among those who liked Trump in a head-to-head matchup than with those who preferred DeSantis. But where there was a gap, it was often Trump voters who were more favorably inclined toward the policies.

Yet they still preferred Trump in a head-to-head contest.

Roe and other DeSantis allies would no doubt argue that voters aren’t that aware of DeSantis’s track record, which is fair to assume this early in the contest. But it’s hard to believe that likely primary voters aren’t generally aware of DeSantis’s record, a record that is heavily centered on these sorts of policies.

More important, though — and, admittedly, less measurably — this idea that DeSantis can gain ground by pointing to his record seems to misunderstand the way in which Trump’s support works. He didn’t win in 2016 by pointing to policies he would enact to reflect his fringe-right values. He did mention some — build a wall, ban travel and immigration from Muslim countries — but those were tangential to his rhetoric, a rhetoric that was lifted from right-wing media and that he built his entire political identity around.

Trump just talked, in public and on social media, and said controversial stuff he’d picked up from Breitbart or wherever. That’s what built his loyal base and his reputation for “truth-telling,” saying stuff that his base was hearing on TV.

DeSantis doesn’t take that approach. His aides do and his super PAC can, but he is not authentically the sort of incessant brawler that Trump is. In a “culture war” fight that is generally centered on attacking and disparaging the left, passing a policy is an isolated battle. Constantly throwing bombs and using the most extreme verbiage possible is the endless campaign.

(A quick aside to note that none of this is an endorsement of this approach to politics, one that has heightened partisan hostility and encourages more extreme responses to political disputes. It is simply an observation about how Trump has been successful.)

So Roe is suggesting that DeSantis’s path to the nomination means beating Trump on Trump’s home turf. It may be the only path to winning the nomination. But it is not one at which DeSantis has proved to be adept.

It is not one at which any Republican has proved to be adept. Which is why Trump won in 2016 and now leads by a wide margin.

This post appeared first on The Washington Post

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