Republican Voters Don't Particularly Like Ron DeSantis
That’s because they are not sure he likes them.
From even before the earliest days of the 2024 GOP primary, the question of likeability featured prominently. Florida Governor Ron DeSantis has been accused of being charismatically challenged. Reports of awkward or off-putting behavior and concerns about his inability to connect with voters have been raised by allies as well as adversaries. He’s been dubbed Trump without the charisma. But how much might such a likeability deficit matter?
If it does, it’s more likely to be an issue in a party primary rather than a general election. Research has shown that likeability is more important in elections that do not feature large policy differences or massive ideological divides between the candidates. It also appears to matter more to some voters than others. The same research found that likeability was a more salient consideration for low-information voters, who were especially likely to judge a candidate based on his appearance and persona. The more that a particular election features substantive policy debates and high-profile issue differences between the candidates, in other words, the less likeability will prove a deciding factor.
There’s more to likeability than being “fun” or a type of person voters want to hang out with. Among Republican voters, Donald Trump has a more than three-to-one advantage over DeSantis in being perceived as fun. But why do so many Republicans believe Trump is fun? Political likeability is not simply about how much people like a candidate but how much they perceive the candidate likes them, sees them, and is able to validate their experiences and concerns. A Fox News poll found that seventy percent of Republicans believe Trump “cares about people like them.”
That certainly explains the adoration Trump receives from many of his supporters. Few people would say that Donald Trump is a good role model, parent, husband, or even human being, but his supporters have great affection for him. Some have argued this is due to Trump’s willingness to ignore social norms and conventions, or that he has the right enemies. I would argue that it’s more than that. Donald Trump relishes the opportunity to engage with his supporters, and the energy and enthusiasm he brings to his rallies as well as the enjoyment he gets from these events are impossible to fake. Trump is a seasoned performer and his act works because of the intense enjoyment he derives from it; Trump’s supporters feel this deeply. While he’s not one of them, they believe he likes them anyway.
Of course, likeability is an inherently subjective quality. It’s based as much on the person who is doing the liking as much as the person who is liked. Our feelings about public officials often serve as a reflection, or perhaps an affirmation, of our own personality quirks. A 2021 study found that voters tend to prefer candidates with personality characteristics that mirror their own. Trump’s persona is well-established and whatever his faults and flaws, many Republicans relate to it in some way—and some probably see themselves in him.
Despite his national political profile, DeSantis is less well known, and perhaps knowable. In an interview with the Wall Street Journal, Florida lobbyist Nick Iarossi says DeSantis remains undefined to a lot of Republican voters. “A lot of these early-primary-state voters know him as an effective governor, but they don’t know as much about him as an individual,” he said. It’s difficult to connect with someone who is personally opaque, and it’s even more difficult to understand their motives. Without a firmly established public persona it’s easier for weird behavior to manifest as a personality trait.
So where does this leave DeSantis? He does better with more issue-oriented Republican voters, which explains why he fares so much better among the college-educated conservatives—but that’s not enough to make up for his weaknesses elsewhere. His polling is miserable in a head-to-head matchup with Trump: the same New York Times/Siena College poll shows Trump with a massive 31-point lead over DeSantis among likely Republican primary voters.
Republican voters like Trump more as well: seventy-six percent of Republican voters say they have a favorable view of Trump compared to 66 percent who feel the same way about DeSantis. But it’s actually worse than that for DeSantis. Trump’s lead over DeSantis is even wider among Republican voters who feel very favorable (43 percent versus 25 percent, respectively). Until DeSantis can convince Republican voters that he cares about who they are, and what they have experienced, it’s tough to see how he makes much headway.
Likeability is hardly the most important consideration for voters, but it can be a tremendous asset in a campaign. Trump’s strength as a politician is not his penchant for defying norms but simply that he appears to like the people who like him; this more than anything creates the bond between Trump and his supporters. Psychologists have long known that the easiest way to get someone to you like you is to for you to like them first, a principle known as the “reciprocity of attraction.”
Simply put: it’s harder to dislike someone who feels genuine affection for you, or at least basks in your adulation. Politics is a tough profession if you don’t like people. It’s a lesson that Gov. DeSantis may end up learning the hard way.
Daniel A. Cox is the director of the Survey Center on American Life and a senior fellow in polling and public opinion at the American Enterprise Institute. He is a contributor to 538 and Insider and writes the newsletter American Storylines.