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Sarah Longwell: Trump vs. DeSantis

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Sarah Longwell: Trump vs. DeSantis

Sarah Longwell discusses the 2024 presidential race and its potential candidates.

Sarah is a longtime Republican political strategist who has broken with her party to defend democracy. She is the publisher of The Bulwark, and has been monitoring the opinions of voters for years by hosting weekly focus groups. She discusses these groups on her podcast, The Focus Group.

Sarah Longwell:

I think DeSantis is making a real strategic mistake in not focusing on how to try to really grab the move on from Trump crowd and focus on them and then build out into the maybe Trump crowd as opposed to trying to fight Trump for the base and out Trump, Trump. Because who wants the … what is it? The simulacrum. The version of Trump that's like, yeah, the Trump-lite when they can have the uncut, pure stuff into their veins.

Ken Harbaugh:

I'm Ken Harbaugh and this is Burn The Boats. A podcast about big decisions.

My guest today is Sarah Longwell, a longtime Republican political strategist who has broken with her party to defend democracy. She is the publisher of The Bulwark and hosts The Focus Group podcast.

Sarah, welcome back to Burn the Boats.

Sarah Longwell:

Yeah, thanks for having me.

Ken Harbaugh:

Your last focus group terrified me. I think it terrified a lot of us because it confirmed my worst fears about the Republican base, that they don't really care about facts or even democracy. They care about their tribe. Can you tell us what you heard?

Sarah Longwell:

Yeah. Look, we had been doing a focus group last Thursday when the indictment news came down. We got the news right after we walked out of the focus group and I said, you know what? We're going to need another one tomorrow because I want to know what voters are going to say about the indictment.

And I would say, we do a focus group a week and have now for several years. So, I'm able to keep a good kind of longitudinal eye on voters and there's different types of voters that we talk to.

But I would say one group that we've been talking to pretty regularly, and it's the group that we talked to right after the indictment is two-time Trump voters. So, people who voted for Trump in ‘16, people who voted for him in ‘20.

And that means there's no other screen. We're not screening for college education, for men or women, for geography. Because lots of times you put other screens on favorability, high favorability of Trump or high desire to move on from Trump.

These are just straight, we grab people who voted for them twice and we see where they are. And in this calendar year, we've done seven of those groups.

And what's interesting is that they really have been breaking for Ron DeSantis, just the straight two-time Trump voters. You just saw a lot of appetite to move on. The feeling that Donald Trump, they don't dislike him, they're not breaking with him, but they just feel like, this guy's got too much baggage. I don't think he's electable.

And so, they just said, “I think we need to move on. I really like the governor of Florida, really like this Ron DeSantis guy. And so, that's just what I've seen, most of the year.

After the indictment, I had my first group of the year of these two-time Trump voters who in a head-to-head, Donald Trump versus Ron DeSantis, they all went Trump. And they were all mad about the indictment. They said the indictment made them more likely to vote for Trump, made them more likely to give him money.

Several of them were ready to buy the mugshot t-shirt that invariably is going to follow this indictment. And I've turned it, I've seen this before. I've seen it during both impeachments and other times when sort of Trump is in their minds being persecuted. And I call it the rally around Trump effect.

And it is oftentimes short-lived. This high level of support for Trump is really about them wanting to show that they're against the people who are coming after Trump. And so, you see this sort of higher level of support for him in these moments, but it's not always the kind of thing that you can predict will automatically stick around for super long.

Ken Harbaugh:

We're in election season now, and if the operative word is temporary, it really matters how temporary, because if it's temporary through the primaries, it might as well be permanent, right?

Sarah Longwell:

Yeah. So, this is what I keep saying to people. I'm like, “Look, there's going to be a short-term effect on this. The question is how short is short-term? Is short-term two weeks, or is it the duration of a Republican primary?

And there's really two factors that go into what that short-term duration is. One is all the other indictments. So, the thing about the indictments that happens, and one of the reasons you get this effect is not just that people rally around Trump, but also that Trump sucks up all the oxygen.

So, everybody's talking about Trump all the time and in this case, what's weird, this is like a not a normal thing. Normally somebody getting indicted would be a bad thing. And their opposition, the other people vying for the same role as president would see it as an opening for an attack to say that they were the better candidate.

In this case, all of Trump's competition in the GOP primary are rushing to his defense. And so, they become supporting players in a drama at which he is the center, and they don't then find themselves making an affirmative case for themselves.

And so, if there's a lot of other indictments and this keeps happening and everybody rallies around Trump, including all the Republicans, the right wing media and his challengers, that's going to create a big problem for anybody else trying to make and affirm no case for themselves.

The other dynamic, the other thing that's really important is can any of these opponents … are they any good? We're all looking at Ron DeSantis over the last couple weeks saying, I don't know, how is this guy good enough to really take on Trump? He hasn't looked like it, his first sort of foray under the national stage, he's walked everything back or kind of flip flopped about it. He's also rushing to Trump's defense. Well, that's not the way to beat Trump.

And so, that question, that part of the dynamic is somebody should be able to turn this into a benefit for themselves, but are they good enough politically to do that? And so far we haven't seen that.

Ken Harbaugh:

I'm going to talk about the quality of those challengers in a second. But this dynamic where the Republican field is rushing to his defense, it generates not just its own momentum, but a kind of check valve from which there's no return.

How do you support Trump with this indictment? And then walk that back with the next one or the next one? I just look at how not only the Republican base, but the Republican field is rallying to his defense. And I don't see a way back from it, do you?

Sarah Longwell:

Yeah. The issue is not that they're locked in to supporting him on the further indictments because they supported him on this one. I could see a world in which they said, look, somebody's telling themselves this story.

Let's say you're Ron DeSantis and hypothetically you're telling yourself, “Look, this one is the one that everybody is going to dismiss because it's about porn stars and it's not as serious. And so, I'm going to go to bat for him on this one so I can attack him on the other ones that are more serious.” You could hypothetically see a world in which somebody tries do that.

The thing that locks them in is not having supported him once, now they have to support him again. It's that the base voters will allow no daylight on any of these things. DeSantis realizes, like when he did the thing where he was talking about the Soros-backed DA and he was hitting him, but then he kind of said, “Look, I don't know anything about porn stars,” and he takes this shot at Trump.

The base did not like that and they let Ron DeSantis know how much they didn't like it. And that's when he learned what I think is going to be a really defining conundrum for him, which is you can't go around Trump, you got to go through him.

And so, he's got to decide, how do I find a way to like not piss off this base, but still alpha Trump? And that's a really hard dynamic.

And so, I think they're really caught. They know they have to defend him probably on all of these or the base won't have it. And especially for Ron DeSantis, he's clearly decided his strategy is a base strategy. He's going to challenge Trump to take over the base of the party.

And whether that works remains to be seen, but that base has a really strong relationship with Trump.

Ken Harbaugh:

Well, if that is DeSantis’ strategy, it's not really an affirmative case for DeSantis. It's just a Trump-lite argument. The only thing he has to differentiate himself is that he won a race and Trump lost a race.

But the moment DeSantis loses a primary, or if Trump is able to undercut his claims as a winner in Florida, do you envision a scenario in which that Trump base flips to DeSantis when he's just a smaller version of Trump?

Sarah Longwell:

Well, this is why I sort of question DeSantis’ strategy of trying to sort of out Trump, Trump for the base. There is a chunk of the party that really wants to move on from Trump and they're the part of the party that cares about electability and winning.

Now, one of the things that's central to that in the psychology is that if you think electability and winning matters, it means you are willing to acknowledge that losses have happened.

The always Trumpers and the base of the party does not acknowledge that Trump lost the 2020 election. In fact, they will tell you very clearly he did not lose. And so, the people who make the electability argument have a different mindset than the ones who are all in on Trump.

And so, DeSantis should be really courting the move on folks making an electability argument. He should be gold watching Trump all day long. He should be saying, “Look, this guy's kind of pathetic.” Because Trump was in a pathetic place two months ago, three months ago. Like what is Trump's kryptonite? It is being ignored.

And he was being ignored. No one really was watching all his truths that he's sending out. And that's part of what the indictment is given him. It's given in this oxygen of he has a new grievance and he's at the center of the story.

And I think that's really thrown Ron DeSantis off, but he should be out there alpha-ing Trump right now and saying this guy can't win. But he's afraid to do that because he knows implicit in saying Trump is a loser, which is exactly what he should say, but he knows implicit in that is something that the base won’t tolerate, which is the notion that Trump lost the 2020 election. And that again, that's that vice they're in.

Ken Harbaugh:

What do your Republican friends, the ones you still have say about DeSantis and his inability to alpha Trump?

I come this as a veteran critic of him and I've taken some shots at his posing as a top gun pilot and we got the FOIA request on his fitness report as a assistant urinalysis coordinator. Do folks who know DeSantis see through the bluster like we do?

Sarah Longwell:

Here's the thing, I think I know a lot of people who know him and I think that there was a real excitement about him from a lot of these folks. I would sort of give them a hard time about DeSantis. They would be like, “Nope, DeSantis is great.”

And it's been very important for folks on the right who want to remain in a good standing in the party to have something to move on to. And they know now that that's not going to be Nikki Haley and that's not going to be Mike Pence.

And so, basically all the old kind of establishment types, they've got to like Ron DeSantis because he is the only semi, in their minds — I don't see him this way, but they see him as a compromised position between what the base wants and what their sort of normy voters will go for. And so, they think Ron DeSantis has that stuff.

Now, I've seen the same things that you have is like these people hate Trump and they hate the way Trump is attacking DeSantis, but I think they're a little nervous. I think that they bought into the same thing that everybody's bought into for so long that there's some exogenous event that's going to take Trump out.

And they thought maybe the 2022 elections did it. He's a loser. He lost every establishment Republican. That's what you hear them saying. They don't make a moral case against Trump. They don't talk about January 6th. They don't talk about the fact that he's a liar.

They just say he's a loser and he's bad for the party and they know there's this chunk that wants to move on and they hope that that's big enough. The problem is, and let me lay this out very clearly, there are move on Trumpers, there are maybe Trumpers and there are always Trumpers.

And I don't know exactly how big the size are of the always Trumpers and the move on Trumpers, but let's say they're roughly the same size and we're worried about these maybe Trumpers, both sides are trying to pull the, yeah, I could go for Trump again versus I could move on from Trump. But I like DeSantis. If I decide, I really like him.

Well, those maybe Trumpers, they have a deep relationship with Trump. Good, bad, ugly, they know who this guy is. They have a very shallow relationship with DeSantis. They like DeSantis, they like what he's done in Florida, like watching him yell at kids in masks. They like watching him fight with Disney, call people groomers, whatever.

But then when they see him falter or not look so sure of himself or not jump to Trump's defense because the Venn diagram of people who like Trump and like DeSantis is almost a perfect circle. There's some people on either edge, but they like both these people.

And Trump has the built-in ability and it's baked in that he's going to be nasty in this competition. He's going to go hard. People are sort of used to that.

With DeSantis, they’re seeing that for the first time. And for people who might go for DeSantis, Trump is now defining DeSantis as a rhino establishment, globalist cock that you can't trust. I'm starting to hear that filter in to the way that some of these voters talk about DeSantis.

They'll be like, “Yeah, I like DeSantis, but I'm not sure. He seems kind of like swampy, maybe a little establishment.” And that was what I was hearing from this group right after the indictment that all went for Trump is that they just weren't sure they could trust DeSantis

And so, because their relationship with DeSantis is shallow, Trump has the opportunity to define it for a lot of voters who know him super well and sort of trust him generally.

And so, I think that's what's happening. I think DeSantis is making a real strategic mistake in not focusing on how to try to really grab the move on from Trump crowd and focus on them and then build out into the maybe Trump crowd as opposed to trying to fight Trump for the base and out Trump, Trump.

Because who wants the … what is it? The simulacrum. The version of Trump that's like, yeah, the Trump-lite, when they can have the uncut pure stuff into their veins.

Ken Harbaugh:

Can you give us your best guess as to the percentage of the Republican party that the ride or die Trumpers comprise? Because that number is going to be really important as a floor for Trump in the primaries. If it's off by a few percent, I would venture to say if it's in the low 20s, most candidates would kill at this point to have that as their ceiling and Trump has it as his floor, right?

Sarah Longwell:

I think that's exactly right. And so, I did an episode of The Focus Group pod with Whit Ayres, and he's a GOP pollster and he and I did a poll together, we commissioned him to do a poll. And I wanted to ask a question I hadn't seen anybody else ask, which was if Trump runs as an independent, let's say it's DeSantis and Biden and Trump loses the primary, he runs as an independent, how many Republican voters would vote for him as an independent candidate?

And the number was 28%. Now I think that's high. I think that's probably high. But it is pre-consistent when you're looking at all the polling, even in places in polls, and you're not seeing this as much now, but a few months back you were seeing a fair number of polls coming out that showed DeSantis leading Trump, but Trump always had 30 some percent.

And that shows you that there's this about 30% that is just for Trump and is going to be for Trump. And so, I've been sort of thinking about it as a 30/30/30 proposition. There's 30% of always Trumpers, 30% of move on from Trumpers, 30% of maybe Trumpers and like 10% of never Trumpers.

That's what makes up the percentage that is like Nikki Haley's 4% and Mike Pence’s 5% or whatever and could include maybe people like me, although I would say I'm more of just a renegade independent these days. I'll basically help anyone who's pro-democracy and the appetite for that on the right has gotten smaller and smaller.

Ken Harbaugh:

Thank you.

Sarah Longwell:

Anyway, so that's how I think about it. And I think that DeSantis, the way that he approached Ukraine, and the way that he's been approaching the race so far really seems like his goal is to fight Trump for his diehard 30%. And strategically, I think he's making a mistake.

Ken Harbaugh:

Among the other contenders, which of them are seriously gunning for the presidency and which are just spoilers looking to get on the shortlist for VP? And that mix is important as well because I see the foreboding of a repeat of 2016 where you had this large field full of prideful people, none of whom would put the party much less the country first and Trump won with a plurality, but not a majority of the votes.

Sarah Longwell:

Yeah. So, right now the only announced candidates besides Trump are Nikki Haley and Asa Hutchinson. And Nikki I think she has always wanted to be president. I think she genuinely is getting in.

But I also think that Nikki Haley, you could see a scenario where Trump and DeSantis are kind of splitting things in Iowa and New Hampshire and let's say she does okay in New Hampshire, again, she gets like a gentle womanly 9% and now they're rolling into her home state, in South Carolina.

And you could see there's two weeks between the New Hampshire primary and the South Carolina primary if it stays the same in terms of the calendar. And you could see a scenario in which she says, “Alright, we're about to go into my home state. I bet I pull 15% there. Why don't you cut me a deal? I'll drop out and endorse you and you make me vice president.”

You could see that being on her mind. Now the thing is will Tim Scott get in also a native son of South Carolina?

And so, then there's somebody like Pence who I genuinely think also thought he maybe had a chance that there's like this world in which … there's this old conventional way of thinking, well, vice presidents, there's a chunk of voters out there for him.

There is no chunk of voters out there for Mike Pence. We ask about Mike Pence in the focus groups all the time, and he is in such a sour spot with voters.

Ken Harbaugh:

I saw that Atlantic article. It's not just indifference. They really don't like the guy.

Sarah Longwell:

Yeah. So, Nikki Haley, so the voters don't want to vote for her for president. She doesn't have a lot of support, but they like her fine. They're not offended by Nikki Haley, they just think she's establishment, she's from before the before times.

And that's actually sort of a critical point. The voters now have a sense of whose identity was forged before Trump. Like Nikki Haley, Mike Pence, Mike Pompeo, and they're from the before times and voters don't like people from the before times.

They like people who are America Firsters whose identities were forged in the Trump era. And so, a DeSantis, even a Youngkin, I think ultimately has sort of a better shot with some voters than Nikki Haley or Mike Pence or people for whom people see them as that's part of the old guard, the establishment. Because they really hate that.

But people hate Mike Pence. And Nikki Haley, she's a fine human, but they don't see her as having a real future.

And then I think what's interesting as the race shapes up is that this'll be the first time where I think some people are making a pitch that's a little less about lanes and a little more about a way to see specific opportunities.

So, if I'm Chris Christie, I just always think what's Chris Christie's pitch in a room to donors? And I bet this is it, I'm making this up. I have no inside knowledge of this, but this is what I imagine he's doing. He's going into donors and he's saying, “You want DeSantis to be the guy, but DeSantis can't attack Trump straight out. And so, somebody's got to go in there and go after Trump like a pit bull. And I can do that. I'm built for that. Give me money, stand up my campaign.”

And I read one time, Chris Christie said — I'll never forget it, he did this thing, I can't remember if he wrote it in his book. And I just read an excerpt because I obviously didn't read his book, but he said like, “One day you're governor and everybody's talking to you and your phone rings all the time and you got a million things to do.”

He is like, “And then you go through the transfer of power, you hand it over to the person who won the election, you go home, secret service leaves and the music stops.”

And you could just tell that is his hell, he can't live like that. He needs to live in a world where the media wants to know what he thinks about things and he has a role to play.

I don't think he's trying to win the presidency. I think he's trying to find a role for himself that's relevant. And that gives him the opportunity to be in the spotlight during this election season.

But then there's other people, I think Mike Pence may very well not run. I think Mike Pompeo may very well not run, in part because I think that as they take a closer look at what base voters want, they realize like they can't give that to them.

Mike Pompeo cannot give base voters what they want on Ukraine because he genuinely, actually thinks it's in America's vital national interest to help Ukraine. He probably thinks we're morally obligated to do it as well as just strategically. And he can't do what Ron DeSantis seems like he can try to do, which is to call it a territorial skirmish.

Ken Harbaugh:

Yeah. You recently had this to say about all three of them, Mike Pence, Mike Pompeo and Chris Christie. You said, no one is really asking any of those guys to run, but they don't have anything better to do.

And this question is a little off topic, but I'm always fascinated by the psychology of those at the top of the political hierarchy. And we just had this conversation with Tim Ryan about the desire, the passion of those running who can’t imagine themselves doing anything else.

And it's almost as if the ones who won it most, the Mike Pompeos and the Mike Pences and the Chris Christies, Lindsey Graham is a great example of this, Ted Cruz is a great example of this. The ones who desire power the most are least deserving of it.

In your years in Republican politics, does that bear out?

Sarah Longwell:

Yeah. Look, I don't know, you sort of have to be a narcissistic psychopath to run for president. You just do. To think I should run the free world, you got to have a deep belief in yourself that just yeah, borders on narcissistic.

So, I actually don't fault people. I think you probably need some of that. You need to have the confidence, you need to have the belief to go through all that, that like, no, I am the best person for this job. I should be doing this.

And I think that that's okay. I think it's okay for there to be somebody who has a deep drive and a deep sense that they should lead the free world, you have to have it to run for president.

But there's a craven version of that. There's an amoral part of that. The people who do it for, I think better reasons than others are people who have a worldview that they think that they're committed to and a moral sense of how things ought to operate. Or they've developed a deep policy expertise and they want to do that.

Or they genuinely want that, better lives for people and they're the ones that can give it to them. My point is I guess that like everybody who does this is probably a narcissist on some level. They're not the most humble person.

But at the same time there are people who do it with good impulses. And then there's people who do it I think just for pure power reasons, and I think people who do it for pure power reasons are the scariest.

This is always what scared me about Donald Trump is like, you want to know that there are things that they won't do. That there's lines that they won't cross, that they're in it for reasons, even if it is like sort of about them that at the end of the day what they want is to help people or to make people's lives better.

And I think that genuinely, you could see Mike Pence sort of being in that boat, Nikki Haley being in that boat.

But Peggy Noonan had this line about Ron DeSantis in her column where she said, you get the sense that he's the kind of person who would unplug your life support machine to charge his phone.

And I just thought that was so perfect because I think that one of the things … Trump is obviously an amoral or immoral person, but you get that sense from Ron DeSantis too, that it is craven, that it's just about power.

And when you see people do the big personality switches so that they can run for president, this isn't who Ron DeSantis was, the things that are going to hurt Ron DeSantis is like the fact that he said George H.W. Bush was one of his heroes.

But Ron DeSantis has decided that power is worth totally changing who he is and what he focuses on. And that always freaks me out. You want people like that to be nowhere close to power.

Ken Harbaugh:

I think that's right. And I think your observation about good narcissism versus bad narcissism is probably right. But for me, the better character test is how these people behave out of power.

And I'm thinking about someone like Tim Ryan who's coaching his kids' little league team or Jason Kander versus the Pompeos and the Pences of the world whose only thought is how do I get back in? And I just see a window into character in that time out of power.

Sarah Longwell:

I think that's right. I think probably saying everyone who tries to run for president is a narcissistic sociopath, that's probably wrong. It's probably unfair.

You ever just test yourself? You're like, “Could I run for president?” And like, “How would I do that?” You'd be played with self-doubt and like Obama, “I'm a one-term senator, I can go do this.” And that's an incredible amount of self-confidence. Congrats to people who have that self-confidence.

Ken Harbaugh:

Yeah, I certainly don't, I couldn't pull off a congressional run, so it's not in the cards for me, but I understand what you're saying about what it takes. There's a famous book with that title. I don't know if you've read it.

Sarah Longwell:

No.

Ken Harbaugh:

It requires writing Christmas cards to 30,000 people and believing you can lead the free world at the same time, which most of us don't have.

You mentioned Trump potentially running as an independent. On the other side, we have no labels and other third-party efforts. How do you see that factoring in in 2024? Because that terrifies me almost as much as your last focus group.

Sarah Longwell:

Yeah. The no label stuff is nuts. And I could see a world where — and I've had this fight, I had Andrew Yang because he was doing that forward party stuff and I've had him on my podcast to kind of argue about this idea.

And I think that the big flaw in their thing, I don't know if you've seen. No Labels has this like launch ad that's three minutes long and it's like, well, we are going to provide an insurance policy, so that a third-party candidate could run if we have two unacceptable options. And then they show Trump and then they show AOC and Bernie Sanders. And I was like-

Ken Harbaugh:

Right. They’re missing one.

Sarah Longwell:

Neither of those are the incumbent president who is Joe Biden, who is not the socialist. And I do see a world in which, if Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump were your options that you could start to talk me in potentially to the idea that there's this mythical third-party person, although this is the other thing about all these third-party gambits is they live on a wing and a prayer.

It matters who the people are. Who's your standard bearer? Who's this person? Because the person is going to make a ton of difference. If you've got Oprah, let's talk.

But if you've got Joe Manchin, you just have a spoiler candidate who's going to get 16%, maybe not even, and it will reelect Trump.

I sort of ran this down. Part of the reason I don't love it is I looked a lot at this when I thought it might be Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump last time, and Justin Amash was out there talking about it.

But any of the polling shows you, it pulls from the Dems or it pulls from moderate soft Rs or right-leaning independents who find MAGA unacceptable. And it just gives them an out not to vote for a Democrat. Because they don't tribally feel like Democrats.

But having the ability to say Joe Biden is acceptable in the face of the MAGA threat was really important for a lot of those soft Rs. They voted for Joe Biden. That's the work that I did, that was Republican voters against Trump, was to help build the permission structure for these Republican voters to say that I can vote for Joe Biden.

And yeah, if they went third-party that was better than them voting for Trump actually. So, fine. But like not if you have somebody who's going to pull 16% and is probably going to pull it from sort of moderate Ds.

Ken Harbaugh:

Is that the only thing that could all but guarantee a Trump win? Because right now his unfavorables with the general electorate are just so high and they're not going to move much.

You had this quote, I think it was from your last focus group, that the gap between what GOP base voters demand and what swing voters will tolerate, grows wider every day. That seems to predict a doomed general election outcome for Trump. Unless there's a third-party spoiler.

Sarah Longwell:

No, I think that Trump can win. I think Trump can win straight up. And I think there's a bunch of exogenous events that could put us there. I am like a lot of people super nervous about Joe Biden's age, and part of it is that Joe Biden doesn't have to die just to be real. And is going to be 82 as he's running.

But if he gets sick where he has to have surgery and Kamala Harris becomes the president for a while and takes over, that creates an entirely different dynamic. Especially let's say if we're in a big recession and we're in a tough economic environment.

It's true, I believe this, I think that one of the big conundrums facing the Republican party, and you really saw this play out in 2022, is that what the base demands are these, like you have to be an election denier and abortion bans and just really extreme to get the base to support, you swing voters don't like those people.

We just saw that happen in the midterms. We saw it happen in 2020, and I think it's true again in 2024, but I also just, man, you don't want to roll the dice on that. There are so many dynamics that could change between now and then.

And a reelection of Donald Trump is a catastrophic level event for our democracy, and you want to do everything you can to stop him. Now look, I don't like DeSantis one bit, but I will happily support DeSantis in a Republican primary over Donald Trump.

I bet a lot of people won't agree with me on that. There's this whole thing out there about how DeSantis is more dangerous than Trump.

But I would just ask those people, go through it for a second in your head, what's the second term of Trump look like? What does it look like? What does it look like to live in a country that has affirmatively elected somebody who tried to coup the last time? What does that say about us? Where will we be if that happens?

Trump will wage a campaign of retribution. Like I understand for Democrats who don't like Republican policies and see those as very threatening, that they'll be like, oh, well DeSantis will be better at implementing that.

But Donald Trump is outside the Democratic order, completely outside the democratic order. And I'm not saying Ron DeSantis isn't behaving like in a liberal or … figure right now. But I think that there is a meaningful and clear difference between what a first term of Ron DeSantis would look like and a second term of Donald Trump in terms of its threat level.

Ken Harbaugh:

Yeah, I'm not sure I'm with you on that. I might be, because I think you're right that Trump is so outside the norms of American politics that he’s willing to burn everything to the ground, but in a lot of ways DeSantis is more capable. And that scares me a lot.

You've talked about exogenous events and what might happen on the Democratic side. It seems like the exogenous event in the Republican party that everyone is hoping for, but no one is willing to give voice to. And you started it by talking about Joe Biden, so I'll take the next step and say that there are a lot of Republicans who are just hoping Trump dies. Am I wrong?

Sarah Longwell:

No. They certainly hope he goes away one way or another. And if they think that's their only way out, the amount of relief that would exist on the Republican side if Donald Trump disappeared tomorrow is incalculable both because there's a whole bunch of people now who want his mantle, who want to be the heir apparent to Trumpism.

And this is again — I'm sorry, I'll really push back on this idea that DeSantis, just because he's more capable of executing legislation is more dangerous.

So, it was interesting to me when Ron DeSantis came out and called Ukraine a territorial skirmish, big push back from elected Republicans. They all push back against him. Why? Why DeSantis? They never do that with Trump.

Trump carries a real menace. He has the level of support, the fervor of the people who support him, a percentage of them. Those people are super scary and Trump can wield them like he did on January 6th.

Nobody has that relationship with Ron DeSantis. He's not turning out a militia on his behalf. Donald Trump is, and Donald Trump would, and the reason that so many Republicans would be so relieved is that they are very afraid of Donald Trump's base and how bucking him puts a target on their back.

I saw these quotes all over the place in terms of people not being willing to vote for impeachment. People would say things like, “I have young kids, I can't do it.” What did they mean? They meant, I'm afraid of Trump's base voters coming after me. Nobody feels that way about Ron DeSantis.

One of the reasons that I think folks on the right see Trump as more dangerous than DeSantis is that for the left, they’ve always thought that the Republicans are a threat and they really hate the policies and stuff.

I think if you're on the right and you defected, you felt the intensity of the hatred for people who called you a rhino. And the extent of your hate mail and other kinds of threats. You ask Liz Cheney what it's like, you ask Adam Kinzinger what it's like.

And that threat, that menace that Donald Trump brings is one of the scariest things I've ever seen in politics. We don't talk about it enough about how menaced people feel and genuinely afraid to sort of buck his base. And so, yeah, that's why they want him gone more than anybody else.

Ken Harbaugh:

Yeah. That's a convincing argument. And you might be right. I cannot see anybody following DeSantis in the same way and willing to pull a trigger for him. Well, I can see some people, but not malicious worth of people like Trump has been able to rally.

I had a similar conversation with a Republican member of Congress in the run up to the impeachment, and that was this member of Congress's biggest fear, his family. At one point a group of police had to escort his family off of a plane because people were waiting for him at the airport. Just terrifying stuff.

To say nothing of marginalized groups that have been targeted by Trump's ire, I'm thinking about this just insane attack on trans communities and LGBTQ+ communities. It is always a game of othering with Donald Trump. That's how he rallies that ride or die base. He finds people to scapegoat and target.

Sarah Longwell:

Yeah. Although with Trump, this is where I would say actually Trump did more when it came to Mexicans and other ethnic groups and Muslims. Yeah, Trump was very good at othering. I would say actually, the LGBT community, so I used to be the head of the board chair of the law cabinet Republicans and I resigned when I didn't want to endorse Trump. And the organization didn’t want to endorse Trump.

But one of the reasons they wanted to endorse him so badly is they saw him as very pro LGBT. He told Caitlyn Jenner she could use whatever bathroom.

Ron DeSantis has turned the trans issue and even LGBT people, he's turned them much more into fodder for political advantage in a way that actually Trump really didn't.

One of the things about Trump, then, people forget this, but in 2016 this happened a lot, people saw Trump as a cultural moderate. He's this limousine liberal. At one point he was holding up a flag. And so, people did not see him as a big sort of social conservative like they did with like a Mike Pence or somebody else.

And actually that helped him, I think because a lot of those white working class voters are secular and culturally moderate. And those Obama Trump voters, they saw him as just yeah, somebody who wasn't a big social conservative.

And so, it's really been the DeSantis play and Trump's picked up on the trans stuff. It's been DeSantis and then also like right wing infotainment media has just made the trans issue so central to what they're talking about that I think Trump is actually kind of leading from behind on that one. But that is a fixation of the entire sort of right wing culture war apparatus.

And that's because, I think I see this a lot. If your side does a coup, what's worse? There's so few things that are worse than a coup. So, what do you have to do? Well, you have to say that the other side are pedophiles. They're groomers. They're pedophiles because there's not that much that's worse. Pedophiles’ the worst thing, they have to go there because they're the team that did the coup.

And so, I just don't think that one's as specific to Trump, but I do think it is now very dominant as part of the culture war that defines sort of the right.

Ken Harbaugh:

Does the extremism of that rhetoric suggest that the fever has to break sometime soon? And I'll draw your logic out. You have a coup. How do you top that while you accuse the opposition of being pedophiles, add Satanism and communist to that. You can't really go that much further.

I don't know what else — how do you ratchet up even further and at some point the body politic, the average voter has to say, that's ridiculous. I don't want to be associated with that. You're not going to get maybe that 28% of ride or dies, but I don't see the long game. Do you?

Sarah Longwell:

Well, so I did this episode on woke with Jane Coaston, what does woke mean, for the Focus Group pod. And we asked voters about what they thought woke meant. And what's interesting about the way that the right is sort of fighting these culture wars and using words like woke or politically correct is that there's a normy version of it where parents say things like, “Well, I should have a say in what my kid learns in school. And I don't like all of the gender stuff for kindergartners.”

And so, there's a part where like it's a broad population of people. It's a winning majority coalition that does not like the idea of kindergartners learning about gender identity. And so, that can fall under woke. But then also bans against any drag queen also would fall under that.

And so, that’s I think the problem is there's places where some of the woke conversation is actually where the majority of Americans are. The majority of Americans don't think people who were born biologically male should play women's sports. Whether you like that or not, that's like a majority proposition that is not seen as extreme. And in fact it is the left that is seen as extreme on that issue. And so, by a majority of Americans.

And that's why the right hits it so hard because they know that they're really extreme and so they're trying to find places where they can get the majority of people back on their side. And that's one of those sort of majority issues.

Ron DeSantis pushed that stuff down in Florida because it was broadly very popular and that's why it's being adopted is people see it as a winning issue.

But then there's also like the very extreme version of these that doesn't have broad popular support. And so, that is what's complicated about that conversation.

Ken Harbaugh:

How often do you get young people or Gen Z in particular into your focus groups? I'm actually interested in some of the methodology because, well, I'm just looking at my parents who belong to this category of former Trump voters who have seen the light and said we're never going back to that.

And then I see the results of your latest focus group in which everyone has flowed back to Trump. I'm just wondering where you get them from and how assured we should be that they're representative of what's happening in the larger party.

Sarah Longwell:

Yeah. So, you should definitely not be confident that any single group is representative. So, the reason that I do a group a week is so that I can get this longitudinal vision. Because you get outlier groups all the time. I have weird stuff happen in groups all the time.

The thing about qualitative is that you'll get somebody super dominant in one of the groups who has a really strong opinion and you can see that person sort of pulling people in their direction. And you can sort of see the dynamics playing out and you can see the person who might have been saying something contrary, but the group is now with the dominant person and so they're not really speaking up and you try to pull it out of them. You try to really give people a safe space to say like, you don't have to agree with the people on here, but you're all like-minded. You all voted for Trump.

And I would say actually most of the time people look like they're being pretty honest. They're saying what they truly believe, they're on Zoom, they're never going to see these people again. Usually they can do it.

But you do see the sort of group dynamics play out. Now those group things, they'll also play out in the real world. That dominant person is probably the person who talks the most at his office about politics and is convincing somebody who cares and follows politics a lot less that his position is correct.

And so, it's all interesting to see. So, one of the things I keep telling reporters and everybody, they all want to know. People are desperate to understand how this indictment might affect politics and because I've done so many groups, it didn't surprise me to see a full group endorse Trump after the indictment because I've now done focus groups with these types of voters through multiple impeachments.

And other times when I was like, oh, this is that effect, this is that effect. But I also try to say to them it's just one group. You got to see whether or not it sticks around.

The first time that I had a group where the entire group didn't want Trump to run again in 2024 was also a big surprise for me. I was like (this was right around the January 6th hearings), “We’ve never had a group where nobody said they wanted Trump to run again in 2024.”

And during the January 6th hearings, we had three where zero people wanted him to run again. And I was like, “Okay, what's happening here?”

And you could tell, because we did nine, we didn't just do one group, we did nine of them during that period that two things were happening. One, they weren't watching the January 6th hearings and being persuaded by them.

But the January 6th hearings were reminding them of all of Trump's baggage. And so, they were saying, I think Trump has a lot of baggage and I think maybe we should find somebody new. And it was coinciding with the DeSantis boomlet.

So, now they had somebody to move on too. And so, now suddenly you saw a dynamic in which a bunch of people were like, I think maybe we should move on from Trump. So, that was new, but I wasn't convinced it was sticking around until I'd seen a bunch of them.

And obviously now we're in a new dynamic and I see how it changes. And so, I don't use the focus groups as predictive. I use them to understand one, how you persuade the persuadable. Two, understand what voters are saying. It keeps me from playing fantasy politics.

So, there's a lot of people in DC who just talk to other people in DC or maybe they call the politicos in the States or whatever. And so, they all get convinced of their own same thing. And I have found that listening to voters, because I had this revelation when I started doing the qualitative work years ago, I didn't understand how Trump had happened.

I was spending all my time at conservative think tanks and with Republican donors and business people. And they didn't seem like the kinds of people who would elect Donald Trump.

And then I was like, well, maybe I should talk to more voters because it's just plain as day why they voted for Trump, what they liked about him, how frustrated they were with establishment Republicans, how much they didn't care about limited governments, free markets, and American leadership in the world, and all the things that brought me to the Republican party. They didn't care about any of that.

And so, doing the focus groups is more about staying grounded, setting strategy, thinking about persuasion. And I just try to tell the truth about both their limitations and what I'm seeing in them.

But there's just an enormous media appetite for information in these fluctuating moments. And so, you get a group where everybody goes to Trump, you got to tell people about it.

Ken Harbaugh:

Yeah. Does your requirement for Trump voters automatically exclude a huge swath of young people? And I'm not saying because they're not likely to be Trump voters, but they have to have voted three years in-

Sarah Longwell:

Yeah. You’re right.

Ken Harbaugh:

How does that blind spot affect your thinking?

Sarah Longwell:

Well, so I don't just do two-time Trump voters, so I would say that's a category of people I do. But we do all kinds. So, sometimes we'll split groups up, we'll do … alright, we're just going to do college, college educated voters, then we're going to just do non-college. We're just going to do women; we're just going to do men. We're just going to do swing voters. We're just going to do young voters.

And we'll constantly be looking for different pockets to understand — I've been doing just general two-time Trump voters, because I'm trying to understand the dynamic right now of people wanting to move on from Trump versus people being devoted to Trump.

That's for me, the most important thing. And I'm also doing it because my strategy right now, I'm thinking about strategically how do you beat Trump in a Republican primary?

And so, I need to understand from people who voted for him twice, but who wouldn't vote for him again, how would you persuade them? What are the things that are persuasive to them?

But there's a bunch of other groups that we talk to in the course of this where you have to screen for them specifically. And that's what we do. You work with a focus group company and they have lists and you're like, okay, I just want people who have high favorability of Trump under the age of 30.

And then you talk to that group and you get a sense for what that specific group is like and how they talk. Because it will be different from people who are in their 60s and 70s.

Ken Harbaugh:

Yeah. Well, I'm focusing on young people right now having witnessed what we just saw in Wisconsin with this Supreme Court election and that incredible turnout, that outpouring from young people who typically don't vote in elections like that.

Not to mention the Tennessee protests. It's just incredibly inspiring. And if we can hold out long enough, I think that generation might save us. That's an unfair burden to put on them. But at some point I would love for you to dive into what's driving them.

Sarah Longwell:

Yeah, I do the young groups, but maybe we can talk about that sometime.

Ken Harbaugh:

Awesome. Alright, thanks Sarah so much. It's been great having you.

Sarah Longwell:

Thanks for having me.

Ken Harbaugh:

Thanks again to Sarah for joining me. Make sure to check out her podcast, The Focus Group.

Thanks for listening to Burn the Boats. If you have any feedback, please email the team at [email protected]. We're always looking to improve the show.

For updates and more, follow us on Twitter @Team_Harbaugh. And if you enjoyed this episode, don't forget to rate and review.

Burn the Boats is a production of Evergreen Podcasts. Our producer is Declan Rohrs and Sean Rule-Hoffman is our audio engineer. Special thanks to Evergreen executive producers Joan Andrews, Michael DeAloia and David Moss.

I'm Ken Harbaugh and this is Burn the Boats, a podcast about big decisions.


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