ORLANDO, Fla. — Former President Donald Trump overwhelmingly won a straw poll at the country’s top conservative conference Sunday, another sign of his continued dominance of the GOP.
Trump got 59 percent of the vote in a nonscientific straw poll at the Conservative Political Action Conference, or CPAC, long considered an early measure of popularity of Republican presidential hopefuls. It's a modest improvement of about 4 percentage points since last year's CPAC Florida straw poll.
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Trump, who has stoked speculation that he will run for the White House again after his 2020 defeat bounced him from the Oval Office, consistently dominates in hypothetical Republican polls. On Sunday, a Washington Post/ABC News poll showed President Joe Biden's national approval rating slipping to 37 percent — his lowest mark ever in the survey.
“The more Biden collapses, the more voters have buyer’s remorse,” Trump pollster John McLaughlin said.
Most GOP insiders expect that the 2024 primary campaign to be more of a coronation than a contest, believing it’s unlikely that any top Republicans will challenge Trump if his numbers remain strong both within the party and in hypothetical rematches with Biden.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who consistently trails Trump in national GOP presidential surveys, came in second in the straw poll, with 28 percent support, about 7 points higher than last year. The conference was held in DeSantis' home state, where he remains popular within his party. Former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo came in a distant third, at 2 percent.
If there was any doubt that the political right's love affair with Trump remains strong, it was removed by roaring ovations during his speech here Saturday night and buried by the straw poll.
“With the numbers like they are now for Trump — where he’s winning both the nomination and the general election — it’s very hard for anyone ... to run,” McLaughlin argued, adding that he couldn’t speculate on Trump’s plans.
Another Trump adviser said the former president was likelier than ever to announce his bid for president — perhaps in early 2023 — as long as Republicans capture at least one chamber of Congress, which polls indicate is likely.
“He’s really engaged and ready. There’s absolutely nothing standing in his way in his mind,” said the adviser, who didn’t have authorization to publicly discuss Trump’s state of mind and asked to speak on condition of anonymity.
“The CPAC speech was just a warmup,” the adviser said. “He’ll be hitting the campaign trail hard. It’s technically for 2022, but 2024 is here in his mind.”
Among the states Trump plans to visit in the coming months are South Carolina, North Carolina, Nevada, Washington, Alaska, Wyoming, Alabama, Georgia and Nebraska and perhaps Wisconsin.
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Not only is Trump going to campaign for other candidates; he may also try to play kingmaker in congressional leadership elections. Already, he has said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., should be ousted, and some people at CPAC would like Trump or one of his chief House allies to take the speakership if Republicans win the House.
“It’s the worst-fitting job for him ... except like being a yoga instructor,” Matt Schlapp, the chairman of the convention and an informal adviser to Trump, said of the speculation that he could be named House speaker. “All I’m saying is if he decides to do it, I think he gets it.”
Pointing to the love for Trump at CPAC, Schlapp said, “He’s lost no traction."
Trump’s CPAC speech had more of a forward-looking, Biden-focused campaign vibe, criticizing the president’s handling of Ukraine, inflation and security at the U.S.-Mexico border. Still, Trump indulged in old grievances, including the lie that the 2020 election was stolen from him.
Trump won loud applause for saying he's "the only president of the 21st century on whose watch Russia did not invade another country."
Russia invaded Georgia during President George W. Bush's administration, Crimea during President Barack Obama's administration and Ukraine last week. Trump said Russian President Vladimir Putin felt emboldened by the botched U.S. exit from Afghanistan and that he wouldn't be deterred by financial and diplomatic sanctions.
A recent poll found that 62 percent of voters believe Putin wouldn't have invaded Ukraine if Trump had been president.
Trump lauded Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. Trump's first impeachment was over his efforts to withhold arms in return for a Ukrainian investigation into Biden and his son over a gas company deal.
Trump also played to the crowd’s desire for him run again — and its support for his lie that he was robbed in the 2020 election. “As your president,” Trump said at one point, pausing dramatically as his words were swallowed in a thunderous ovation.
He spoke like a candidate.
"We will make America powerful again," he said. "We will make America wealthy again. We will make America strong again. We will make America proud again. ... We will make America safe again. And we will make America great again."
But for all of his dominance in the GOP, Trump’s team has warily eyed DeSantis as he gains popularity in Florida, where Trump now lives.
If Trump doesn't run, DeSantis leads consistently in hypothetical polls testing a crowded field of 2024 primary opponents. When CPAC tested a Trumpless primary in its straw poll, DeSantis got 61 percent support, an improvement of 18 points since the last CPAC straw poll a year ago. Pompeo and Donald Trump Jr. tied for second, at 6 percent. Every other candidate was stuck in the low single digits.
A recent poll by the University of North Florida found that among Florida voters, DeSantis was marginally ahead of Trump by 44 percent to 31 percent in a hypothetical GOP presidential primary.
“It’s a two phenomenon in Florida,” University of North Florida pollster Michael Binder said. “DeSantis is actively doing things. He’s governing. And he’s hitting all the right social issues for the base. And there’s a slice of the Republican Party that wants more normalcy and doesn’t want to wake up to the world ending on Twitter because Trump said something insane or insulting. They want to return to a sane sense of normalcy in governance.”
That dynamic is also hurting Biden, said Binder, whose poll showed the president with low approval ratings in the state.
“Biden is not as good a communicator as Trump,” Binder said. “There’s a belief by a lot of people that he’s not up to the job. When you see him speak, and you’re rooting for him, it’s stressful. And if you’re rooting against Biden, you almost feel bad, like you’re supporting Goliath and not David.”