Columnist Byron York: The pregame is over for Trump vs. DeSantis

There’s been a huge amount of commentary on former President Donald Trump’s big lead over Gov. Ron DeSantis in national polls. In the current RealClearPolitics average of polls, Trump has a 30.8-point lead — 53.2% to DeSantis’ 22.4%. That lead, while enormous, has been shrinking in the last week; on May 20, it was 36.9 points. Now, it’s six points smaller. That is something to watch in the days ahead.

But the Republican presidential nomination will not be awarded on the basis of national polls. It is, instead, a series of state contests that begins with the Iowa caucuses, moves on to the New Hampshire primary, then the South Carolina primary, then Nevada, and on from there. The early contests are incredibly important; by the time the race leaves South Carolina, the ultimate winner is usually pretty clear.

So what is the situation in Iowa? Does Trump have a huge lead there, too? Or are Iowa Republicans spreading their support among the growing field — DeSantis, Nikki Haley, Tim Scott, Mike Pence, Vivek Ramaswamy and others? A new poll from Iowa suggests the answer is the former — Trump appears to be very, very strong in the first state that will vote in 2024.

The poll, conducted May 19-22 by Emerson College Polling, found Trump with 61.7% support, followed by DeSantis with 20.1%. Pence and Haley were tied at 4.5%, with Scott at 2.1% and Ramaswamy at 2.1%.

“Trump’s lead in the caucus reflects his numbers in Emerson’s March New Hampshire primary poll, where he held a 41-point lead over DeSantis,” said Spencer Kimball, executive director of the poll, in a press release. “The former president’s base continues to be voters under 35, 75% of whom support Trump, and voters without a college degree: 70% support Trump. DeSantis’ support is higher among voters with a postgraduate degree, with 29% support, still trailing Trump’s 37% with this group.”

The short version: Trump has substantial leads in every category.

Emerson also did hypothetical head-to-head Iowa matchups between Trump and President Joe Biden and between DeSantis and Biden. Strikingly, the pollsters found that, despite the disparity in their support among Republicans, both Trump and DeSantis outpolled Biden by significant margins.

In the Trump vs. Biden matchup, Trump won 48.8% to 38.4% — a margin of slightly more than 10 points. In the DeSantis vs. Biden matchup, DeSantis won 45.2% to 37.8% — a margin of 7.4 points. The numbers suggest that, whatever the number of only-Trump voters in Iowa, both Trump and DeSantis would win a general election contest against the current president.

Where to from here? DeSantis declared his candidacy on May 24. For months prior to that, polling on the GOP race suffered from the fact that the leading candidate, Trump, had long ago declared, while the No. 2 candidate, DeSantis, had not even entered the race. Now both are official candidates and polls in the future will reflect the apples-to-apples comparison of two real campaigns.

In any event, the preliminary season of the Republican race is over. Yes, perhaps another candidate, or a few candidates, like Chris Sununu or Glenn Youngkin, might enter the race. Maybe they will have an effect. But the race has a quorum. It’s on.

The first big event of the race will be this weekend, when Iowa Republican Sen. Joni Ernst holds her big fundraiser, the “Roast and Ride,” in Des Moines. All the candidates except Trump have agreed to appear. (Trump has been invited and still might show up, although that is not clear at this point.) No one will be testing the waters anymore. It’s time to go.