In the eight years since Donald Trump launched his campaign for president in 2015, Republican opposition to the former president has proven just a tad less than resilient. Whether far-right Florida governor Ron DeSantis can be different is the defining question for the 2024 presidential election. After announcing his campaign for the presidency in a Twitter stream consumed by technical glitches, Ron DeSantis hit the ground running in Iowa earlier this week with a litany of events across the state. Republican party elites and conservatives tired of Trump’s antics and electoral records have elevated DeSantis as an ideal alternative. He’s a well-educated governor who, in a former purple state, has dominated recent elections and passed extremist MAGA policy reforms with ease.
Yet so far, DeSantis appears to be a weaker contender than Trump could have possibly dreamed of. According to 538’s polling average, DeSantis is craning his neck upwards at over a 30-point polling deficit to Trump. Because DeSantis’s support stands in the low 20s and there’s yet to arise a 3rd viable alternative behind him, 538 notes that someone in his polling position would have about a 1/3rd chance of winning historically. But even this number is likely too optimistic for the Florida governor, who suffers from a combination of poor political acumen and a woeful lack of marketable appeal as a candidate.
While Trump would be an imposing opponent for any Republican politician, DeSantis has especially struggled to figure out an effective gameplan against him. Inexplicably, when Trump announced his 2024 candidacy in mid-November of 2022, DeSantis cautiously bided his time. As a result, several other Republicans entered the race, undermining DeSantis’ claim to be the only plausible alternative to Trump. On the flip side, Trump was able to dominate the news cycle for months on end and soared in the polls against DeSantis.
DeSantis’ hesitancy to embrace the fight against Trump spilled into an overall strategy of general appeasement. While Trump was, per usual, thrashing DeSantis on Truth Social and spitballing new nicknames like “Meatball Ron” and “Ron Desanctimonious” to mock the Florida governor, DeSantis waited until only recently to attack Trump by name. It’s unclear what endgame DeSantis envisioned from this strategy in the long term (possibly he was simply unsuccessfully attempting to buy time).
DeSantis’ minimal offensive strategy attempts to outflank Trump to the right by positioning the governor as a more effective and pure MAGA option. The DeSantis campaign has slammed Trump’s support for the COVID vaccine, described him as “left-wing,” and emphasized the government’s extremist anti-LGBTQ and abortion policies in Florida. To say nothing of how poorly this extremist posturing might play for a general electorate still furious over the Dobbs ruling, Republican primary voters haven’t bought into DeSantis’ pitch either. Trump’s history has repeatedly demonstrated the extent to which voters often prioritize image and vibes over policy, and indeed evidence suggests that Trump dominates DeSantis most of all among the most conservative Republican voters.
For DeSantis, the vibes are all off. Trump enthralled supporters through his natural television charisma, popular cultural image, and allusions to moderate policy. DeSantis has been slammed in the media as a poor imitation of Trump, who struggles significantly with retail politics and likability. And if the governor's wonkish background was supposed to be an asset with suburban voters, in reality, observers have described his campaign as too chronically online and mired in niche culture war issues to win over most Republican voters. While Florida's glowing red hue may have favorably shielded DeSantis from deeper criticism in the past, on the national stage, there's nowhere to hide, and DeSantis has crumpled in the limelight.
DeSantis’ best hope to find a way back in the race rests on whether Trump can stay afloat legally. Trump has already been federally indicted in New York and now faces increasing legal challenges across the country. In the immediate term, a Florida grand jury is meeting this week in the investigation into Trump's use of stolen documents. However, possibly the most severe legal Trump faces concerns his attempts to overturn the 2020 election in Georgia. If Trump is sent to federal prison, 2024 could look very different for Ron DeSantis. But his flaws as a candidate should cast significant doubt on his ability to overtake a crowded primary field and President Biden.
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