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Some Tough Love for the DeSantis Campaign

AP Photo/Josh Reynolds

My 2024 cards have always been on the table, whether you agree or disagree with my views. I believe it would be a self-destructive act for the Republican Party to nominate Donald Trump for president again, for multiple reasons, some of which I laid out in a recent post. I have not claimed Trump has no chance of winning a general election next fall; he could pull off a win under certain circumstances. What I have argued --- based on the outcomes of recent election cycles, a raft of approval and favorability polling, the repeatedly-demonstrated preferences of swing and independent voters, and mounting legal woes -- is that he would make the party's task of defeating an unpopular, stumbling incumbent much more challenging than it should be. Needlessly, and quite possibly quixotically, so. 


Conservative voters appeared to share this same instinct after the 1/6 riot, and again after the GOP's underwhelming midterm performance, in which certain types of Republicans thrived, while others were rejected. But those misgivings, which blipped in polling, were short-lived. Trump's strong policy record as president matters. It contained some downsides but was peppered with major victories. Those results shouldn't be downplayed or dismissed. But there are other factors and questions on which the bulk of the GOP base is significantly out of step with the rest of the electorate, especially as it relates to Trump's character and fitness for high office. Even if one doesn't like the fact that several crucial demographic groups have repeatedly made their negative views on Trump crystal clear, those frustrations won't alter that important dynamic. 

And even if one wants to ignore that Democrats obviously want to run against Trump again (Biden's re-election announcement video features none of his own achievements, but opens with January 6th), that doesn't change the fact that they won every single 2022 general election race in which the Republican candidate they meddled on behalf of in the primaries ended up securing the GOP nomination. They've developed a track record of picking their preferred opponents, then beating them.  A glaring exception was 2016.  For a number of reasons, including everything that has transpired over the last eight years, I don't think the 2016 dynamics will be replicated next year.  You may dissent from that view, but that's an awfully big bet to place, considering how the last episode of Trump v. Biden turned out, and given what's at stake.  Biden's awful record and deep unpopularity, plus his party's extremism, would theoretically be a game-changer this time around, but those conditions also existed in 2022. Republicans barely benefited.


For these reasons, I've been openly opposed to Trump's 2024 candidacy and have been generally supportive of the man public opinion surveys have shown to be Trump's most formidable challenger for the GOP crown: Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis.  He has been, for the most part, an excellent governor.  He's put lots of conservative wins on the board, and has done so while fending off an exceptionally antagonistic national media every step of the way.  I disagree with DeSantis on a number of issues, and truthfully, he doesn't represent my ideal sort of Republican.  But I understand that there's limited appetite for my ideal sort of Republican in the current moment, and that anyone with a prayer to topple Trump would need to command significant appeal within the hardcore-MAGA, quasi-MAGA, and non-MAGA wings of the center-right coalition. My calculation has been that DeSantis fits that bill better than anyone else in the field -- quite a few of whom I like and respect a great deal, and would vote for in a heartbeat over Joe Biden.  

In other words, while I'm not a committed DeSantis supporter, and I don't really do 'endorsements', the Florida Governor's candidacy has been of great interest to me, as a figure who seems viable in both a GOP primary setting and in a general election setting.  This was further solidified by his breathtaking victory margin in a state that's usually decided by a few points in either direction.  I've defended him against unfair attacks, and praised his record where warranted.  But as I've pointed out lately, and as is unavoidably evident at this point, his campaign is not going terribly well.  For him (or anyone else not named Trump) to succeed in this process, he'll need to consolidate the anti-Trump and 'over-Trump' factions, while also peeling off some substantial number of soft Trump supporters.  At the moment, DeSantis appears to be doing neither, and has actually lost ground on both fronts, according to multiple polls.  


It's true that it's still early, and that any number of factors and events may intervene before voters start heading to the polls early next year.  The DeSantis campaign, and others, will have opportunities to distinguish themselves, find grooves, make inroads, and mount a serious challenge against the frontrunner.  That said, Trump has once again sucked up nearly all of the political oxygen, including with a string of indictments (which Democrats celebrate on the merits, and because of the resulting rally-around-the-leader impact within the GOP electorate, and because of how they see all the swelling legal trouble playing out during the final stretch of next year's general election campaign.  It's a win/win/win, as they view it).  The Republican field has been frozen in a block of ice for weeks.  Months, really. At least in theory, and based on past races, the trajectory could still shift dramatically.  If DeSantis has any chance of forging a comeback and winning the nomination, he and his campaign will need to perform a lot better than he has been since entering the race.

I was chatting with a similarly-minded friend this week about the Trump leviathan, and DeSantis' struggles.  This person also believes another Trump nomination would be profoundly foolish, and is more explicitly pro-DeSantis than I am.  We both abhor the endless, dishonest media hit jobs against him, and are disgusted by Trumpworld's willingness to parrot leftist attacks for fleeting and short-sighted perceived political gain.  In examining DeSantis' current problems, the point was raised that he has enjoyed a long string of successes, from his Congressional run, to his gubernatorial primary triumph (somewhat thanks to Trump's help), to his upset victory in the 2018 general election, to his record of governance, the soaring of Florida's economy and population, and his incredible re-election romp.  But he also faced significant adversity along that entire path, constantly battling Democrats and a hostile 'news' media simultaneously -- and beating both.  So why does he suddenly seem to be flailing -- and even desperate, at times?


My observation in response was fairly simple: Under all the previous scenarios, DeSantis had the base unified in his corner.  Now, he does not.  Many of the voters whose support he could absolutely bank on in previous races are supporting other campaigns in this one, including and especially Trump's.  When Ron DeSantis has the red bloc behind him lock, stock, and barrel, he's proven very adept at using the politics of addition and multiplication to build winning coalitions. You don't accidentally win Florida by nearly 20 points; that's a massive achievement.  But I suspect having a splintered base, and especially a base that hasn't started to migrate in growing numbers toward his cause in the way his team hoped and expected they would, has been disorienting.  This seems to have put the DeSantis campaign's 'get to everyone's right, on everything' play (potentially negating some general election viability) into overdrive.  Others have noted that staking out very right-wing and Very Online (Twitter, specifically) stances hasn't necessarily attracted support from the intended targets -- while also alienating non-Trump Republican voters, who prize normalcy and winning.  'What is he doing?' texts from so-called normie Republicans have become more frequent, while grassroots defections from Trump evidently have not. This week's RFK, Jr. flirtation may exemplify this phenomenon more than anything I've seen thus far.


The purpose of acknowledging all of this is not to join the gleeful pile-on seen in certain predictable quarters.  The campaign understands changes are needed, and they're making some.  He's got talented and smart people around him.  But my job isn't to wish-cast or cheerlead; it's to analyze.  And this is what I'm seeing.  I'm not alone.  The Wall Street Journal's editors published a strikingly similar essay earlier.  I'd written this piece before I saw it.  Granted, running against Donald Trump in a Republican primary is really hard.  A bevy of talented politicians discovered that reality in a series of rude awakenings, starting in mid-2015.  It's even harder today, now that Trump is a former president with an even larger base of totally- or mostly-solid support.  I still believe DeSantis is the best bet for a fusionist Trump-alternative candidate who could bridge the gap between Trumpy and more traditional conservative voters.  He did so to great effect in Florida, pulling in many independents and some Democrats, to boot.  I also believe he would be a very effective, conservative president -- particularly if he were to govern like the Ron DeSantis of 2019 to late 2022.  Perhaps he should also campaign more like that man -- because whatever his campaign is doing right now (bleeding-edge right-wingery, Twitter-brain pandering, etc) just isn't working:



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