I usually talk about Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and his presidential quest in a comedic tone. But with numerous public reports that he is formally launching his presidential quest next week I wanted to shift registers and take stock of his incipient campaign.
As I’ve written before in other contexts, the most lethal danger for any politician is to become an object of humor, ridicule and contempt. A candidate can survive more easily with a reputation for being evil (see Trump) than being ridiculous. DeSantis is hovering right on the edge of the latter category if he’s not already there. He has also — largely through his own actions — created a bipartisan cast of public characters eager to keep him there.
Since “DeSantis” (the GOP donor idea rather than the uncomfortably awkward guy in Florida) was entirely a product of the theory that he could “win,” displacing Trump for the GOP nomination, his faltering support has fed upon itself. There’s no there there to anchor a campaign if he’s not the Trump Slayer. The yawning gap between the idea of DeSantis captured in press coverage in the winter of 2023 and the current reality is a key driver of the derision and mockery he’s now haplessly struggling to shake.
The Times campaign rollout piece quotes the argument DeSantis made to high dollar donors on a recent campaign call: “You have basically three people at this point that are credible in this whole thing. Biden, Trump and me. And I think of those three, two have a chance to get elected president — Biden and me, based on all the data in the swing states, which is not great for the former president and probably insurmountable because people aren’t going to change their view of him.”
This argument is pretty strong as far as it goes. But like most convincing arguments it’s convincingness is sustained largely by what it leaves out. Only one of the three has a serious chance of being the Republican nominee: Donald Trump. Which basically renders the earlier two of three calculation moot.
In early spring DeSantis trailed Trump by about a dozen points in most polls. That spread is now over 30 points. Comebacks do happen, especially from soft early cycle polls. But the bigger challenge is the structural one. Donald Trump is the leader of the GOP. He dominates the party and no one is willing to meaningfully challenge or criticize him, including DeSantis.
DeSantis is really running to be Trump’s successor, an extension of Trumpism into the future without the baggage of the man himself. But it’s very difficult to run as Trump’s successor when Trump is also running to be the successor to himself. Add to this the fact that Trump’s political skills greatly overmatch DeSantis’s and there’s little hope DeSantis can pull it off