He coulda been somebody. He coulda been a contender.
I once had high aspirations for Ron DeSantis. But those of us who were hoping he’d be an instrument to stop Donald Trump from winning a third Republican presidential nomination look to be out of luck, as the promise of DeSantis recedes with the summer of 2023.
A recent CNN/University of New Hampshire poll, for example, shows DeSantis plummeting 13 points since their last survey in July, putting him at just 10 percent in the “first in the nation” primary.
Even more troubling, DeSantis ranks behind not just Trump, but also behind Vivek Ramaswamy, Nikki Haley, and Chris Christie, albeit narrowly.
“The campaign for Ron DeSantis is on life support,” veteran New Hampshire GOP strategist Mike Dennehy told Politico. It is a far cry from early expectations.
Meanwhile, DeSantis’ poor performance in the presidential primary has begun to erode his once-powerful sway in Florida. “You don’t get the assumption they are measuring drapes anymore—they are waiting for him to drop out,” a veteran Florida GOP consultant said.
This is to say, DeSantis risks more than just losing this primary—he risks becoming an embarrassment to the party, which will tarnish his political future.
So how did we get here?
DeSantis’ electoral boomlet began with his early lifting of COVID-19 restrictions in Florida back in 2020, but voters are moving on from the topic (even if DeSantis is clinging to it).
Times change and politicians can be the victims of their own success. It’s hard to fault DeSantis for that, though you can’t say the same about his other self-inflicted wounds.
There was a clear and obvious path for DeSantis to follow.
The way to beat Trump, I argued last July, was by “assembling a coalition of (a) former Trumpers who believe it’s time to move on to a younger and less chaotic pugilist who actually wins his fights, and (b) Reagan conservatives who never liked Trump.”
DeSantis never tried to assemble this posse. Instead, he focused on exciting highly educated and very online right-wingers who were seeking a strongman.
This strategy was fraught, but it had its own subset of cheerleaders. “What the Republican electorate wants,” declared Newsmax host Benny Johnson, “is a strong executive who utilizes and wields power over his enemies. And then destroys his enemies and makes them grovel, makes molten salty tears flow from their faces—as Ron DeSantis did with Disney.”
(Spoiler: This was not what the Republican electorate wanted.)
At first, though, this strategy must have seemed attractive to DeSantis, who clearly harbors some authoritarian tendencies and who, after all, won his reelection by almost 20 points by doing things his way.
Based on his own impressive re-election victory in Florida (formerly a swing state that has proven to be politically unique), DeSantis learned the wrong lessons from the 2022 midterms. Once again, he was the victim of his own success.
What was the real message the nation sent in 2022?
Traditional Republicans like Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp and New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu coasted to victory, while MAGA Republicans like Herschel Walker and Don Bolduc went down in defeat.
DeSantis never even tried to be a “normal” Republican, and he never tried to woo people like me back into his coalition. Instead, he chose to flip-flop on things like support for Ukraine (ostensibly to please Tucker Carlson) and to cover for Trump instead of attacking him over his indictments.
Before he even officially announced his candidacy, it became obvious that DeSantis was doomed. And when he finally announced, he chose to do so alongside Elon Musk.
While the announcement on Twitter Spaces was a logistical disaster, the venue highlighted the fact that DeSantis was very online, which is to say he was too online.
DeSantis threw around terms like “the narrative,” “Bitcoin,” “ESGs,” “debanking,” and “elite cabals.”
He also made other miscalculations based on the assumption that what worked for him in the past would translate to national success. His heavy-handed approach to Florida media, for example, allowed him to micromanage his image, but it also deprived him from making mistakes on a smaller stage and developing interpersonal skills.
It’s impossible to know whether a well-run DeSantis campaign would have resulted in a different outcome for the Florida governor. It could very well be that he simply lacks the charisma necessary to succeed at this level. Or it could be that the moment Donald Trump was indicted, the die was cast, and Republicans were destined to circle the wagons.
We will never know what might have been had DeSantis done the obvious things that might have allowed him to achieve his full potential.
Instead of running as the sane Trump, Ron DeSantis went all-in on a psychotic “too online” campaign, embraced culture war BS that maybe 10 percent of the country cares about, and never put any effort into retail campaigning until it was too late.
Otherwise, Ron, it has been a flawless campaign.