I’m going to take a wild guess and say that Gov. Ron DeSantis (R-FL) doesn’t adhere to Sun Tzu’s maxim that “every battle is won or lost before it’s ever fought.” That is based on the news that DeSantis will officially announce his presidential candidacy this week.
I get that DeSantis probably has to run to save face—after all, his SuperPAC is literally titled “Never Back Down.” But to be honest, it already feels like a fool’s errand.
I’m not the first writer to say so. Back on April 14, Washington Monthly’s Bill Scher argued that DeSantis should take a pass on the 2024 presidential election. I was skeptical, based on the premise that in presidential politics, you’ve got to strike while the iron is hot.
The problem was the assumption that the iron was hot. In fact, it was already cooling. As Scher noted at the time, “Since [DeSantis’ Feb. 28] book launch, the Real Clear Politics average of Republican presidential primary polls shows Trump’s margin over DeSantis widening from 16 to 27 points.”
It has only gotten worse since then. Trump is currently up 36.9 points.
This stands in stark contrast to the state of affairs just six months ago, after DeSantis won his re-election by a landslide, and Trump was largely blamed for the GOP’s poor midterm performance.
So what went wrong?
DeSantis made some fundamental miscalculations based on what worked for him in Florida.
His heavy-handed approach to the media allowed him to maintain message discipline and appear to be in control, but it also deprived him from learning on the job and making mistakes on a smaller stage. On top of that, it was never scalable to a presidential bid. His nascent campaign is finally (reportedly) revising this strategy.
Florida is also a state so big that retail politics aren’t really important electorally. But in states like Iowa and New Hampshire, DeSantis is subject to every Tom, Dick, and Harry wanting to talk to him and taking their own cellphone video.
The results have been less than stellar. Take, for example, the video where a supporter tells DeSantis that he drove an hour to see him. DeSantis thanks him, and then promptly turns his back on him. In another video, DeSantis (who reportedly is a gross eater) seems to wipe his nose with his hand, before patting a guy on the back. And yet another video shows him guffawing weirdly (in a manner reminiscent of Vice President Kamala Harris). Lastly, there is a video that shows DeSantis asking a guy what his name is. When the guy says his name, DeSantis responds, “OK.”
I can’t actually define why that feels like a brush-off, but it does. On paper, these faux pas don’t seem that bad. And God knows any one of us could seem weird in a random photo or an out-of-context video. But these are not merely cherry-picked examples of DeSantis looking awkward. For whatever reason, DeSantis is simply not good at these interactions.
By tightly controlling DeSantis’ image in Florida, his team (which lacks the sort of presidential veterans or longtime loyalists who normally populate successful presidential campaigns) succeeded in making him a hot commodity as governor. However, in doing so, they also raised expectations, while failing to prepare him to run a presidential campaign. This part of the problem was years in the making.
More recent mistakes have also compounded the problem, by eroding DeSantis’ image as a strong leader.
On March 14, DeSantis answered a Tucker Carlson questionnaire, calling Russia’s invasion of Ukraine a “territorial dispute” and saying that support for Ukraine is not in America’s “vital” national interest. (DeSantis later did an interview with Piers Morgan, where he sought to walk back those comments.)
On March 20, DeSantis criticized Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg for indicting Donald Trump, while simultaneously getting a dig in on Trump, saying that he doesn’t know anything about paying off porn stars.
Here, we learned that DeSantis would not use the indictment against Trump in an overt fashion. Instead, he would try to furtively weaponize it in a way that was too cute by half. This suggested to me that DeSantis lacks the killer spirit.
Next, on March 30, it was reported that DeSantis caved to Rep. Matt Gaetz’s demands and said he would not extradite Trump to New York. This was a purely symbolic gesture, as the Manhattan D.A. was already in talks with Trump’s attorneys to have the former president surrender himself for the arraignment.
This moment, for whatever reason, was the turning point. On March 31, Trump was just 16 points ahead of DeSantis (according to the RCP poll average). Since that date, Trump has climbed in the polls, while DeSantis has fallen.
Another casualty in the last six months was DeSantis’ battle with Disney. What once seemed like a quick and easy victory, has evolved into death by a thousand Mickey Mouse-shaped cuts.
What do all of these things—DeSantis complying with Tucker Carlson’s survey, mishandling the Trump indictment, and failing to put Disney in its place—have in common? All three demonstrate that DeSantis is not the alpha male that the GOP prizes.
Perhaps the catch-22 was thinking he could simultaneously appear strong and not alienate MAGA voters by attacking Trump.
So where does this leave him?
The two most likely possibilities are: 1) Either Trump is inevitable, in which case this is all a moot point, or 2) DeSantis may have already blown his narrow chance of ousting Trump as the GOP nominee, in which case DeSantis would probably be better off not running.
The other options involve either DeSantis taking the gloves off and finally taking on Trump or (conversely) Trump collapsing under his own weight, allowing DeSantis to inherit his voters.
While hope is not a strategy, it might be all DeSantis has left to cling to, which is the last place you want to be the day you launch a presidential bid.
Source: Free Advice for Ron DeSantis: Don’t Run for President (thedailybeast.com)