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August 21, 2023

What Happened to Ron DeSantis?

He was supposed to be the guy to challenge Trump, but that task is proving to be far more formidable than the “experts” imagined.

Ron DeSantis should’ve been more animated, more bombastic. He should’ve hosted a reality show. Should’ve dropped a few F-bombs. Should’ve picked a fight with John McCain. Should’ve sent out some mean tweets. Should’ve gotten himself indicted. Should’ve paid less attention to policy and more attention to pop culture. You get the idea.

All this might’ve helped his polling a bit, but not nearly enough. After all, why opt for a knock-off when the original is still very much alive and kicking, still very much the 800-pound gorilla in the room?

In a new CBS News poll, Donald Trump leads DeSantis by a 62-16 margin, his largest lead yet. No other candidate is in double digits. So while Trump continues to collect indictments from the likes of Alvin Bragg and Jack Smith and Fani Willis, 77% of Republican voters continue to view them as politically motivated. We wonder: What are the other 23% smoking? One doesn’t have to like Trump in order to cede what’s obvious.

Another finding from the poll, which comes on the eve of the candidates’ first debate — a debate Trump will skip: 91% of GOP primary voters want the others to focus on making the case for themselves, not against Trump. We wonder: Will attack dog Chris Christie listen? We doubt it.

But here are the numbers that really tell the story: When asked why they’re considering Trump, 99% say it’s because things were better under his administration than under Joe Biden’s. In addition, 95% think he fights for people like them. Furthermore, 71% of Republican voters think what Trump tells them is true, versus 63% for friends and family, 56% for conservative media, and 42% for religious leaders.

Where and how does a challenger try to chip away at this sort of following?

DeSantis was once thought to be The Guy, the one who could give Republican voters a viable alternative to Trump. So what happened? To read his résumé, DeSantis certainly seems like presidential material: resoundingly reelected governor of a key state, Ivy League educated, military veteran, strong on policy, disciplined, tough. What’s not to like? Indeed, DeSantis has governed magnificently in Florida, and he’s taken the good fight to the Woke Left. He’s also gone after the media, and it’s been a thing of beauty. But it’s not enough. Not today.

Forty years ago, Ron DeSantis would’ve been the bad boy of the Republican Party. The enfant terrible. The John McEnroe.

But not today. Today, that guy is Donald Trump. Trump has a Kung Fu grip on the culture, and culture is king in politics.

And today, the political environment is a lot different than 40 years ago, when Ronald Reagan was fixing to win reelection with 525 electoral votes, winning every state but Democrat candidate Walter Mondale’s home state of Minnesota, which the Gipper lost narrowly.

Florida GOPers and former DeSantis allies seem to think he has a charisma deficit. We noticed that same thing a few months back, around the time DeSantis launched his campaign. Joe Gruters, who served as Florida’s GOP chair for four years under DeSantis, made this observation: “The more he is met by people, the more they are not going to like him. The more he’s out there, the more his numbers go down. It’s not a good long-term scenario for him. I fully expected the downfall of his campaign a long time ago.”

Today, the man that many folks thought could beat Trump for the GOP nomination is now 46 points behind him and actually trails Chris Christie in New Hampshire. The objective analysis that DeSantis — however accomplished he is as a governor — is having trouble connecting with the American people is becoming impossible to ignore.

Here, though, we should analyze and acknowledge the headwinds DeSantis took on when he decided to jump into the race. First and foremost, he’s facing a former president. That hasn’t happened since Herbert Hoover, who served from 1929-1933, ran again in 1940. But Trump isn’t Hoover. Whereas Trump gets high marks for his stewardship of the American economy, Hoover is remembered for the Great Depression. Further, whereas Hoover lost the 1932 election to Franklin Roosevelt in a landslide, 57.4% to 39.6%, nearly 70% of Republican voters believe the 2020 election was not legitimate. (This number illustrates why Christie, the favorite son of the anti-Trump Republicans, isn’t getting anywhere with his attack line that Trump is a “three-time loser,” having lost the House in 2018, and having lost the presidency and the Senate in 2020. Most Republicans simply don’t buy this, primarily because they don’t think Trump lost in 2020.)

On top of these realities, DeSantis is running against a guy who naturally sucks all the oxygen out of a room. Trump dominates the culture and the political landscape, and everyone else appears small by comparison.

It’s still early — still very, very early — but those who expected DeSantis to be in a much stronger position against Trump at this stage were, in retrospect, irrationally exuberant.

Given that Republicans of all stripes generally favored Trump’s policies, and given that the overwhelming majority of them believe he was robbed last time out, it stands to reason that a lot of those voters believe he deserves another shot.

Finally, DeSantis isn’t running in the typical challenger’s lane; that is, his policy positions are neither noticeably to the left or the right of Trump. Instead, DeSantis is running in the Trump lane. And his two greatest strengths compared to Trump — his rhetorical discipline and his deep mastery of policy — aren’t moving the needle.

Had Trump been resoundingly defeated in 2020, DeSantis would be in a much stronger place politically. But Trump wasn’t, so DeSantis isn’t.

Republican voters generally approved of Trump’s policies, and he has an extraordinarily loyal base. There are tens of millions of Americans who’ve developed a nearly unshakable connection to him. Part of this is due to his charisma, part of it due to his policies, and part of it due to their belief that whatever faults Trump may have, he is first and foremost their guy, their fighter.

In short, the current dynamic is more about Trump’s very real strengths than it is about DeSantis’s perceived deficiencies.

Under normal circumstances, DeSantis would be running in a wide-open field against the likes of Nikki Haley, Mike Pence, Vivek Ramaswamy, Tim Scott, and others. The 2020 election wasn’t normal, though, and it set this stage for Trump’s run in 2024.

Only one American president has ever returned to the White House after having been voted out of office. Grover Cleveland, who was first elected in 1884, lost narrowly to Benjamin Harrison in 1888 despite winning the popular vote, and beat Harrison in a rematch in 1892.

But since then, only one one-term president has seemed to have merited another shot at it. That’s Donald Trump. And it’s these two forces — Trump’s charisma and the feeling among an overwhelming majority of GOP voters that he deserves another shot — that have made Ron DeSantis’s decision to challenge Trump in 2024 instead of waiting until 2028 seem like a bad one.

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