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May 9, 2023

Trump, DeSantis and Political Courtship

If the Republican nomination were an ideological purity test, DeSantis would win. But it’s also a personality test.

Ron DeSantis needs to rethink his strategy before he starts his campaign for the Republican presidential nomination.

The Florida governor has staked his chances on two arguments. The first is that he’s more electable than Donald Trump. The other is that he’s more conservative.

Recent polls have shot holes in the first argument. In some surveys, Trump does better against President Joe Biden.

Polls aren’t entirely reliable — but that’s the point. They’re a poor foundation for a campaign that has an uphill battle for the hearts of Republican voters.

DeSantis’ conservative credentials are supposed to help with that. Nothing excites the activist right like the culture war, and DeSantis has fought to become the ultimate culture warrior.

He’s taken on Disney and the transgender movement. He’s signed a six-week abortion ban.

Yet he hasn’t forgotten economic conservatives. DeSantis cut taxes and expanded school choice.

And all that isn’t enough.

More than half of Republicans in the latest polls say Trump is their man.

DeSantis gets a respectable 20% to 25%. But his campaign will have to double that.

The arguments for DeSantis in ‘24 are perfectly rational. Pragmatic and ideological Republicans alike have every reason to go for electability and consistent conservatism.

Except politics at the ballot box isn’t about reason or rational arguments.

At the presidential level especially, elections are a love affair. And all voters are women.

The candidate is a suitor. He’s trying to win affection, to ignite passion and enthusiasm. Voters want to be wooed — ideally to be swept off their feet.

The relationship is personal and chemical, or it’s not going to work. Picking a candidate is like choosing a date, not hiring an employee.

This is why it’s notoriously the case that taller, more handsome men do better in presidential contests.

John F. Kennedy could hardly compete with Richard Nixon’s brains and experience in 1960. But Nixon, in the first televised debate, couldn’t compete with JFK’s looks and charm.

Bill Clinton was a lightweight compared with President George H.W. Bush in 1992. Barack Obama and John McCain were both senators in 2008, but the latter had decades more experience. But neither Republican could overcome the magnetism of those Democrats.

And no Democrat could match the animal magnetism of Ronald Reagan, who may have been older than Jimmy Carter but still had Hollywood glamor and a world-class sense of humor. He was three inches taller, too.

There are exceptions, of course. George H.W. Bush in 1988 and Joe Biden in 2020 had a paternal appeal to voters. But more often than not, the qualities that get a president elected are the same ones that draw women to men: a sense of humor, a sense of fun, confidence and emotional engagement. Height and good hair help, too.

Even Trump fits the pattern: 6-foot-3, rich, rebellious like a teenager and funnier than critics give him credit for being. Passionate but dangerous — he’s Marlon Brando.

Primary voters are certainly more ideological than the general electorate, and DeSantis has done everything he could do to win over conservatives.

If the Republican nomination were an ideological purity test, DeSantis would win.

But it’s also a personality test. Ted Cruz failed that in 2016, when he ran to Trump’s right as a conservative ideologue.

DeSantis is more personable than Cruz, but he relies too much on the formula that failed the Texas senator seven years ago.

Humor isn’t DeSantis’ strong suit, and his smile can seem fake. Appearances, unfortunately, often count for more than reality in love and elections. Bill Clinton was a liar to the core, yet voters and the women he seduced fell for him time and again.

Where ideology can win, however, is when it connects with citizens’ deepest feelings. If voters want an enjoyable night out with a candidate, they want commitment and respect from the country’s permanent elite — from the governing class as a whole and the leaders of our private institutions.

America is a marriage. “National divorce” is an apt metaphor when the elite is unfaithful and the people feel unloved.

The way politicians and corporations talk about immigration and foreign trade even parallels the way a man thinks about his mistress. Immigration is the younger, more exciting woman who will do everything the wife won’t do.

Whatever his personal infidelities, Trump made Republicans and his general-election voters feel wedded to him. He was passionate for them, and he shared their loathing of elites who had jilted them.

DeSantis has to translate his ideological agenda into its emotional equivalent, not with this or that policy proposal but with language that speaks to raw feeling. Trump does this intuitively, with volcanic results. People love him or hate him. DeSantis must convince the voters he’s truly in love with them.

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