early and often

If DeSantis Clears the GOP Field, Is Trump Doomed?

DeSantis is a formidable opponent. But the fractured 2016 field wasn’t the only reason Trump won.

Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer. Photos: Getty Images
Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer. Photos: Getty Images

Now that Donald Trump is officially in the 2024 presidential race, there’s a clear division among pundits on how well we should expect him to do. Indeed, you can hear both sides of the argument from FiveThirtyEight’s Nate Silver:

The case for Donald Trump as the front-runner for the 2024 Republican nomination is incredibly obvious. As my colleague Nathaniel Rakich pointed out after the former president announced his reelection bid, Trump has extremely strong favorability ratings among Republican voters. He’s remade the GOP in his image. And predictions of his demise have a notoriously poor track record: I was one of those people who was far too skeptical of his chances for the 2016 Republican nomination for far too long.

And yet, since the midterm elections, something seems to have shifted. People putting money on the line have moved away from Trump in the last week. He now has only a 35 percent chance of winning the 2024 nomination according to prediction markets, down from what it was before Election Day, and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis is up to 40 percent.

While some recent somewhat spotty polling (much of it from the recently anti-Trump-trending Club for Growth Action super-PAC) is showing Ron DeSantis leaping ahead of Trump nationally or in key primary states, most public polls go the other way. In the RealClearPolitics averages of 2024 Republican presidential nomination polls, Trump leads DeSantis two-to-one (50-25), with no one else within hailing distance of double digits. Only two published polls show Trump leading by less than 20 points. Calling him doomed to defeat really makes no sense at this point, though the rush to do so is understandable after what he’s put the country through since 2016.

But speaking of 2016, part of the argument for Trump’s vulnerability in a comeback bid is based on the idea that he would have never won a presidential nomination if his many Republican rivals hadn’t divided the anti-Trump vote, letting the demagogue slither across the finish line without earning any real mandate.

There’s no question that the very large field of GOP presidential candidates in 2016 initially discounted him, figuring he’d get bored or burn out or finally say and do something so outrageous that his support would evaporate. But even when Trump made it into the voting phase of the nomination process without flaming out or growing stale, there was a strong sense among other candidates that if they could only get him into a one-on-one competition, he would be exposed as the marginal and unelectable champion of a minority cult of personality. So in 2024, if Trump is facing a single major opponent, it will all be different, right?

Maybe, but maybe not. It’s not as though Trump marched to the 2016 nomination by piling up delegates against a perpetually divided field of rivals who wouldn’t let each other get a clean shot at the MAGA man. The dynamics were more like a King of the Mountain game in which various rivals serially tried to topple the front-runner, who gained strength during the process before nailing the nomination down when there was no one left to oppose him other than Ted Cruz.

In the March 15 Florida primary, for example, after Jeb Bush, Chris Christie, Ben Carson, Rand Paul, and several other once-serious contestants had dropped out, Trump won 46 percent in the state against Floridian Marco Rubio, Cruz, and John Kasich, all still very active candidates. Even more decisively, on April 19, when Kasich and Cruz were both viable non-Trump options, Trump won absolute majorities (ranging from 54 percent in Maryland to 63 percent in Rhode Island) in six northeastern states. After that, he won the remaining ten contests by increasingly overwhelming majorities. There’s just not much doubt the Republican primary electorate didn’t settle for Trump; it settled on Trump.

None of Trump’s 2016 opponents, however, was Ron DeSantis, and at this point, DeSantis seems likely to be so formidable as to discourage some other rivals from playing in the 2024 sandbox dominated by the two big bullies from the Sunshine State. My colleague Jonathan Chait has been arguing for a while that the Florida governor is putting together a fan club that ranges from traditional conservatives who are ready to move on from Trump to the very extremists who think DeSantis is even better than Trump at “owning the libs” and expressing the life-giving hate of the MAGA movement. And now the outcome of the 2022 midterms has been like rocket-fuel for DeSantis, Chait observes:

The Murdoch-owned media, very much including Fox News, unleashed an undisguised propaganda blitz to convince its audience that Trump is the source of the party’s struggles and DeSantis represents its future. Trump’s angry response [attacking “Ron DeSanctimonious”] is a measure of how seriously he takes the threat to steer the base away from him. Many journalists registered surprise at the bluntness of the chorus blaming Trump. Yet the prospects for a DeSantis nomination, and the changes beneath the surface that have made it relatively likely, have not been fully appreciated outside the Republican world.

If DeSantis can indeed compete for Trump’s own base while thrilling more traditional conservatives who see him as a skillful demagogue who shares their views and interests, then yes, he could take down Trump — though not without a vicious and poisonous fight. But there’s something about DeSantis that reminds me of former Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, a charisma-free ideological thug who terrified liberals everywhere until he actually ran for president in 2016 and he sank like a stone before any votes were cast. And the swooning over DeSantis among conservatives reminds me of Rick Perry when he briefly stormed the 2012 Republican presidential field like a conquering hero — until he suddenly became perceived as an insubstantial buffoon.

But even if DeSantis is Ronald Reagan reincarnated, and the irresistible force needed to dislodge Trump’s immovable self-regard, there is also a decent chance (as some reporters are already suggesting) that he will choose to wait until 2028 when he could either run as Trump’s natural successor (assuming an offer to step aside this year would instantly make Trump a DeSantis fan again) or the antidote to a failed MAGA movement if Trump runs and loses again. DeSantis is 44 years old, only four years older than Pete Buttigieg. He is guaranteed an opportunity to appear on Fox News whenever he wants for the foreseeable future; all he needs to do is to find more “woke” objects of his vengeful fury. Why tangle with Trump when the old man might soon die a natural political death?

In any event, we’ll know soon enough if the 45th president will have one great big whale of an opponent in DeSantis or a bucket of minnows like Mike Pompeo, Chris Christie, Nikki Haley, and Larry Hogan. Everyone knows it was a mistake to write Trump off so easily in 2016. What they may not know is that he wasn’t just lucky.

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If DeSantis Clears the GOP Field, Is Trump Doomed?