early and often

What Happens If DeSantis Takes a Pass on 2024?

DeSantis ’24 is not looking like an unbeatable steamroller any more. Photo: Chris duMond/Getty Images

Anyone you talk to in the vicinity of Florida governor Ron DeSantis says he’s running for president in 2024. It’s his “moment,” many of his fans claim, and in fact the biggest concern most often heard in his substantial circle of Republican admirers is that he needs to stop putting off a formal candidacy and jump in before he loses any more ground to a revived Donald Trump.

DeSantis has reportedly delayed an announcement because he wants a legislative victory lap to crown his smashing 2022 reelection victory and keep it relevant to GOP presidential-primary voters with short memories, as my colleague Margaret Hartmann noted of DeSantis’s appearance on Fox & Friends last month:

He noted that Republicans won supermajorities in both chambers of the legislature in the 2022 midterms and said he’s eager to show what they can do.

“You ain’t seen nothing yet,” he said. “This is going to be the most productive legislative session we have had across the board, and I think people are going to be really excited.

The legislative session is expected to end in late May. But even if you regard a formal DeSantis announcement as just an opportunity for a week of media hype in pursuit of a campaign he is already waging, its absence does offer him an escape hatch if he decides not to run at all. After all, he’s definitely losing not only polling numbers but also conservative-media attention to Trump right now. His signature bullying of the “woke” Walt Disney Company is looking a lot less successful. And he’s facing a tough slog through the primaries knowing that Trump’s legal battles will continue to dominate news cycles and excite primary voters who are already favorably inclined toward the 45th president. On top of everything else, DeSantis is only 44 years old, which means, if he passes up potential cage matches with two presidents in 2024, he could pick another presidential cycle for about three decades.

The possibility that DeSantis will reach the fail-safe point this spring and turn back may be low, but its impact on 2024 would be so massive that it’s worth a look at what might ensue. There are basically two post-RDS scenarios:

A free-for-all to fill the DeSantis-size vacuum.

Seventeen Republican candidates ran for president in 2016, the last time there was no incumbent in the race. There are many, many GOP officeholders who have pretty clearly seen a future president of the United States in the mirror yet ruled out or expressed little interest in a 2024 run. They might reconsider if DeSantis and Trump are not together sucking all the oxygen (and campaign dollars) out of the room. Might Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, Josh Hawley, Tom Cotton, Brian Kemp, or Greg Abbott take a flier in 2024 if a DeSantis-size vacuum in the field appears? And if not, would the longtime co–front runner’s self-defenestration push quasi candidates who haven’t announced — such as Tim Scott, Mike Pence, Mike Pompeo, Glenn Youngkin, Chris Christie, or Chris Sununu — over the brink into an active run?

A free-for-all is possible mostly because (a) Republican elected officials, donors, and lobbyists who have been urging DeSantis to run are deeply fearful that Trump can’t win a 2024 general election and/or they can’t stand the idea of another turbulent and even revolutionary Trump administration; and (b) the presidential-nominating process creates opportunities for dark horses who beat expectations in the early going, making long-shot candidacies worth a try. The past three winners of competitive GOP Iowa caucus contests are Mike Huckabee, Rick Santorum, and Ted Cruz, Evangelical-friendly ideologues willing to put in the sweat equity to build an organization there. New Hampshire is a bandbox of a state famed for presidential-primary upsets. And with Trump the only whale in a race featuring multiple minnows, media folk will be eager to inflate any upward movement of a rival candidate into a David-and-Goliath story.

Tim Scott, the apple of many a Senate Republican’s eye, and Glenn Youngkin, who has nowhere to go after his one term as Virginia governor ends in 2025, are probably the proto-candidates to watch if DeSantis takes a powder. If either or both of these media and Republican Establishment favorites jump in, things could get interesting.

Trump wins a coronation.

The alternative scenario for a 2024 without Ron was nicely articulated in late March by the Bulwark’s Jonathan V. Last:

The next thing that happens is Trump pops higher in both national and early-state polls. That’s because Trump is the second choice of about half of the voters who support DeSantis. Which means that you’d expect Trump to almost immediately add >10 points to his poll numbers, putting him close to the 60 percent mark nationally …

The Republican establishment, which has been pushing DeSantis relentlessly for two years, would freak the eff out.

Last figures that, after casting about wildly for another champion, Establishment Republicans would soon resign themselves to another Trump nomination since “conservative and Republican elites would believe that this really was the last time they’d have to bend over for Trump”:

They would assume that he can’t win and that the actuarial charts will prevent a 2028 Trump campaign. They’d tell themselves that January 7, 2025 will be the first day of the rest of their lives and all they have to do is gut out the Trumpism for a few more months.

Elites aside, a Trump candidacy without a formidable opponent like DeSantis might fall somewhere between his 2016 campaign, when he steadily gained strength against divided opposition, and his unopposed 2020 candidacy as an incumbent. Yes, the expectations game might work against Trump in this scenario, but it’s not as if he couldn’t make a comeback. His entire 2024 candidacy represents a comeback from two impeachments, a general-election defeat, a failed insurrection, and whatever prosecutors can pin on him between now and the end of the 2024 election cycle.

The same factors that might lead DeSantis to decide against a 2024 presidential run could lead to a Trump cakewalk to the nomination in Milwaukee 15 months from now.

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What If DeSantis Takes a Pass on 2024?