early and often

DeSantis’s Strategic Dilemma: Go Mega-MAGA or Prove Electability?

Is more of this kind of nonsense swing-voter bait? Photo: Daniel A. Varela/Miami Herald/Tribune News Service via Getty Images

There was a moment, in the flush of his smashing 2022-reelection victory (one of the highlights of a meh midterms for Republicans), when it looked like Florida governor Ron DeSantis might blow away the competition for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination. With Donald Trump looking (initially) like a spent force who would nonetheless have to be dispatched from the 2024 race by a superior rival, DeSantis quickly emerged as the candidate of Republican elites who saw him simultaneously as the face of Trumpism Without Trump, a rube-pleasing demagogue, and a highly electable general-election candidate (unlike the 45th president). Republican opinion-leaders ranging from Mitt Romney to the most dangerous social-media neofascists seemed to agree that DeSantis represented an ideal opportunity to put the erratic Trump in the rearview mirror — if only the GOP could unite behind him early and thoroughly.

Well, as we now know, Trump was far from a punch-drunk old fighter ripe for a knockout. He served notice quickly that he would hold DeSantis accountable for his pre-gubernatorial record as a conventional Social Security–hating conservative. Trump also began to set up a campaign organization much better than the one he’d deployed in his 2016 and 2020 efforts. And real-life developments that might have sunk other candidates — like being indicted — just made Trump stronger while robbing rivals like DeSantis of life-giving media oxygen. As Trump surged in the GOP 2024 polls, snagging elected-official endorsements left and right, the once-powerful sense that a DeSantis nomination was “inevitable” faded and vanished altogether. And that left the Florida governor — whose choice to delay entry in the presidential race until the end of his state’s legislative session has begun to look like a mistake — with some tough strategic decisions.

DeSantis’s biggest quandary is whether to double down on the culture-war hijinks that could theoretically chip away at Trump’s MAGA backing — including intermittent efforts to run to Trump’s right on issues ranging from abortion to hatred of anti-COVID measures — or instead develop some appeal to swing voters in order to show that he’s the more electable Republican, even if he’s marginally less repellant to the liberal elites GOP primary voters want to smite. If DeSantis possessed Reaganesque charisma — an idea that’s laughable even to his biggest fans — perhaps he could have it both ways and charm swing voters into preferring him to Biden. Maybe they just don’t know him yet. But at this point, there’s nothing about the Florida governor that suggests non-Republican voters will take in his act once he’s an announced candidate and think, This is what I’ve been waiting for! DeSantis is just a boring replica of Trump with a problematic history of supporting unpopular conservative causes.

Moreover, any electability argument for DeSantis is a matter of pure assertion. Actual primary voters have already forgotten about (if they ever knew of) his 2022 win over a worn-out rival in a state trending bright red. DeSantis and the 45th president are currently running even with Biden in general-election trial heats — you can’t tell them apart. Hence the vicious circle in which DeSantis is currently stuck: Does he try to out-MAGA the inventor of MAGA at the expense of a crucial “electability” argument? And if not, what can he do to distinguish himself from Trump in a way that doesn’t offend primary voters who basically want to Make America Great (all over) Again? If DeSantis waits until a hypothetical general election to “pivot to the center,” it’s unlikely he will ever get that opportunity.

This is a dilemma Team DeSantis needs to figure out before his formal announcement of candidacy, which should give him a moment in the spotlight — unless Trump is indicted on the same day.

DeSantis’s Dilemma: Go Mega-MAGA or Prove Electability?