There’s a huge strategic dilemma at the heart of Ron DeSantis’s 2024 presidential campaign. He wants to convince the MAGA Republicans most likely to vote in primaries that he’s Trump without the drama, and perhaps even more radical than the 45th president. But that’s at odds with the “electability” argument that he’s better positioned to beat Joe Biden. Since DeSantis formally launched his campaign, Trump has maintained and even expanded his lead in virtually every poll of Republicans. The Florida governor has responded by leaning more heavily on a hard-core ideological pitch that may leave some anti-Trump Republicans, not to mention swing voters, cold. The Florida governor is trying to out-Trump Trump, and it’s not clear this strategy has much of a chance of success with the GOP base still in love with the 45th president.
The DeSantis stump speech has been evolving in recent weeks. Now, as before, he touts his record in Florida as a model for his party and for the nation. But his early emphasis on such standard gubernatorial virtues as industrial recruitment and sound fiscal management has gradually given way to a presentation of DeSantis as a culture warrior who gazes at conservatism’s enemies with a sort of unblinking reptilian stare, unlike Trump’s many self-distractions and sideshow antics.
DeSantis’s remarks at the candidate cattle call hosted by the Faith and Freedom Coalition, the country’s most politically focused organization of conservative Christian activists, in Washington on June 23 represented his most strident effort yet to get to the former president’s right. Trump is generally seeking vengeance against his enemies in the federal government; DeSantis is promising “accountability” for alleged COVID tyrant Anthony Fauci specifically. Trump is a hero to the anti-abortion movement; DeSantis insisted on a draconian six-week abortion ban that Trump called “too harsh.” Trump wants to finish building his border wall; DeSantis wants to militarize the border to stop the “invasion” of immigrants, and even to blockade Mexican ports to stop delivery of chemicals used to make fentanyl. Trump appointed three hard-core conservatives to the U.S. Supreme Court; DeSantis would only appoint a justice as extreme as Clarence Thomas.
Despite all of DeSantis’s huffing and puffing, the Faith and Freedom Coalition event turned into a MAGA rally at which even the mention of Trump’s name drew rapturous applause. When it came time for the former president’s “keynote” address, he was allowed to rant and rave to his heart’s content in contrast to his rivals’ limited time slots. DeSantis may have successfully made himself over in Trump’s image, but he’s still overshadowed by the former president.
The acid test for DeSantis won’t come in any shared candidate event or even in the debates that begin in August (which Trump may or may not deign to attend). It will be in the Iowa caucuses, where in the recent past the candidate successfully depicting himself as the “true conservative” in the field has generally won (e.g., Mike Huckabee in 2008, Rick Santorum in 2012, Ted Cruz in 2016). And indeed, it was the site of Trump’s biggest defeat in 2016 (though of course he later denounced it as “stolen”). DeSantis has surrounded himself with veterans of the Cruz campaign. And that is very likely reinforcing his decision to run much like Cruz did, relying on a hard-core conservative message and an expensive field effort focused on the likeliest — which often means the most conservative — voters.
Without question, this strategy will take a toll on the breadth of DeSantis’s support among more moderate Republicans who have plenty of other candidates to choose from. And there’s little evidence that general-election swing voters are really longing for an effective extremist (DeSantis’s big 2022 performance in Florida, which is receding rapidly in voters’ memories, is now his only evidence for “electability”). But you can appreciate that unless DeSantis wins Iowa or over-performs expectations notably, he’s probably sunk. He’s not looking that strong in New Hampshire, and in South Carolina he’s fighting not just Trump but two Palmetto State rivals.
So for the foreseeable future, DeSantis is going to campaign as not just steadier and more effective than Trump, but as the man who will leave the libs, as he likes to say, “in the dustbin of history.” There’s nothing cheerful or swing-voter-pleasing about the message being conveyed by his super-PAC in its latest video:
It may be rather difficult to soften this image of DeSantis if it doesn’t work to outflank Trump. And it clearly hasn’t so far; Trump continues to lead his governor by 30 points in the national RealClearPolitics polling averages and leads in every early state poll as well. If that pattern continues, even as Trump faces indictment after indictment, Ron DeSantis may wind up in a narrow corner of the Republican Party into which he has painted himself very deliberately.
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