It has been quite extraordinary to see the conventional wisdom shift so rapidly, from seeing Florida governor Ron DeSantis as the potential slayer of serial sex abuser Donald Trump (SSAT) for the Republican nomination for president to being effectively roadkill, with vultures in the form of all his other rivals for the Republican nomination hovering around, ready to pick at the carcass of his dying campaign. Not a day passes without yet another analysis of where it went all wrong for him, like this recent deep dive.
I never bought into the early DeSantis hype, mainly because I thought that he would not be able to thread the needle of weaning away Trump supporters to his cause by avoiding criticizing him for all his weaknesses and claiming that with him they could have all the Trumpism with none of the other baggage that had resulted in SSAT losing the 2020 election and his candidates faring so poorly in the 2018 and 2022 mid-terms. He pointed to his sweeping victory in the Florida governor’s race in 2022 as evidence that he was a winner who could break the Republicans’ losing streak.
The problem with running on the platform of being a winner is that you have to, you know, win. And that is what he singularly failed to do, unable to close the large gap in the polls of GOP voters between him and SSAT. After a clumsy start, he has had various missteps and shown himself to be both a poor campaigner with a grating, off-putting personality as well as an incompetent manager and strategist.
One problem may have been that he took the wrong lessons from his Florida re-election win in 2022 when Republicans did worse than expected and he did better. At that time of the pandemic, he successfully tapped into the resentment that many people in his state had with school closings, face mask mandates, restrictions on businesses, and suspicions over vaccines to claim that he was bucking the authorities on behalf of the people to win that race. But with the easing of covid fears, those issues are no longer that salient even in his own state. Furthermore, he had no rival on the Republican side in his 2020 race, unlike with SSAT for the nomination. While he has tried to expand his campaign message to include vague ‘anti-woke’ rhetoric and picking on the transgender community, that message has failed to catch fire and now he seems to be backing away from it. He looks like a loser, fatal for someone whose primary claim is that he is a winner.
As a result, some of the big money donors who gave generously to him early have shut their wallets and stopped contributing to his superPAC. As a result of that early money, DeSantis had hired a very large staff and travelled by private jet to campaign events (it appears that he and his wife Casey are very fond of flying this way) and were burning through campaign funds at an alarming rate. Now he has had to make massive staff cuts and has replaced his campaign manager. All these are signs of a campaign in disarray.
As is often the case when a campaign flounders, there is a piling on, with rivals and analysts brutally picking on every failing, including personal tics, such as this critique by Molly Jung-Fast.
DeSantis, Jong-Fast wrote, “is a terrible politician with negative charisma, and the chances of him riding into the White House are looking less likely.
“He is aggressively dull and wooden, making his interactions with voters border on painful to watch. His head bobs in a strange and unnatural way, and he wears high-heeled cowboy boots.”
Referring to a previous high-profile Republican flop, the Wisconsin governor who wilted before Trump in 2016, Jong-Fast said DeSantis “makes Scott Walker look charming”.
“Plus,” she added, “voters tend not to vote for people who seem like they’re screaming at them all the time. No amount of donor dollars can make DeSantis, a Maga marionette traipsing across Iowa and New Hampshire, seem like a real human boy.”
The net result of the DeSantis campaign is that he has achieved what one would have thought was impossible, and that is to make SSAT look like a moderate. SSAT has largely been silent on some of the many ‘woke’ issues that DeSantis has railed against, focusing instead on how everyone is being mean to him. Republicans who feel that SSAT is a liability and dread him getting the nomination and may have seen DeSantis as their hope have started to despair and started looking around for another alternative. Mitt Romney has written an op-ed warning that in a field with so many contestants, SSAT could win by a plurality and the only way to stop him is for everyone to coalesce around a single alternative. There is no sign that that will happen and Romney is just whistling in the wind.
Of course, the problem with conventional wisdom is that it is often based on ‘crowd think’ and which way the wind is currently blowing and not on solid evidence. People glom on to perceptions rather than reality, and that can change dramatically. Let us not forget that Joe Biden’s primary campaign for the Democratic nomination in 2020 was written off by the conventional wisdom until he came roaring back after the South Carolina primary. So DeSantis must think that there is a chance that he too can make a dramatic comeback. But I still think, as I’ve said many times even when the hype in his favor was running high, that DeSantis made a mistake by running in this cycle and not waiting until 2028. Maybe he feared that since his term as governor ends in 2026 and he is term-limited from running again, that without the platform of the governorship, he could not make an impact.
DeSantis could not thread the needle of going to the right of SSAT and criticizing him. That lane was just not there. He still does not quite seem to know what to do about SSAT, and his indecisiveness is hurting him. If he was really committed to the idea that SSAT is a loser because of all his baggage, then he should have seized on all the indictments as reasons why voters should switch to him, because that legal baggage is huge. But instead he initially weakly defended SSAT against the indictments, echoing SSAT’s claim that they were all political persecutions as a result of the weaponization of the justice system by Joe Biden.
In an effort to revive his campaign, now seems to be shifting his approach. He has emerged from the safe cocoon of rightwing news outlets and friendly audiences to talk to more mainstream reporters and has even gone so far as to say that SSAT lost the 2020 election, even adding an “of course”. He even went further, blaming SSAT for his loss because he had lost control of his government and the election that led to his defeat, and other crackpot theories.
DeSantis has now committed one of the biggest heresies in the church of MAGA and you can be sure that parishioners will react with fury.