Lest we forget, it wasn’t long ago that Ron DeSantis was the hottest ticket in town. Fresh off his landslide re-election as governor of Florida, he became the latest and greatest repository of conservatives’ hopes and dreams. With his power-packed tenure as a culture warrior in the Sunshine State, together with Donald Trump’s mounting legal problems, he basked in the spotlight amidst the growing embrace of everyone from the Republican rank-and-file to big-money conservative donors. For a brief shining moment, he soared in polling against both Trump and Biden. He shrunk Trump’s lead from as many as 40 points following the infamous raid on Mar-a-Lago in August of 2022 to just a skinny point or two heading into the spring of 2023 – and he actually beat Trump in one poll by CNN in March.
He was on a sugar high.
But we all know what happens when that high is over – a crash. And over the last four months, as Trump was twice indicted, DeSantis has all but fallen off the radar. The former president had rocketed to a 30-point advantage on July 4, according to the Real Clear Politics (RCP) average.
The DeSantis Plunge
So, what happened to the star rising in the south?
Well, it would be easy to conclude that Republican/conservative voters, so infuriated with the indictments of Trump which an overwhelming majority believe were motivated strictly by politics, feel compelled to stand behind him – like it or not. Otherwise, the thinking goes, they will deliver the message that the left’s all-out assault on the 45th president has succeeded – as it did leading up to the 2020 election. But to the contrary, many see as plausible the theory that Democrats are playing the indictment card strategically in order to lure GOP voters into nominating Trump, certain that he is the only serious GOP candidate who can be beaten by Joe Biden.
It is also true that DeSantis came right out of the gate appearing unready for prime time, with his famously botched online announcement that was widely ridiculed, even as tens of millions ultimately accessed it. The question of whether he would play on the national stage remained unanswered at best, and first impressions are hard to shake. DeSantis’ failure to launch that night has in some ways become the lingering rap against his campaign, undergirded by his supposed inability to connect with voters on the retail level, the kind necessary to succeed in the kick-off caucuses in Iowa and the first primary in New Hampshire, where residents expect near-individual attention from candidates running for president.
But while both the Trump indictments and DeSantis missteps have surely contributed to the current state of play, there are a couple of other factors that have changed the face of the race which few saw coming. DeSantis’ unrelenting assault on wokeness in all its forms has unwittingly provided Trump with an opening to position himself as the – gasp – sensible “moderate.” And he has done just that, claiming DeSantis will give away votes with his hardline stance on abortion – Florida now forbids the procedure after a woman is six weeks into pregnancy – while depicting him as a war-mongering, Swamp-loving neoconservative – which is actually counter-intuitive given the heat DeSantis has taken for calling Russia’s war on Ukraine a mere “territorial dispute.”
At the same time, Trump is presenting as the grizzled veteran, the grownup in the room who’s suffered the legendary slings and arrows of the deranged haters on the left – the only one who’s been there, done that and, as they say, knows where the bodies are buried, per his recent ad effectively touting his strength while asserting that DeSantis is “not ready” to be president.
And then there is the bottom-line conundrum that DeSantis has yet to untangle: how to establish his own identity as something more than “Trump-lite” or “Trumpism minus Trump” – without outright trashing the former president. That has become another millstone around the challenger’s neck ever since Trump ran ads mocking DeSantis’ own ad from his 2018 gubernatorial campaign, in which he playfully teaches his kid how to say Make America Great Again and build a toy wall. And now DeSantis is using as a key talking point that he can do what Trump could not: finish The Wall. But that project itself is fully Trumpian, and typical of the trouble DeSantis has had in standing apart from Donald J. Trump.
DeSantis: Still Positioned for Victory?
Add it all up, and the outlook for Ron DeSantis appears grim – but not in the eyes of his fiercest backers who remain unreservedly optimistic despite the polls. What they are clinging to is not merely hope, but a carefully crafted plan devised over months which they are convinced will ultimately overtake Trump. Never Back Down, a Super PAC backing the Florida governor claims that they fully expected and prepared for both the Trump indictment(s) and the subsequent bump Trump has enjoyed. They say their man “enjoys near-universal name recognition in Iowa. By their numbers, three-quarters of likely caucus-goers consistently view DeSantis in favorable terms, while just 17% hold an unfavorable view of him,” according to RCP, which reports, “[Never back Down]’s conclusions: DeSantis has weathered the attacks; the primary has truly become a two-person race; and Florida’s governor “still stands as the only one who can beat Trump.” And they believe Trump’s mounting legal challenges will ultimately be “a weakness long term,” based on their research: “The words they found that the electorate used most to describe DeSantis are “Florida governor.” The word most used to describe Trump: is ‘indicted’.”
All of that may be true, albeit spun to put a rosy face on what looks like a gloomy picture. It could possibly prove efficacious. But Trump remains a Mount Rushmore-level figure, albeit a tarnished one, among many if not most conservatives and Republicans. So, you ask, how then do you outpoint a living legend? How do you outdistance the most recognizable man in the country who has already been the most powerful person in the world – and has now added full-on martyrdom to his quiver? Most likely, you don’t.
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