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Is DeSantis DOA against Trump?

Illustration by Alex Cochran for Yahoo News; Photo: Giorgio Viera/AFP via Getty Images
Illustration by Alex Cochran for Yahoo News; Photo: Giorgio Viera/AFP via Getty Images

“The 360” shows you diverse perspectives on the day’s top stories and debates.

What’s happening

After months of signaling his White House ambitions in speeches, super PAC ads and visits to key primary states, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis officially launched his bid for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination last week.

DeSantis formally announced his candidacy during a virtual event on Twitter that was marred by technical issues, which dominated headlines far more than anything he said during a lengthy conversation with the social media company’s owner Elon Musk.

Though other Republicans are challenging current frontrunner Donald Trump for the GOP nod, DeSantis is widely seen as the former president’s most formidable rival. The latest Yahoo News/YouGov survey, conducted earlier this month, shows DeSantis (36%) within striking distance of Trump (50%) in a one-on-one matchup among potential Republican primary voters. No other GOP candidate polled higher than 4% when the rest of the current field was included.

In a call earlier this month with supporters, DeSantis cast 2024 as a three-way contest between him, Trump and President Biden, arguing that he alone could win both the primary and the general election.

“You have basically three people at this point that are credible in this whole thing,” DeSantis said. “Biden, Trump and me. And I think of those three, two have a chance to get elected president — Biden and me, based on all the data in the swing states, which is not great for the former president and probably insurmountable because people aren’t going to change their view of him.”

DeSantis’s top advisors have pointed to their boss’s fundraising prowess and higher net favorability ratings among early-state GOP primary voters as proof that the party is ready to turn the page on the former president — and that DeSantis is best positioned to benefit.

But not everyone believes the Florida governor still has a path to dethroning Trump.

Why there’s debate

After most of Trump’s handpicked MAGA candidates tanked in the 2022 midterms — on the same night DeSantis won reelection by nearly 20 percentage points — the 2024 Republican primary polls started to turn in the governor’s favor. By the end of the year, DeSantis was ahead of Trump by 5 points among potential GOP voters, according to a December Yahoo News/YouGov poll — and by 11 points among those who say they actually voted in a 2016 Republican primary or caucus in their state.

“It’s striking how rare it is for a modern first-time candidate to hold this level of support this early,” wrote Nate Cohn of the New York Times. “Since 1976, only six candidates who hadn’t previously run yearlong campaigns for president or vice president have managed to consistently attract more than half of Mr. DeSantis’s support in the early polls. ... [Barack] Obama, Hillary Clinton and Rudy Giuliani in the 2008 cycle; George W. Bush in 2000; Ted Kennedy in 1980; and [Ronald] Reagan in 1976.”

But DeSantis made a calculated decision to delay his 2024 launch until the end of Florida’s legislative session. The governor’s goal, it seemed, was to further burnish his conservative credentials — and his “Make America Florida” pitch — by signing a raft of right-wing legislation, including bills that banned abortion after six weeks of pregnancy, outlawed gender-affirming care for trans youths, restricted drag shows, blocked African American studies programs and prohibited vaccine and mask mandates.

Trump, meanwhile, has spent the last few months ... campaigning against DeSantis. Attacks have gone unanswered. DeSantis has stumbled (especially on Ukraine and Disney). And far from loosening Trump’s hold on the right, the former president’s recent legal troubles — being indicted for allegedly paying hush money to porn star Stormy Daniels; being found liable for sexually abusing and defaming the writer E. Jean Carroll — appear only to have reinforced his cherished “witch hunt” narrative while preventing other candidates from getting attention.

As a result, Trump has reasserted his dominance in most polls. On average, a majority of Republican voters (54%) now favor the former president; just 21% back DeSantis. Sensing vulnerability, other would-be Trump alternatives — South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott; Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin — are either jumping into the race or testing the waters.

But is it too early to count DeSantis out? And if so, how can he mount a comeback?

What’s next

DeSantis’s announcement sets off the long slog to the first Republican primary contests in Iowa and New Hampshire, which will be held early next year. In addition to demonstrating how he plans to parry Trump’s jabs without alienating MAGA diehards — a maneuver that no other Republican has ever really nailed — DeSantis will also be determined to demonstrate that his (relatively remote) personality isn’t a liability on the trail.

“In New Hampshire, it’s about meeting almost every voter,” Jason Osborne, a Republican who serves as the New Hampshire State House majority leader, told the New York Times after DeSantis visited earlier this month. “[Will he] be able to connect with people as he meets them face-to-face, looks them in the eye and describes his vision for the country?”

Perspectives

DeSantis doesn’t have a shot

The Ron DeSantis boomlet is done. He consistently trails Donald Trump by double digits. A Wall Street Journal poll out [April 21] pegs Florida’s governor in severe retrograde, slipping 27 points since December. DeSantis mistakenly conflates his campaign’s bulging war chest with adulation. Wrong! He forgot that working-class Americans dominate the Republican party and that mien matters. Voting to gut SocialSecurity comes with fatal backlash, and eating pudding with your fingers is gross. Said differently, largesse from the party’s donor base coupled with little else is a losing recipe. — Lloyd Green, The Guardian

Actually, he does — if he can win an early state like Obama or McCain

Back in 2007, Illinois Sen. Barack Obama was averaging in the low 20s nationally ahead of the 2008 Democratic primary season. New York Sen. Hillary Clinton was dominating the national polls for the Democratic nomination with nearly 40% of the vote. ... And yet, Obama ended up defeating Clinton. That same cycle, Arizona Sen. John McCain was stuck in the low 20s in early national surveys of the Republican primary. ... History suggests that someone in DeSantis’s polling position has a roughly 1-in-5 (20%) chance of winning the nomination. [But] both Obama (Iowa) and McCain (New Hampshire) won one of the early contests to jumpstart their campaigns. The good news for DeSantis is that he is polling better in those states than he is nationally, even if he trails Trump in both. — Harry Enten, CNN

The key for DeSantis is proving that he’s better at governing than Trump

To have a chance of besting Trump, DeSantis has to convince Republicans that as president he would deliver better results. Voters need to believe they would get the conservative policies that Trump accomplished for them, and more, without everything they disliked about the Trump presidency. That’s not just a matter of avoiding “mean tweets.” DeSantis would also have to make it clear that his administration would not be consumed by feuds between the president and his own appointees or the guessing games about which presidential statements were meant to be taken seriously. — Ramesh Ponnuru, Washington Post

After all, that’s precisely how DeSantis just got reelected in Florida

Many predicted that [DeSantis’s] hard-charging first term in office would provoke a backlash. Instead the opposite occurred. ... What was once America’s paradigmatic swing state now pulsates bright red. For the first time in modern history, registered Republicans outnumber Democrats. The people of Florida seem to like the steady hand — even if it’s an iron fist. To fans, DeSantis’ success proves that a pugilistic, big-government conservatism that promises ruthless competence instead of Trumpian chaos can win broad support, including a growing share of working-class and minority voters. — Molly Ball, Time

But the further right DeSantis moves, the harder it will be to replicate his Florida success on a national scale

DeSantis’s biggest quandary is whether to double down on the culture-war hijinks that could theoretically chip away at Trump’s MAGA backing ... or instead develop some appeal to swing voters in order to show that he’s the more electable Republican. ... 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! — Ed Kilgore, New York

DeSantis’s problem is that he’s starting to look like a typical conservative

His strength as a general election candidate is being questioned. This is partly because he’s fallen flat on the national stage, but it’s also because he’s slowly devolved into an older kind of Republican — the kind without answers to the party’s problems. He’s been bogged down in the very issues that divided and hurt Republicans in the past, like abortion, entitlements, Russia and the conduct of Donald J. Trump. Against Mr. Trump and without Democrats as a foil, his instinct to take the most conservative stance has pushed him far to the right. He’s devolved into another Ted Cruz. ... To compete for the nomination, he will [need to] appeal to the establishment and the base by focusing on the new set of issues that got him here: the fight for “freedom” and against “woke.” — Nate Cohn, New York Times

To pull anti-Trump Republicans together, a Hail Mary might be in order

To defeat Trump, DeSantis must assemble a group that includes center-right Republicans, the old GOP establishment and movement conservatives, a coalition that has little in common except a desire for a new nominee. ... The assumption, [some] top Republicans say, is that more moderate Republicans ... will fall in line with DeSantis because the alternative is Trump. [But] DeSantis may have to take more aggressive steps to pull the ungainly anti-Trump coalition together, particularly if he wants to winnow the field by the end of this calendar year. It may seem contrived, but the challenge of dethroning Trump is going to require extreme measures. (A DeSantis-Tim Scott unity ticket?) — Jonathan Martin, Politico

If not, we might be in for a repeat of 2016

​​Remember how smoothly all of Joe Biden’s rivals suddenly exited the presidential race when it was time to stop Bernie Sanders? Remember how nothing remotely like that happened among Republicans in 2016? Well, if you have an anti-Trump donor base dissatisfied with DeSantis and willing to sustain long-shot rivals, and if two of those rivals, [Former U.N. ambassador and Gov. Nikki] Haley and Senator Tim Scott, hail from the early primary state of South Carolina, it’s easy enough to see how they talk themselves into hanging around long enough to hand Trump exactly the sort of narrow wins that eventually gave him unstoppable momentum in 2016. — Ross Douthat, New York Times