If ever someone needed an old-fashioned do-over, it’s Ron DeSantis. His highest favorability rating came in early January of this year, according to FiveThirtyEight, before he announced his candidacy for president. He started sliding in February, by April he was upside down, and in late May he announced. Today, he is upside down in favorability by 15 percent. Coming off of a historic reelection as governor of Florida, this seems rather odd. How could the most popular Republican governor (arguably) who piloted Florida through Covid as good as or better than any other red state take such a dive in such a short time?
The Federalist’s Mollie Hemingway had a recent piece detailing his slide inside the GOP voters’ minds, but let’s also admit that he isn’t a great candidate to follow Trump, regardless of his missteps. There is an old saying in sports that you don’t want to replace a legend, you want to replace the person who replaced the legend.
A Missing Connection
The decision to launch his presidential run on Twitter was too cute by half. The daring, throw-out-the-playbook-type move that some political consultant got handsomely rewarded for was a disaster on several levels, but most notably, the technical problems became symbolic of his early campaign days. Fits and starts followed by awkward silences.
There is no escaping that Trump’s communication style and effectiveness have altered what we expect from our candidates. He broke the mold, riding down that golden elevator with the spitfire speech that followed. It isn’t returning to pre-2015 levels anytime soon. Trump speaks at a sixth- or seventh-grade level depending on if you believe Fast Company or The Washington Post. Either way, they thought it was an insult. They were wrong. Regular people want to hear regular words, and they want those words delivered with energy, conviction, and conciseness.
Politicians routinely trot out long-winded talking point answers. Trump speaks in rapid-fire short bursts. Give me a sixth grader who learned about supply and demand trading baseball cards over a double Ph.D. economics professor who uses words even he can’t spell to tell us that printing money isn’t inflationary.
When DeSantis decided to run, he was following the easiest-to-understand politician in the history of our country. Trump’s communication style is effective because anyone can understand his point, and that makes him very hard to follow for professional politicians, even good ones like DeSantis. It is often said by those who knew Trump before politics and those who spend time with him in private that he is the exact same person publicly as he is privately. He says the same things, the same way, and with the same vigor. In politics that is rare, and it’s the thing that dooms so many on the right these days.
Does anyone think DeSantis is that uneasy when he is among his friends taking politics? That’s the Ron voters want, the unadulterated, unvarnished truth teller he is with his buddies. That’s the bar that Trump set: Be a real human being at all times.
Plenty of ink has been spilled on Trump’s lack of self-control (and rightfully so) over the body’s most troublesome muscle, the tongue. The flip side of that is Trump refused to table his own views or use watered-down political words in order to make himself into a palatable politician.
DeSantis in November of 2022 was the perfect blind-date candidate. On paper, he had everything going for him. But once the first date came, the interest started to wane, and it is not getting better. What became apparent to the GOP electorate was that he wanted to replace the legend with below-average personality and political communication skills that would have been better suited to a 2008 run at the White House. The more he talked, the more the GOP just wanted the date to end so we could go back to the ex.
DeSantis Should Have Run the Newsom Playbook
What DeSantis failed to realize is that his opportunity wasn’t to declare and run the standard playbook to try to become the nominee; he needed to take a sober look at the landscape he was wading into.
The person who didn’t make that mistake is Gavin Newsom. The betting markets have Newsom as the third most likely to win the presidency, behind Trump and Biden but way in front of DeSantis, Nikki Haley, and Vivek Ramaswamy. Newsom is also four times more likely to be the Democratic nominee for president than Kamala Harris, who is in third. His main tactic is that he is running without running. It’s politically genius and should have been exactly what DeSantis did. Both political parties are experiencing the same phenomena but for different reasons. Biden and Trump have super high unfavorable ratings, and the public is wary of a rematch.
If DeSantis could be granted a do-over, he would never have announced. Instead, he would have pulled a Newsom — be visible, but deferential to the party’s (unofficial) head and hang back. Waiting. Watching. Ready to jump in if need be or even better, be asked to jump in. In this crazy election cycle, anything is possible, and the GOP might need an alternative candidate despite the statical stranglehold Trump has on the nomination currently.
Imagine the power DeSantis would have today if he had never declared, raised money, advertised, or debated. He would be the second most powerful person in the GOP primary like Newsom is on the Democratic side. All of the awkward exchanges would have never taken place because he would be busy smiling and running Florida, minding his own business, and waiting for the phone to ring.
Let’s also not forget that DeSantis is 45. If he had held back, he would be almost impossible to deny for the 2028 nod. Trump can only be in office four years if he were to win, and DeSantis wouldn’t have to worry about winning over Trump’s base. They would have called him in 2027 and asked him to be next, at the ripe old age of 49. There are many hall of fame NBA players who don’t have a championship ring because they had the misfortune of playing when Michael Jordan reigned supreme. Sometimes the wise move is to wait until the superstar retires or someone retires him.
Since a do-over isn’t possible, the question is what now for DeSantis? It feels like a three-person race with Trump, DeSantis, and Haley rising to the top. Although Trump has a tight grip, a lot can change quickly in this election cycle, Haley is gaining on DeSantis (in some early states surpassing), and some big donors are starting to defect to her — but the voters aren’t sold yet that she isn’t just a better-packaged Mitt Romney.
The clock is ticking for DeSantis. His inability to viscerally connect to voters is why he can’t erode Trump’s base and why Haley is gaining on him. His politics are fine, and his record of governance is solid, but challenging Trump before it’s clear Trump is done coupled with a ho-hum persona is a disaster that might cost him a real shot at 2024 and doom a future 2028 run. Trump’s refusal to get a dog (first president in more than 100 years not to have one) even though it’s politically expected is a great lesson. DeSantis needs to embrace his humanity in short order before it’s too late.