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No, There Was Nothing DeSantis Could Have Done To Beat Trump

Gov. Ron Desantis
Image CreditFDRLST / Canva

Could a perfectly executed strategy have toppled Trump in a year that was certain to feature a flurry of indictments? Probably not.

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Now that Ron DeSantis is no longer a presidential candidate but merely a governor who endorsed Donald Trump, the media are about to misdiagnose his failed bid as a case of bad campaign strategy. Some of the concerns will be real, but to focus on strategy is to miss the forest for the trees. Months of polling trends tell an unmistakable story, and it’s more about Trump than DeSantis.

A smart consultant who happened to work on one of the failed presidential primary campaigns floated an obvious-sounding theory past me last week. People, he said, don’t vote for president like they vote for governor. That is to say, they vote for governors more pragmatically; they vote for presidents more inspirationally.

Charisma

For this reason and many more, it’s likely Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis never stood a chance against Donald Trump. Why didn’t DeSantis’ recent electoral romp translate into the primary? I suspect there’s something to the aforementioned theory.

DeSantis is a policy guy. It’s the center of his appeal in Florida. He’s engineered an innovative legislative campaign against cultural radicalism and elite authoritarianism. He’s put money where his mouth is. But DeSantis lacks the charisma of his major opponent, and policy comes second in nomination battles, especially one in which the leading candidate is being battered with unprecedented lawfare.

Lawfare

To the extent this lawfare constituted a policy question, of course, DeSantis could have been better by refusing to suggest the indictments reflect negatively on Trump’s character or electability. (For the record, I happen to think some of it does but, like many voters, understand plenty of politicians with grave character defects are ignored or rewarded for their misconduct.) The Republican primary electorate is obviously different than the general electorate. They know Trump is wild — some of them even hate that he is — but they’re equally or even more incensed by the double standard.

This is where the McIntosh Memo discussed here last week comes into the picture. You can have the perfect combination of messaging and policy, but in advertisements that hit Trump with some of DeSantis’ critiques, viewers lose trust quickly. “It is essential to disarm the viewer at the opening of the ad by establishing that the person being interviewed on camera is a Republican who previously supported President Trump,” the September memo read, “otherwise, the viewer will automatically put their guard up, assuming the messenger is just another Trump-hater whose opinion should be summarily dismissed.”

But on social media — think Instagram and TikTok — any sound bite can be clipped from its context. The criticism starts to take center stage. That can happen through no fault of the candidate, although in this case I think the candidate and his campaign bear some of the blame for not aggressively fighting back.

Media

After his second-place finish in Iowa, DeSantis told Hugh Hewitt he regretted his media strategy. “I came in not really doing as much media,” he said. “I should have just been blanketing. I should have gone on all the corporate shows. I should have gone on everything.”

While it’s doubtful this would have made the difference, this is a compelling observation from DeSantis. As he contemplated running, DeSantis and his team made serious overtures to conservative media and high-profile national voices. This was the right thing to do for many reasons, strategically and morally. He did this as governor as well.

Indeed one strategy DeSantis took seriously in Tallahassee involved working more closely with journalists outside the corporate press, giving them scoops and shunning reporters from outlets that routinely lied about and misrepresented him. Personally, I’ve long said this is an important position for anti-establishment candidates to embrace. It changes the broken incentive system. It starves liars of their access.

In a national presidential race against the most media-savvy politician of all time, however, DeSantis is probably right that he needed to do more corporate press to be seen contrasted constantly with the political elite rather than with Trump. (My colleague Eddie Scarry made this argument shortly before DeSantis shifted his approach. I disagreed at the time.) Trashing the media is always helpful with GOP voters, but parceling out access and taking those select opportunities to blast worthy journalists on camera is what actually gets people excited.

Again, though, plausible as these campaign problems are, they pale in importance to one variable that was entirely outside DeSantis’ control.

Fighting the Inevitable

As DeSantis entered the race last spring with a surge of momentum, Trump was about to get a mugshot. A month before Trump’s first indictment, and three months before DeSantis launched his campaign, the two were separated by about 13 points in RealClearPolitics’ polling average. The race really narrowed between DeSantis’ impressive reelection in November and the Manhattan grand jury proceedings over Trump in late March. That number actually started to rise just as talk of the indictment rose.

Trump never slipped below 40 percent support. Since the spring, he’s climbed to 66 percent in RCP’s average. Even now, DeSantis and Haley are in a virtual tie nationally, with him at 10.5 percent and her at 11.5 percent.

This is where a lot of the postmortems on DeSantis’ campaign are going to go wrong. They’re going to focus on the infighting and mismanagement that seemed to be endemic to his campaign culture. They’ll revel in the palace intrigue about his leadership style. None of this is helpful to a campaign, there’s no question about it. But there is an open question as to whether even a perfectly executed strategy could have come anywhere near toppling Trump in a year that was certain to feature a flurry of indictments. The evidence suggests it would have been nearly impossible.

Could DeSantis have known this a year ago? By the time he launched, the post-Bragg gap was already widening. He had success and money and support, and voters were open to an alternative. It’s easy to second-guess his decision now. Yet with the benefit of hindsight, it’s also easy to see the window was closing for reasons that had nothing to do with DeSantis before he even entered the race. He said as much in his departure speech.

“It’s clear to me that a majority of Republican primary voters want to give Donald Trump another chance,” DeSantis argued Sunday. “They watched his presidency get stymied by relentless resistance, and they see Democrats using lawfare to this day to attack him.”

From the perspective of a conservative, there’s much to admire about Ron DeSantis. There has been since his days in the Freedom Caucus. The governor’s decision to immediately endorse Trump in remarks that described Nikki Haley as “a repackaged form of warmed-over corporatism” showed his political instincts are still sharp and will earn him back some goodwill with Republican voters. It’s so easy to be bitter and resent the people who rejected your campaign. But Trump is Trump.

We’ll never know whether DeSantis would have won the nomination if the GOP field didn’t include the former president. To the extent his failure reflects on the political future of post-Trump Republican politics, it’s a lesson that Trump himself remains the most important part of that equation for GOP voters because he’s the primary target of their enemies.

Ron DeSantis first catapulted to success because he understood that. It can take him to new heights again.


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