The Ron DeSantis Slump

Go to YouTube, and you can still find the Ron DeSantis who got Republican donors and media so excited, just a year ago. A source familiar with the campaign described clips of DeSantis, usually at press conferences he gave as governor of Florida, that went viral in Republican circles. “A reporter comes in and asks

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Go to YouTube, and you can still find the Ron DeSantis who got Republican donors and media so excited, just a year ago. A source familiar with the campaign described clips of DeSantis, usually at press conferences he gave as governor of Florida, that went viral in Republican circles. “A reporter comes in and asks a question, and he just rips their heart out,” the source said. The questions were often about DeSantis’s COVID policies, and also sometimes about his aggressive stances against the teaching of race and gender topics in public schools or his perplexing war on Disney. In response, DeSantis generally took an impatient tone—the press, he seemed to suggest, was once again wasting everyone’s time. The source went on, “But those were situations where it was about Florida policies, which he knew like the back of his hand, where he could deploy his computer brain. And it was in front of a crowd that was going to applaud no matter what.” In every sense, the staffer said, “he was in total control of the situation.”

DeSantis was offering something in thin supply during the pandemic years: the impression of conservative mastery. Just forty-four years old, a former Little League World Series standout who had gone to Yale on the strength of his ninety-ninth-percentile S.A.T.s, DeSantis had taken a contrarian, laissez-faire position on COVID. He didn’t endure the disastrous public-health outcomes that liberals had warned of. His political popularity boomed, and so did migration to Florida. It wasn’t surprising that this kind of figure would appeal most keenly to conservative élites: his gubernatorial campaign last year, effectively a COVID victory lap, drew an astonishing two hundred million dollars in contributions from donors, and, in a four-month period just after the 2src2src election, Fox News producers asked DeSantis to appear on the network more than a hundred and ten times. By the end of 2src22, after DeSantis romped to reëlection in a midterm cycle in which Republicans underperformed and some of Trump’s preferred candidates flamed out, it seemed to G.O.P. pollsters that the DeSantis phenomenon was no longer just top-down. “Every stitch of data I had said they really liked him,” a pollster for an opposing Republican campaign told me.

Since the 2src2src election, Sarah Longwell, a Republican pollster closely affiliated with the Never Trump movement, has been conducting frequent focus groups with Republicans who voted twice for Trump. This past winter, Longwell told me, “We started having to screen groups for Trump favorability to find people who even wanted Trump to run again. I can’t tell you how dominant DeSantis was in that moment, and how clear people were that it was time to move on.” Former Trump voters, Longwell said, “were very DeSantis curious. They just thought Trump had too much baggage. But the way they talked about DeSantis, which I found interesting, was that they would talk about him relative to Trump. They would say, ‘He’s Trump without the baggage,’ or ‘He’s Trump with a new fight,’ or ‘He’s Trump not on steroids.’ That was one of my favorites.”

One theory circulating among politicos right now is that DeSantis simply waited too long to enter the race. He did not announce his candidacy formally until May, and did so in a clumsy and widely mocked Twitter Spaces event with Elon Musk. But, whatever the reasons for the delay, it was also the case that DeSantis and his advisers had not solved a fundamental problem for the campaign: how to run against Trump. Within two months of DeSantis’s announcement, his campaign laid off a third of its staff; last week, he fired his campaign manager. In a recent Times/Siena poll, he trailed Trump 54–17 among national Republican primary voters. “Trump Crushing DeSantis and G.O.P. Rivals,” the headline ran.

Even before its official launch, the campaign and its allies were conducting polls and focus groups to test various anti-Trump messages. Across several months, the source familiar with the campaign said that it consistently struggled to find a message critical of Trump that resonated with rank-and-file Republican voters. Even attaching Trump’s name to an otherwise effective message had a tendency to invert the results, this source said. If a moderator said that the COVID lockdowns destroyed small businesses and facilitated the largest upward wealth transfer in modern American history, seventy per cent of the Republicans surveyed would agree. But, if the moderator said that Trump’s COVID lockdowns destroyed small businesses and facilitated the largest upward wealth transfer in modern American history, the source said, seventy per cent would disagree.

At the outset of his campaign, DeSantis had a strong base of support among more moderate, college-educated voters. But this base alone is not big enough to win the Republican primaries. “Early on in the race, DeSantis was gonna have to make a decision,” a leading G.O.P. consultant working with a rival candidate told me. One path, he said, would have been to run as a moderate, pull all the anti-Trump people into his camp, and then go to work on the conservatives by arguing that he was younger than Trump, more competent at governing, and likelier to win. The other path was to try to run from the right, even if that cost him the support of his natural base, on the theory that it would be impossible to beat Trump without denting his conservative support and that eventually the moderates would come home because, as the consultant put it, “Where the fuck else are they gonna go?” The DeSantis campaign, he posited, “started with that second strategy. And then the polling tanked and they got scared.”

In truth, a conservative run was a more natural fit for DeSantis. As DeSantis built his national brand, he had leaned heavily into a hard form of culture war: attacking Disney and pushing laws that curtailed the teaching of gender- and race-related topics. It would have been tricky for even the most adept politician to pivot from this to a moderate pitch of good governance and policy. The DeSantis campaign also seemed to lack Trump’s appeal to what the source familiar with the campaign called the “deep base instincts” of the Republican Party. Perhaps to compensate for this and to channel the right-wing id, the campaign associated itself with some envelope-pushing young activists and journalists. This backfired. One of them, Pedro Gonzalez, was revealed in June to have sent countless antisemitic messages through Telegram Messenger. (An example: “Not every Jew is problematic, but the sad fact is that most are.”) In July, a young DeSantis speechwriter, Nate Hochman, was fired after circulating a pro-DeSantis video that included a symbol, the Sonnenrad, that is common in Nazi imagery. The rival consultant told me, “I think that was a pretty good peek under the lid about what they’re obsessed with in Tallahassee. And it ain’t improving homeownership rates.”

But, from the start of this year, DeSantis has struggled to identify issues that might appeal to very conservative voters. In February, DeSantis criticized the U.S.’s support of the Ukraine war, but he was forced to reverse his position after some prominent donors threw a fit. In April, as much of the political world was coming to terms with Democrats’ electoral advantage after the Supreme Court’s reversal of Roe v. Wade, DeSantis signed a bill outlawing abortion after six weeks. Even on his signature “anti-woke” platform, he sometimes seemed to be searching for an original message. In April, NBC News reported that DeSantis was carrying around “Woke, Inc.,” the book written by his Republican Presidential primary rival Vivek Ramaswamy, an outsider and former longshot who last week edged ahead of DeSantis in one national poll. DeSantis can sound quite similar to Ramaswamy on the campaign trail: both candidates have called for bans on TikTok and for a “declaration of economic independence” from China, and to “shut down the F.B.I.” (Ramaswamy) or to fire its director (DeSantis). In February, Ramaswamy had called for the deployment of the U.S. military against Mexican drug cartels (“we gotta go Soleimani on them”), and this month DeSantis said he would use military force and drone strikes against the cartels. Without the same dominant position in conservative media he’d had this winter, DeSantis’s ideas could sound a little generic.

For several years now, it’s been common to hear Republican consultants and pollsters say that Trump dominates among the Party’s conservative base because he is seen as a “fighter.” More than anyone else in the G.O.P. primary, DeSantis has a reputation for political aggression and a track record of conservative efficacy, but that doesn’t seem to have helped him. Perhaps this characterization of Trump is misleading. Is he really a fighter? He is a yeller, certainly, an expresser, a maker of big threats. He also wanders away from the fights he has started. To think that what Republican voters really want in a Presidential candidate is someone they can trust to complete the border wall may be a misunderstanding of the Party’s base. Trump has managed to always make politics gargantuan: it wasn’t about immigration but a civilizational struggle; it wasn’t about an election but democracy itself. “You have millions of Americans who are literally willing to die for Trump right now,” the source familiar with the DeSantis campaign told me, “and being, like, ‘He didn’t fire Fauci’ is not going to change their minds.”

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