The Ron DeSantis Bubble Deflates
You know it's hard out there for a Florida governor...
Remember six months ago? The Republican Party had just massively underperformed in the midterm elections, and a lot of GOP power brokers were grousing that the blame lay with one Donald J. Trump. Ron DeSantis, on the other hand, romped to a 20-point re-election victory despite the occasional jab from Trump. This led many folks to believe that this time, Trump had finally met his match: a MAGA-style conservative who actually knew how to operate the levers of power.
In the half-year since then, Donald Trump launched a lackluster first phase of his presidential campaign. He was indicted in one state, will likely be indicted in another state and could be indicted by federal authorities. He’s also still Donald Trump, a bigoted man-child who mismanaged crisis after crisis, fomented a violent uprising and is proposing far worse and more militaristic actions in his second term.
DeSantis has launched a book and orchestrated (by conservative standards) a productive legislative session. He has learned how to say “woke” a lot. True, his foreign policy musings leave something to be desired, but there were reasons to understand why party elites might prefer him to Trump.
Drezner’s World is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
And yet, it’s hard not to draw two conclusions: a) Trump is cleaning DeSantis’ clock; and b) in doing so Trump is exposing all of DeSantis’ myriad flaws as a presidential candidate.
Trump is winning on three levels in his shadow primary against DeSantis. First, to the extent that polls matter this early in the race, Trump has widened the gap between himself and DeSantis since the start of 2023.
Second, Trump has out-hustled and out-maneuvered DeSantis on endorsements from elected officials. FiveThirtyEight’s Nathaniel Rakich recently weighed in on this:
Last week, it turned into a flood: Seven U.S. representatives from Florida endorsed former President Donald Trump in the 2024 Republican presidential primary. It was a dominant show of support in the home state of Trump’s presumed main rival for the nomination, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis — and it came the very week DeSantis traveled to Washington, D.C., to court members of Congress. Instead, though, he mostly just got bad press: Members of Florida’s congressional delegation publicly complained about how little they had heard from DeSantis until recently.
Trump’s Florida endorsement haul is impressive not only for 2024; it’s impressive by historical standards too. According to FiveThirtyEight’s historical database of endorsements in presidential primaries, Trump’s 11 congressional endorsements from Florida are the most for any presidential candidate from a rival’s home state at this point in the primary calendar2 since at least 1972 (excluding primaries in which an incumbent president was running for reelection)….
Ultimately, the sample size of campaigns where one candidate got a ton of endorsements from an opponent’s home state is probably too small to draw any meaningful conclusions from. But it’s not a good sign for DeSantis that his fellow Floridians prefer another guy to be president.
Third, in outworking DeSantis on endorsements, Trump is also making it easy for the press to explain in excruciating detail all of the ways in which DeSantis is blowing it. My favorite is U.S. Representative Greg Steube going on the record to tell Politico’s Playbook exactly why he chose to endorse Trump over DeSantis:
[Steube] told Playbook in a brief interview last night that DeSantis has never once reached out to him during his five years in Congress nor replied to his multiple attempts to connect. He recalled a recent news conference dealing with damage from Hurricane Ian where the governor’s aides initially invited him to stand alongside DeSantis, only to tell him that he wouldn’t be part of the event when he showed up.
Trump, on the other hand, was the first person Steube remembers calling him in the ICU to wish him well after he was injured in a January tree-trimming accident. “To this day I have not heard from Gov. DeSantis,” he said.
Things suddenly changed last week, Steube said, as Trump started rolling out his Florida congressional backers. ”For the first time ever, I hear from DeSantis’s political person,” he said.
It is worth taking a beat here and pointing out just how difficult it is to be less empathetic than Donald Trump. The 45th president was notoriously awful at demonstrating empathy when he was president. For DeSantis to be even worse at this basic political skill would seem to be impossible, and yet that is what the reportage has consistently revealed.
Indeed, DeSantis’ inability to interact with people well has come back to haunt him during his fledgling campaign. As Rolling Stone’s Asawin Suebsaeng and Adam Rawnsley report, he has left a trail of embittered ex-staffers ready to stab him in the back:
Donald Trump loathes Ron DeSantis for the Florida governor’s “disloyal” challenge to Trump’s iron grip on the Republican Party. The former president’s ire, however, is dwarfed by the intense desire harbored by some of Trump’s key aides and allies to see DeSantis politically ruined.
These advisers, lawmakers, and operatives personally know DeSantis or used to work for him. Now, some of them are working to reelect Trump and have brought their intimate knowledge of DeSantis’ operations, and also what makes Trump’s likely 2024 primary rival tick. Just as importantly, some of the Team-DeSantis-turned-Team-Trump contingent have talked to the ex-president about how best to relentlessly mess with DeSantis, assuring Trump that the Florida governor is uniquely “insecure” and “sensitive,” and that it’s easy to get in his head, two such sources who’ve spoken to Trump tell Rolling Stone.
It’s one of the reasons why the open political warfare between Trump and DeSantis is only expected to get nastier in the coming months. “If Ron thinks the last couple months have been bumpy, he’s in for a painful ride,” says a third source, who used to be on Team DeSantis and is now in the Trump orbit.
This person continues, “The nature of the conversations among the people who used to work for Ron is just so frequently: ‘OK, how can we destroy this guy?’ It is not at all at a level that is normal for people who hold the usual grudges against horrible bosses. It’s a pure hatred that is much, much purer than that … People who were traveling with Ron everyday, who worked with him very closely over the years, to this day joke about how it was always an open question whether or not Ron knew their names … And that’s just the start of it.”
A recurring theme in DeSantis coverage is the degree to which DeSantis burns through staff and generated resentment among them. It’s little wonder, therefore, that polling shows that by GOP voters give Trump a 14 point edge over DeSantis when asked which politician cares more about voters.
Not even DeSantis’s ability to govern is working for him right now. GOP state legislators are grumbling to Politico about how DeSantis is exhausting them. CNN reports that his presidential aspirations contrast with his inability to do normal governor stuff:
DeSantis has also faced scrutiny for his response this month to torrential storms – described as a 1-in-1,000-year rainfall event – that left Fort Lauderdale and surrounding communities underwater. Amid the severe flooding, DeSantis took his book tour to Ohio and spoke at a fundraiser for New Hampshire Republicans – returning to Florida in between trips for a late-night, closed-door signing of a six-week abortion ban – and said little publicly about the storms.
What is amazing about all of this is that polling also suggests Republican voters might prefer DeSantis’ political message. According to Axios, that WSJ poll revealed that, “most Republican primary voters say fighting ‘woke’ ideology in schools and businesses is more important to them than protecting Medicare and Social Security from cuts.” That is a DeSantis message far more than a Trump message. And yet, other polling shows that GOP voters love Trump way more than they care about any particular policy platform.
What does this all tell us? It’s worth remembering that at this point in 2003 John Kerry was flailing. Similarly, in 2007, John McCain was flailing. DeSantis has time to turn things around.
At the same time, what also seems clear is just how badly Trump has screwed up the GOP. He is popular among Republicans and reviled by everyone else. GOP elites who want to move past Trump thought they had their dream candidate in DeSantis. Under the hot glare of the media and a bare-knuckled primary opponent, however, DeSantis has melted into the consistency of pudding. It seem hard to believe that any of the other entrants into the race will pose a serious threat to Trump.
It seems increasingly likely that the Republican Party will nominate for the third straight time a man incapable of winning the votes of a majority of Americans. His closest challenger looks weaker by the day. So does the GOP.