Is it possible to rapidly “reboot” a struggling presidential campaign? Pundits have to hope so, since otherwise our advice-giving beat becomes a bit irrelevant. But thinking back over recent primary candidacies that seemed to sag and then recovered, from John Kerry in 2004 to John McCain in 2008 to Joe Biden in 2020, it’s hard to identify brilliant strategic pivots. Instead what you see is candidates with fundamental strengths who hung around until events conspired to make those strengths more relevant, their opponents’ weaknesses more manifest, and their campaigns suddenly triumphant.
For Ron DeSantis, currently engaged in a campaign reset after months of stagnant polling, there’s no way to sell these case studies to his restive donors. “Don’t worry, we’re going to hang around and hope things break our way at the last minute” isn’t exactly an inspiring rallying cry, especially for a candidate who briefly seemed poised to become the 2024 front-runner, but now languishes 20 or 30 points behind Donald Trump.
And it’s easy enough to list things that DeSantis could be doing differently. Some of them, like talking less about the swiftly-receding Covid era and seeking combat with the mainstream media, are obvious enough that the campaign is already trying to adapt. Other possibilities seem to still elude his team — above all, the benefits of breaking out of the movement-conservative box a bit more, making big promises on economic as well as social policy, and avoiding a replay of Ted Cruz’s ideologically self-limiting 2016 campaign.
But any benefit from these shifts is likely to be incremental rather than dramatic. Meanwhile, the reset that’s so often urged on DeSantis — the idea that he needs to go hard after Trump’s unfitness for high office — is a theory supported by exactly zero polling evidence.
The reality is that if there were some obvious path to rising higher in the polls at this stage of the campaign, another Republican candidate would have probably discovered it. As The Dispatch’s Nick Catoggio, no great DeSantis admirer, pointed out a week ago, amid all the talk about his faltering campaign the Florida governor’s support “exceeds the combined share of every candidate who’s trailing him, a field that includes a sitting senator, two former governors, and the most recent former vice president of the United States.”
The Trump-friendly Vivek Ramaswamy, often portrayed as the breakout figure in the non-DeSantis field, stands just shy of 5 percent in the RealClearPolitics polling average. The most forthrightly anti-Trump figure, Chris Christie, stands at 2 percent. The sunny donor favorite Tim Scott is at 3 percent.
Those numbers make DeSantis’s stagnant 20 percent look pretty good, and his Trump-adjacent positioning like a much stronger play than the alternatives.
Yes, it’s not as strong as it looked during Trump’s post-midterm swoon. But the argument I made back then — that Trump was far more likely to lose in a fade than in a knockout — isn’t obviated by the fact that he hasn’t faded yet. Quite the reverse: It’s precisely Trump’s recovery and resilience amid multiplying indictments that suggests the futility of a Christie-style assault, while leaving DeSantis’s more hedged strategy with a narrowing but still discernible path.
That path looks like this: First, in Iowa, DeSantis needs some of the very conservative voters who temporarily backed away from Trump after the midterms to back away again. Then in New Hampshire, he needs the momentum of an Iowa victory to reconcile the party’s moderates to the necessity of rallying to him, instead of sticking with Scott or Christie or Nikki Haley. Pull off that combination, and he’s well positioned for South Carolina, Florida and beyond.
There’s no reason to expect things to play out this way. We’ve seen repeatedly how Trump’s supporters always seem to want to return to him, and how Trump’s skeptics always seem incapable of uniting effectively. We haven’t seen enough potency from DeSantis-the-candidate to expect him to make those patterns break.
But sitting at 20 percent for a long time and then riding an early primary victory to consolidation is an imaginable scenario, at least, and one that tracks with recent examples of campaigns that first disappointed and ultimately surged. Whereas all the other scenarios for beating Trump, whether involving current contenders or some late-entering white knight, seem like wishcasting from Republicans who don’t want to settle for DeSantis.
Maybe this will change in the debate season, whose set-pieces are more likely to actually reset DeSantis’s campaign than any move his team makes now, while giving his rivals their best opportunities to shake his hold on second place.
But pending those confrontations, the disappointment with DeSantis doesn’t change the fact that the guy stagnating in second is more likely to finish first than all the distant others.
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