Earlier this year, Ron DeSantis, the governor of Florida, appeared to be a formidable challenger to Donald Trump — on paper at least.
He didn’t back down from fights with the left; he started them.
“I will be able to destroy leftism in this country, and leave woke ideology on the dustbin of history,” DeSantis said.
He has thumbed his nose at blue state governors, shipping them planeloads of immigrants. He has removed locally elected Democratic prosecutors. Whenever he sees what he believes to be an excess on the left, he stamps it out — from drag shows to critical race theory.
He is not just a supporter of the hard right agenda; he has personally weaponized it. Unlike traditional conservatives, wary of the abuse of state power, DeSantis relishes using his authority to enforce his version of what is moral and what is not.
Since declaring his candidacy for the Republican presidential nomination, however, DeSantis has lost traction: support for DeSantis has fallen from 31.3 percent on Jan. 20 to 20.7 percent on May 15, the day DeSantis announced, all the way down to 14.9 percent on Aug. 21, according to RealClearPolitics.
As DeSantis prepares for the first Republican presidential debate Wednesday night, the central question he faces is why his support collapsed and whether he can get his campaign back on track.
There are a lot of answers to the first question, most of them with a grain or more of truth. DeSantis has turned out to be a stiff on the stump, a man without affect. He speaks in alphabet talk: CRT, DEI, ESG. His attempts to outflank Trump from the right — “We’re going to have all these deep state people, you know, we’re going to start slitting throats on day one” — seem to be more politically calculated than based on conviction. In terms of executive competence, attention to detail and commitment to an agenda, DeSantis stands head and shoulders above Trump, but he has so far been unable to capitalize on these strengths.
That much is understood, but is DeSantis burdened by a larger liability? I posed the following question to a cross section of political operatives and political scientists:
Ron DeSantis has been noticeably unsuccessful in his challenge to Trump. Why? Is it because DeSantis does not or cannot demonstrate the visceral animosity that Trump exudes?
Trump has a talent for embedding language more common to a Queens street corner — in either long, rambling speeches covering a host of subjects, some controversial, some not, or in having seemingly unacceptable rhetoric leaked from private meetings.
The net result is that his supporters get to realize Trump is willing to refer to “shithole countries” in Africa and Latin America, to say about immigrants that “They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists” or to describe Latino gang members: “These aren’t people, these are animals, and we’re taking them out of the country at a level and at a rate that’s never happened before.”
The response to my inquiries was illuminating.
“Trump’s speech style,” Joan C. Williams, a professor at the University of California Law School-San Francisco, wrote by email, “adeptly channels the talk traditions of blue-collar men who pride themselves on not having to suck up and self-edit to get ahead, which is the way they see professionals’ traditions of decorum.”
Not only that, Williams continued, “Trump is way ahead of DeSantis in his perceived ability to get things done as a strong leader — that’s Trump cashing in on his enactment of blue-collar traditions of tough, straight-talking manliness. Also Trump is fun while DeSantis is a drip.”
Like many Democrats, Williams argued, “DeSantis holds the delusion that politics is chiefly about policy differences” when in practice it is more often “about identity and self-affirmation. Trump understands instinctively that non-college Americans feel distinctly dissed: non-college grads are 73 percentage points lower than grads to believe they’re treated with dignity.
Williams described DeSantis’s approach to campaigning as “a clumsy color-by-numbers culture-wars formula” accompanied by a speaking style “more Harvard than hard hat, as when he talked about ‘biomedical security restrictions’ in his speech to the Republican Party convention in North Carolina (whatever those are??).”
Williams cautioned against categorizing all Trump voters as racist:
In 2016, 20 percent of Trump voters were true “grievance voters” who were very identified with being white and Christian and had cold feelings toward people of color and immigrants. But 19 percent were “anti-elites” with economically progressive views and moderate views on race, immigration, the environment and gay marriage. Writing off all Trump voters as mere racists is one of the many ways, alas, the left helps the right.
Williams cited a paper, published earlier this year, “Measuring the Contribution of Voting Blocs to Election Outcomes” by Justin Grimmer, William Marble and Cole Tanigawa-Lau, that “showed that, while racial resentment strongly predicts Trump voting, that’s not why he won: He won because he also attracted a much larger group of voters with only moderate levels of racial resentment.”
Taking a different, but parallel, tack, Linda Skitka, a professor of psychology at the University of Illinois-Chicago, wrote by email: “Another alternative is that Trump tends to be all reaction and hot rhetoric, but weak or inconsistent on policy. People can therefore project their preferred policy preferences on him and believe he represents them via ‘gist.’ ”
In Skitka’s view,
DeSantis, in contrast, is very specific and consistent about policy, and he is too extreme for many on the right. To ice the cake, he appears to be really bad at retail politics — he just isn’t likable, and certainly isn’t charismatic. Together, I don’t think DeSantis can compete to overcome these obstacles, even if he were to start using Trump-like rhetoric.
In a particularly devastating comparison of DeSantis to Trump, David Bateman, a political scientist at Cornell, wrote: “Trump is able to speak the language of hate and resentment in a way that everyone believes is real, and not just a calculated act.”
Everything about DeSantis,
by contrast, seems calculated. He’s the Yale and Harvard guy now complaining about intellectuals and elites. He’s talking about wokism and critical race theory, when no one knows what those are (even Trump noted no one can define woke, though he yells against it himself). When he tries to be as visceral as Trump, he just comes off as weird. DeSantis saying he’s going to start “slitting throats” reminded me of Romney’s “severely conservative.” While DeSantis’s is a dangerous escalation of violent imagery, they both sound bizarre and unnatural.
At a more fundamental level, Bateman wrote:
It’s not at all clear that what most Republican voters (rather than donors) want is a mainstream and party credentialed version of Trump. The fact that Trump legitimately was an outsider to Republican politics was a core part of his appeal. So too was the calculation by donors and party activists that Trump’s being simultaneously aligned with social and racial conservatives, but able to present himself as not tied to Republican orthodoxy, made him a more attractive candidate in a national election.
Bateman suggested that insofar as DeSantis is seen as “an establishment Trump, who I expect most voters will see as fully aligned with G.O.P. orthodoxy but even more focused on the priorities of racial and social conservatives (taking over universities, banning books, or attacking transpersons), he starts to look more like a general election loser.”
David O. Sears, a professor of psychology at U.C.L.A., wrote by email that he “was inspired by your inquiry to do a free association test” on himself to see what he linked with both Trump and DeSantis.
The result for Trump was:
Archie Bunker, trash-talking, insulting people, entertaining, male, white, older, angry, impolite on purpose, Roller Derby, raucous, uninhibited, tell it like it is., high school locker room, dirty socks thrown in a corner, telling his locker room buddies that he threw his mom the finger when she told him to clean up his room for the millionth time (but of course didn’t dare).
Serious, boring, no sense of humor, Wimbledon, ladies’ tea party, PBS/NPR, civics class, lecture, Ivy League, expensive suit neatly pressed hanging in the closet. “Yes, Mom.”
DeSantis’s drive to displace Trump from his position as the party’s top dog faces a combination of personal and structural hurdles.
Whit Ayres, a Republican pollster, argued in an email that DeSantis has adopted an approach to the nomination fight that was bound to fail:
DeSantis’s strategy, and that of any candidate not named Trump, should be to consolidate the Maybe Trump voters. But DeSantis has seemed like he was going after the Always Trump voters with his aggressive language (“slitting throats”), his comment that Ukraine was just a “territorial dispute,” his suggestion that vaccine conspiracy theorist RFK Jr. would be a good candidate to head the Centers for Disease Control, and his doubling down on whether slavery might have been beneficial to some enslaved people.
The problem with this approach, Ayres continued, is that “the Always Trump voters are ‘Always Trump’ for a reason — they are not going to settle for the second-best Trump if they can get the real thing.”
Geoff Garin, a Democratic pollster, wrote:
There is no room for DeSantis or anyone else to outflank Trump on the right, where Trump has his most loyal base. Candidates can argue that Trump is insufficiently conservative on some issues, but that it not the point for Trump loyalists. Candidates can try to echo the ugliness of Trump’s rhetoric, but that too misses what really draws these voters to Trump.
What other candidates cannot replicate, in Garin’s view,
is Trump’s persona and style. Nobody else (especially DeSantis) has his performance skills, and no one else conveys the same boldness, naturalness, and authenticity in voicing the grievances of MAGA voters. Trump makes hatred entertaining for his supporters. DeSantis, by contrast, is a boring drag in his meanness.
Frances Lee, a political scientist at Princeton, places even more emphasis on the built-in challenges facing a Republican running against Trump: “It is extremely difficult to unseat an incumbent party leader in a primary,” Lee wrote by email. “Approval of Trump among Republicans is still high enough to make it extraordinarily difficult for any alternative candidate to make a case against him.”
As if that were not daunting enough, Lee added,
DeSantis’s difficulties are compounded by the fact that the roughly one third of Republicans who disapprove of Trump disapprove of him for different reasons. Some Republicans would like to see a more moderate alternative, in the mode of the pre-Trump Republican Party. Other Republicans fully embrace the changes Trump brought to the party, but oppose him for various reasons relating to him personally (such as his behavior on Jan. 6, his crude and offensive style, or doubts about his electability). It is extremely difficult for any alternative to consolidate the support of all the Republicans who would like an alternative to Trump. Even if a candidate succeeds in doing so, he or she still would not have a majority among Republicans, unless Trump drops further in support.
Robert Y. Shapiro, a political scientist at Columbia, elaborated on the difficulties facing DeSantis’s bid to position himself to the right of Trump. “The DeSantis strategy is weak in that there are not enough Republican voters to be gained to the right of Trump,” Shapiro wrote in an email. ” In addition, Shapiro contended, “Trump’s style and language are more authentic and natural.” Trump’s “Queens street-rhetoric style may help, but the point is that Trump sounds real and not staged for political purposes, in contrast to DeSantis’s endless use of ‘woke’ which is very vague and has had more meaning in liberal-left and educated elite circles and does not have the clear meaning that Trump’s position taking has. DeSantis sounds staged and forced in discussing this.”
Robert Erikson, a colleague of Shapiro’s in the Columbia political science department, wrote by email:
DeSantis appears about to become the latest in a long line of promising candidates who failed to convince their party’s base that they should be president. The list includes many seasoned politicians who were otherwise successful at their craft. For the G.O.P., the line runs from George Romney (1968) through Rudy Giuliani (2008) to Jeb Bush and Scott Walker (2016). Democratic examples include Ed Muskie (1972) and John Glenn (1984). All saw an early collapse of their seemingly strong position, with some dropping out before Iowa or New Hampshire.
“Can DeSantis overcome this challenge?” Erikson asked in his email. “Underdogs often surprise and win nominations by arousing enthusiasm among a sizable bloc of primary and caucus voters. Jimmy Carter was an example. The more contemporary list includes Obama and Trump.”
So far, DeSantis shows no signs of following in the footsteps of past insurgents.
Martin Carnoy, a professor at Stanford’s graduate school of education, argued that Trump has successfully carved out a special place in the Republican universe and there is no room left for a challenger like DeSantis.
“DeSantis’s main problem,” Carnoy wrote by email,
is that he is not Trump and Trump is still around largely filling the space that Trump himself has defined and continues to define. This is the ‘victim’ space, where the ‘victims’ are the ‘forgotten core Americans,’ besieged by liberals who want to help everyone but them — migrants, blacks, LGBTQIA, homeless, foreign countries in fights for democracy.
Carnoy argued that “large blocs of the U.S. population have not been swept up in the economic growth of the past 40 years, which has largely enriched the top 1 percent of income earners.” Blame Ronald Reagan, he added, “but also blame Democrats, who left this political space to the very Republicans that created it.”
While Democrats failed to compete for this space, Carnoy contended that “Trump figured out in 2015 that he could continue to help the rich (including himself) economically through traditional tax reduction policies — stoking inequality — and simultaneously enthuse the forgotten by throwing rich red ‘victim identity’ meat to this bloc of white (and Hispanic) working class voters.”
Dianne Pinderhughes, a political scientist at Notre Dame, wrote by email that an image of DeSantis at a campaign event captured for her the weakness of his campaign for the nomination.
“He has no affect,” Pinderhughes wrote. “My favorite example is a photo of him. He’s surrounded by a group of people, campaign supporters, but every face in the photo is flat, unexcited, unsmiling (including of course the candidate).”
DeSantis’s interests, according to Pinderhughes, “are similar to Trump’s but his persona doesn’t allow or facilitate his emotional engagement with his public, who also want to align with him, but there’s no arousal there. He’s not emotionally down and dirty in the way that Trump’s wild stump speeches arouse support in the broader public.”
The 2024 contest for the Republican nomination is exceptional in that the leading candidate is a once successful, once failed candidate seeking to represent his party for the third time.
Daniel Hopkins, a political scientist at the University of Pennsylvania, pointed out in an email that “the Republican presidential primary is not a typical open-seat race, because Donald Trump occupies an unusual position as a quasi-incumbent. He has extraordinary name recognition and familiarity having served a term as president and dominated headlines for eight years.”
Because of that, “DeSantis needs to do more than simply taking positions that are popular with Republican voters — he needs to give G.O.P. primary voters a reason to leave behind Trump, a figure who remains popular among the party’s activists and voters,” according to Hopkins’s analysis of the contest.
It will be very difficult to persuade Republican primary voters to abandon Trump, Hopkins wrote, citing “a nationwide survey I conducted earlier this summer. I found that on key issues from immigration to health care and climate changes, the differences between all Republicans, Trump supporters, and DeSantis supporters were typically fairly minimal. On issues alone, it’s hard to envision DeSantis convincing G.O.P. voters to abandon Trump.”
DeSantis’s best shot, Hopkins suggested, “may be to follow Biden’s lead from 2020 and convince primary voters that he’s the most likely to win a general election.”
One of the questions I posed to the people I queried for this column was “whether the willingness to give undiluted expressions of views on race and immigration has become the equivalent of a threshold issue on the right” — a must for anyone seeking the Republican nomination?
Vincent Hutchings, a political scientist at the University of Michigan, expressed a jaundiced view of the question itself:
The premise of the question implies that this is a new phenomenon and I would dispute this characterization. Issues of race and immigration have been significant partisan issues for at least the last 150 years. Trump has not created these issues in the G.O.P., but he has simply harnessed them more effectively than his co-partisan competitors.
Trump, in Hutchings’ view, is more than a match for DeSantis:
Trump — unlike DeSantis — can perhaps communicate more effectively with the average G.O.P. voter. Also, whatever else one thinks about the former president, as a one-time television personality he is also more telegenic than your typical politician. And, finally, Trump’s status as the primary target of liberals and progressives makes him all the more appealing to many G.O.P. supporters. In short, if the left hates him (Trump) so much, then he must be doing something right from the vantage point of these voters. DeSantis simply can’t match Trump on these various dimensions.
Jacob Grumbach, a political scientist at Berkeley, succinctly summed up DeSantis’s predicament. “The Republican primary electorate is not especially interested in candidates’ policy positions,” Grumbach wrote by email, citing a 2018 paper, “Does Party Trump Ideology? Disentangling Party and Ideology in America,” by Michael Barber and Jeremy C. Pope.
So, Grumbach continued, “it’s unlikely that an alternative policy platform would’ve had DeSantis in the lead at this point. Instead Republican voters see Trump as more effective at combating liberals and Democrats.”
Finally, Grumbach added: “You don’t need research to tell you that Trump has charisma, wit, and humor (though it’s not always clear it’s intentional) in a way that DeSantis does not.”
Not everybody thinks Trump has charisma, wit and humor, but many of his supporters remain captivated. They want the show to go on.
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