Ron DeSantis kicked off his long-awaited presidential campaign on Wednesday. The kickoff, on Twitter Spaces, reminds me of nothing so much as Charlie Brown trying to kick the football and Lucy pulling it away at the last second, sending him flying.
Looking back, announcing on Twitter was never a good idea. Only a small share of Americans use Twitter and only a fraction of those are political. A smaller share of those are Republican. This was not the way to reach a broad audience.
There was also the problem of Twitter itself. I’m a frequent Twitter user, but I had never heard of Twitter Spaces, a place to have audio conversations on the platform. I doubt that many people have heard of it or know how to use it. Beyond that, Elon Musk’s Twitter is notoriously buggy.
I didn’t listen in, but I logged on later Wednesday night to find DeSantis’s supporters unanimously saying, “It didn’t work,” and explaining why the failure doesn’t matter. Jeffrey Blehar explained in National Review that the rollout was plagued with technical problems but also was poorly planned from the beginning. DeSantis was overshadowed by two hosts and a call-in segment. There are good reasons that most candidates kick off their campaigns with a policy speech.
It was a big gamble to eschew traditional media for social media where, Republicans crowed, they would not be censored or have to deal with unfriendly journalists. Well, the score stands at Traditional Media - 1 and Republicans - 0.
And the failure does matter. DeSantis may be the last Republican to enter the race. He delayed his announcement for six months to build his organization and plan a strategy. And this is what he and advisors came up with.
As the saying goes, you don’t get a second chance to make a first impression. DeSantis is on Day One of his campaign and he’s already being forced to go back to the drawing board. And he really doesn’t have time or room for errors.
Entering the race 17 months before the six months prior to the start of the primary season, DeSantis has his work cut out for him. Every national poll save one shows Donald Trump with a hefty and probably insurmountable lead. A CNN poll from March showed DeSantis with a two-point edge but that poll is clearly an outlier. Both the FiveThirtyEight and Real Clear Politics averages show Trump with more than 50 percent of the vote (53 and 55 percent respectively) while DeSantis is a distant second with 21 percent from both sites.
DeSantis’s problem is underscored by the fact that a recent CNN poll found that 77 percent of Republicans had a positive view of Donald Trump. Compare that with 37 percent of the public at large. In the first place, how does DeSantis successfully run against a man is still overwhelmingly popular within the GOP and win?
But that’s only half the battle. If he manages to overcome a 30-point deficit in the polling and pull that off, how then does he shift from playing to the far-right GOP base to winning the hearts of minds of the general election voters who, in many ways, are the polar opposites of Republican primary voters? [One of the tidbits in the poll is that Republicans believe by a 33-66 margin that Biden did not legitimately win the presidency. Among all respondents the result was exactly the opposite at 66-33.]
Defeating Trump in the primary will be difficult enough, but making a 180-degree turn without alienating either the Republican base or independent voters seems like an impossible task.
DeSantis does have a couple of things going for him. One is a lot of money and organization. The New York Timesreports that DeSantis backers have $200 million and 2,600 community organizers to knock on the doors of potential voters.
That’s a lot of money and door-knockers, but the question remains: What message will that money and those supporters be used to spread? The most likely answer is that DeSantis will tell Republicans that Trump is great but not electable.
DeSantis’s strength is that he is widely considered to be the second choice. In the CNN poll, DeSantis is only backed by 26 percent but 56 percent would consider supporting him. Only 15 percent have ruled him out.
In contrast, the other GOP candidates have very high negatives among GOP voters. A large share of primary voters say they will not consider Pence (45 percent), Nikki Haley (36 percent), Tim Scott (37 percent), Chris Christie (60 percent), Vivek Ramaswamy (46 percent), Asa Hutchinson (55 percent), or Chris Sununu (55 percent). If Trump can be somehow vanquished, DeSantis appears to be the least objectionable replacement.
But how to vanquish Trump remains the core problem. That problem is compounded by the fact that Trump is tearing into “Ron DeSanctus” and “Rob DeSanctimonious” while the governor cannot respond in kind against the head and kingmaker of the Republican Party. Prior to DeSantis’s announcement, The Former Guy went on an all-caps rant on something called Truth Social in which he claimed credit for DeSantis’s election as governor, labeled the governor as a threat to Social Security and Medicare, bragged about their relative poll numbers, and still managed to work in an “ELECTION INTERFERENCE!!!”
DeSantis and the other Republican hopefuls may be afraid to tackle Trump directly, but Trump has no such qualms about giving them both barrels. And then some. If Trump goes down, he won’t go down easy and he will try to take the other candidates with him.
There seem to be very few options for taking on Trump successfully. One possibility is the strategy that Republicans have adopted since 2015 in which they play nice and hope that something bad happens to take Trump out of the race. That “something bad” could be a health issue, legal problems, or some sort of scandal.
That strategy hasn’t worked and it won’t work now. Trump now has a March 2024 court date for Alvin Bragg’s fraud case, but if Trump is sidelined and silenced as he attends the trial, it may actually help his campaign. Pretty much anything that keeps Trump out of the spotlight is good for his campaign. The classified documents case and the Georgia election interference case are unlikely to move any faster. As for scandal, we’ve seen that no scandal is big enough to break Trump’s hold on his base, not even a Fifth Avenue shooting. That leaves Republicans to hope for a fast-food-induced heart attack, but they won’t be that lucky.
No, Trump’s hold on his base is due in large part to seven years of Republican cowardice. At this point, his grip on the party is firm, and hoping that he fades away is not going to work.
The other possibility is to find a sacrificial lamb. Remember in 2016 when Chris Christie took about five minutes to totally destroy Marco Rubio’s campaign? That’s what Ron DeSantis needs. An attack dog to go out and latch onto Trump and become a shiny object that will attract The Former Guy’s attention and deflect attacks away from Desantis.
But who would play the role of Christie? The question is especially difficult because the other top-tier candidates like Pence, Haley, and Scott don’t seem to want to utter a negative word about Donald Trump, probably because they fear that it would end not only their chances for 2024 and 2028 but their entire careers as Republican politicians. I’ll just point out to Gov. DeSantis that Chris Christie is available and he’s already unpopular as well as experienced in the role. Perhaps Christie could use his powers for good instead of evil.
Ron DeSantis has been the pick of the Republican intelligentsia for quite some time now. They think that he is a viable alternative to Donald Trump, and they desperately want you to like him too.
But DeSantis faces an uphill battle to defeat Trump. I’ll be here periodically to remind you that if those same Republican elites had put their money and influence behind efforts to oust Trump in 2016, 2020, and numerous times in between, they wouldn’t be dealing with him as the de facto head of the party in 2023. They want Trump to go away, but no one wants to put their career on the line to get rid of him. I will at least give DeSantis credit for standing up in opposition to The Former Guy when few others in the Republican Party have the intestinal fortitude to do so.
But DeSantis just doesn’t work. On paper, he should work. He’s an experienced governor from a battleground state who won re-election by a large margin. He’s spent his years as governor building a list of accomplishments aimed specifically at the Republican base. He has the backing of the pundits and a large share of the party officials. He has a large war chest.
DeSantis should work, but he doesn’t. He just isn’t what Republicans want. They want Trump.
Meanwhile, this former Republican really hasn’t seen anyone worth voting for enter the race yet, but I’m watching the situation closely. I’ll be the guy munching popcorn on the sidelines of the GOP civil war.