Monday, July 10, 2023

DeSantis fading

  Pundits and major media outlets are starting to say what I said back in March. Even before Ron DeSantis entered the Republican primary race, he seemed to have an inability to catch on. It’s fair to say that this wasn’t a major problem when he wasn’t running, but matters haven’t improved since he entered the race in May. Now his backers and the media are starting to notice.

Among those speaking out in the past few days were Erick Erickson, who tweeted about a multitude of “threads of frustration about the DeSantis campaign” and the Wall Street Journal, which ran a piece about DeSantis’s campaign problems.

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Erickson noted, “The perception is settling in that something needs to happen, but everyone has a different opinion on what to do.”

The Journal, meanwhile, hits the nail on the head with its diagnosis, saying, “He is trying to sell himself to Republican Trump foes, many of whom are moderate. At the same time, he is appealing to Trump fans by portraying himself as more conservative on key issues.”

That’s been both DeSantis’s key problem as well as a stumbling block for most of the other candidates. A political cartoon put it more succinctly, pointing out that Republican voters didn’t like DeSantis as either Trump Lite or Trump Ultra.

DeSantis was originally coronated by Republican elites (at least the ones not firmly on Team Trump) as a sensible conservative who wouldn’t be as embarrassing as Donald Trump. DeSantis doesn’t seem to have gotten the memo.

Since becoming the frontrunner among the Not Trump candidates, DeSantis has increasingly veered to the right in a failed attempt to eat into Trump’s base. I’ve thought for several years now that DeSantis and Greg Abbott of Texas were in a competition to see who could pander more to the GOP’s right fringe. The Florida governor won that race, but it hasn’t helped him to close the polling gap with Trump.

Even worse, DeSantis’s appeal to the party’s fringes has spooked some of his more moderate supporters. As a limited government conservative, I wouldn’t call DeSantis a “conservative.” The Floridian is essentially a Big Government Republican who relishes any chance to use the police power of the government against political opponents. That may be popular with Republicans, but it isn’t traditional conservatism. Like Trump, right-wing populist seems to be a better description.

It’s tough to see it in the polls, but I think a lot of nontrumpy Republicans are looking to candidates like Tim Scott and Mike Pence. Statistically, there isn’t much movement in the bottom tier of candidates with no one outside the top two polling above 10 percent.

Where there is movement is in the top slot. The FiveThirtyEight polling average shows a definite rise for Trump in the past few months. Trump’s gain is coming at DeSantis’s expense.

Rush Limbaugh used to talk about Democrats and moderate Republicans, who he called the “Democrat-lite.” Rush would say that there was no point in being the “lite” version because the voters would just pick the real thing.

I think that’s true in the Republican primary as well. Republican voters want Trump. That seems to be even more true since his federal indictment was handed down. It’s debatable whether Trump’s indictment bump is real, but it’s definitely true that it hasn’t hurt him.

The Republican candidates positioning themselves as Trump-lite are all in bad shape. The Republicans positioning themselves as anti-Trump are in worse shape. Republican voters want the Original Classic Trump.

Of course, this is a stupid move. Republicans seem intent on rerunning the 2020 campaign with the same issues that didn’t work last time: Joe’s mental state and Hunter’s corruption.

On their own side, they’ll be running a man who won on an Electoral College fluke, losing the popular vote, and then proceeded to alienate as many voters as possible. Add to that unpopularity a slew of federal investigations (real ones, not partisan congressional inquiries) and you have the recipe for another electoral rout.

As I (and many Republicans) pointed out in 2016, it’s a bad idea to nominate a candidate who is under federal investigation. Republicans are forgetting their own advice to their own peril.

How can a Republican beat Donald Trump? I’m not sure it’s possible. But it’s definitely not possible if they refuse to lay a glove on him. They can’t beat him if they don’t attack him.

DeSantis has tried to attack Trump, but the attacks haven’t struck home. If anything, DeSantis’s attacks on Trump seem to have hurt DeSantis himself. This is just another indication that DeSantis wasn’t the best horse to bet on.

Maybe it could have been different if Republican elites hadn’t attempted to force DeSantis on the party. Allowing the best candidate to emerge naturally might have allowed a stronger challenger to rise to the top.

But maybe not. Trump has effectively sucked all of the air out of the room and the large number of candidates makes it almost impossible for any one of them to consolidate the nonTrump support.

The broad Republican field doesn’t help, but unlike in 2016, Trump has a majority of the polling support this year. With over 50 percent, Trump would be leading even if it were only a two-way race with DeSantis.

If the Republican candidates want to win, rather than just position themselves for 2028, they have to figure out how to break Trump’s hold on his base. And with less than six months until the first primary contests and polls trending in the wrong direction, time is running out.

It seems as though Republicans are about to reap the whirlwind once again. Years of lionizing Trump and rationalizing away his excesses have convinced Republican voters that he’s the greatest thing since George Washington and not at all a total loser. At this point, I’m not sure that it’s possible to convince enough Republican voters otherwise.

Maybe another round of electoral losses will help to break that spell.

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